year the Santa Barbara International Film Festival gives me the opportunity of
spending two hours onstage with the recipient of its Modern Master Award. This
year: Michael Keaton. I’d only spoken to him once many years ago, so I was
eager to get to know him—in front of 2,000 people at the historic Arlington
Theater. He didn’t disappoint. The man who brought Beetlejuice, Batman, and Birdman
to life couldn’t be anything less than a bright, articulate, and dedicated
actor. He’s also great fun to interview.
One thing I wanted to set straight for my own satisfaction was how
he chose his moniker. His given name is Michael John Douglas, and when it was
pointed out that there was already a TV host named Mike Douglas and an actor
named Michael, he postponed the inevitable choice of stage name as long as he
could. Given that one of his boyhood nicknames was Jackson he thought, “I’ll
call myself Michael Jackson!” After that fleeting thought he scanned a list of
“K” names and settled on Keaton. It wasn’t an homage to Diane or Buster as you
may have read online (although as I was wearing a Buster Keaton lapel pin he
noted that his Birdman director, Alejandro González Iñárritu, is a great
admirer of the silent film legend). And, for the record, he’s never changed his
legal name; he says it helps him separate the “real” Michael from the
He spoke of his early years and how he used standup comedy to work
through his ideas, never really intending to pursue it full-time. Yet it was
that loose, funny attitude that helped make his breakthrough big-screen
performance in Night Shift so potent
and hilarious. I mentioned that having recently revisited the 1982 comedy I was
surprised that no one (to my knowledge) has pointed out that he winds up half-naked
in Times Square, presaging the now-famous scene in Birdman. Michael confessed he spent much of his youth in Pennsylvania
running around without clothes.
As we ran through highlights of his thirty-odd years on film, he
said, more than once, how lucky he feels and how great it is that acting has
given him the chance to lead so many different “lives.” After a well-staged
fight scene from One Good Cop he
laughed at the thought that he might actually stand a chance of overtaking the
three tough dudes who gang up on him and Anthony LaPaglia.
It was clear that many people in attendance were Batman fans. I asked what it felt like
to be the subject of such a vociferous campaign against his casting—in the days
before the Internet and social media, when people had to go to the trouble of
writing a letter to make their feelings known. He recalled flying home during
production, reading the Wall Street Journal—not his usual habit—and realizing
that the line drawing on the page was of him and the story was about the Batman furor.
He admits it was
unsettling and only heightened the stakes for a film that was already a
high-pressure production. He explained how hard he worked on crafting a special
Batman voice, to differentiate him from Bruce Wayne, and how difficult it was
to breathe, let alone act, in the rubber suit and mask. But he was clearly
pleased with the results, and happy to discover that the man who showed up to
present him with his award at the end of the evening was his costar from Batman Returns, Danny DeVito.
Then it was my turn to be surprised, as the SBIFF’s Executive
Director, Roger Durling, announced that as of this year, the annual prize is
being renamed the Maltin’s Modern Master Award. I had no clue this was coming.
Not only did Roger keep it mum but my wife, daughter, and best friends, Madelyn
and Pete Hammond, all knew for months and never spilled the beans. I couldn’t
be happier, as I love Santa Barbara and the festival that is such a vital part
of the community. It’s been part of my life for the last twenty-five years, and
I look forward to many more evenings onstage. If they are even half as much fun
as this year’s encounter with Michael Keaton, I’ll be more than satisfied.