Michael Keaton's Batman

As the comic classic becomes a movie, its star contemplates life in the bat lane

Michael Keaton on the set of 'Batman.' Credit: Murray Close/Getty Images

Bat Dreams

Let us begin with Bruce Wayne, because in bat matters, he is the bat who matters most. Bruce Wayne lives a recurring nightmare. He sleeps in daylight — if he sleeps at all. He dreams of bats. He dreams of death. He dreams of the night he saw his parents murdered in front of him. Then he awakens, full of vengeance, puts on a cape, clambers across rooftops and confronts the darkness of his soul by chasing criminals. He becomes a bat to make sense of his life. This is what works for him.

Michael Keaton, who is not Bruce Wayne but will soon play him onscreen, also has a recurring nightmare. It too involves bats and despair. Unlike Bruce Wayne, who is haunted by his past, Michael Keaton, a heretofore beloved comic actor, is spooked by his future. Becoming a bat has brought no sense whatsoever to his life. Especially becoming a particularly legendary bat. Keaton is, it turns out, a most reluctant bat. He explains his terror:

"This is what will happen. I'm gonna do four or five of these movies, and it's gonna become my career. I'll have to keep expanding the bat suit, because I get fatter every year. I'll be bankrupt. I'll have a couple lawsuits going. I'll be out opening shopping malls, going from appearance to appearance in a cheesy van. I'll kind of turn into the King, into this bloated Elvis, smoking and drinking a lot. I'll invent a little metal attachment, like a stool, for my hip, where kids can sit, because my back can't take their weight. I can hear myself already — 'Just climb right up there, li'l pardner. Is that yer mom over there? Heh-heh-heh. Go tell her ol' Batman would like to have a drink with her a little bit later…'"

Bat Sex

Those drips, those drops. It's bat pee! Bat pee is dripping from a pair of fruit bats that hang, batlike, from the stalactites of the Batcave. Well, the set of the Batcave, constructed for the $30 million movie Batman, a summer release starring Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson and directed by Tim Burton. But wait! This is not the only kind of bodily bat fluid in evidence here. The bats flutter, they stir, they screech, they begin to engage in … bat fornication! Hot, raw, fierce, inverted bat heat. Bat love has blossomed in the Batcave.

"Hey, you two!" says Michael Keaton between takes, addressing the bats from where he sits below, at a bank of Bat-computers. "Don't make me have to come up there and separate you!"

Keaton, being Keaton, is incapable of letting bat sex on a movie set pass without comment. This is his charm, his antic appeal. At the moment he is in the guise of Bruce Wayne. As opposed to that of Bruce Wayne's alter ego, the biggest bat of them all. This relaxes the dress code a bit: Keaton has ostensibly descended to his bat lair from Wayne Manor wearing jeans and a black turleneck. He now occupies what looks to be a large barber's chair facing several video monitors. There, on the monitors in freeze frame, is Jack Nicholson, a hideous rictus carved onto his leering countenance. Nicholson, of course, is the Joker, and he has just issued an electronic challenge for an apocalyptic confrontation: "Can you hear me, Batman? Just you and me. Mano a mano."

Gauntlet heaved, there comes another distraction: Alfred the Butler (cheekily played by British thespian Michael Gough) shambles in with a visitor in tow. A visitor in the Batcave? The sanctity of the sanctum is at once shattered. Alfred has blown the bat cover by letting in an outsider! A girl! Kim Basinger! She plays photojournalist Vicki Vale (the press yet!), Bruce Wayne's new love interest. They've slept together only once, Vicki and Bruce, but Alfred somehow feels that this entitles her to knowledge of his employer's secret identity. Keaton glowers.

"Thanks, Alfred," he sputters, hoisting one of his epic eyebrows. "Thanks a lot!"

He then grabs Basinger, and they begin to waltz.

Bat Attack

At this moment batheads everywhere are mortified. The preceding scene — the bat fluids, the acerbic japes, the waltzing — is what they most feared from a Hollywood rendering of their DC Comics idol. This is tampering, they are thinking, this is fey heresy. But alas, other than Alfred's indiscretion, none of the aforementioned whimsy (which punchily transpired in rehearsal) will be seen in Batman, a decided bleakbuster. The film by Burton (Pee-wee's Big Adventure and Beetlejuice) cleaves fancifully, even exuberantly, to the hallowed and somber bat mythos of the comics. The movie's original script, by screenwriter Sam Hamm, was a work of dark art, reverentially circulated throughout Hollywood for months before filming began. It was reworked considerably by various hands during last year's writers' strike, when Hamm refused to do so himself. Still, it remains a gloomy folly that will generally please skeptical batheads, who are for the most part lifetime comic-book subscribers with dour dispositions.

But then, Batman himself is one glum customer. True, he is a good man, a noble man, a man unafraid to dress differently. But he has acute personality disorders, not the least of which is his compulsion to expunge all evil from Gotham City, preferably before sunrise tomorrow. What Batman is not is the tongue-in-cheek straight arrow essayed by the legendary Adam West on the ABC-TV series two decades ago. Batman does not wink at us when he cuffs criminals. He is no quipster, no hambone hero. Since his 1939 debut in Detective Comics, he has been mostly just plain grim.

Michael Keaton is no Batman. Or so a vast sector of the bat community has vehemently asserted. Upon learning last year that Michael Keaton would, indeed, be Batman — the definitive cinematic Batman, no less — batheads were disconsolate. In Keaton's hands, they felt, Batman would become a smirky wisenheimer. Mr. Mom in a cowl, they thought. Mr. Mammal. "Treating Batman as a comedy is like The Brady Bunch going porno," wrote a fretful fan, one of the tens of thousands who swamped comics fanzines with disapproving nerd mail. The common refrain among disbelievers: Keaton has no chin, not enough hair; he's too scrawny, too doughy, too short, too glib, too distracting.

"A huge contingent rose up against this picture being made with Michael Keaton," says producer Jon Peters, who, along with his partner Peter Guber, spent nine years preparing Batman for the screen. "Fifty thousand letters of protest arrived at Warner Bros. A lot of people in the company lobbied against it. One of the most powerful men in Hollywood went as far as to call [Warners chairman] Steve Ross and tell him casting Michael was such a horrible idea it would bring Warners to its knees. That the entire studio would crash and burn as a result. Heaven's Gate revisited."

Peters chuckles when reporting these doomsday forecasts. He's seen Batman many times already, gushes unashamedly about it, believes he's sitting pretty. Just prior to Batman, Guber-Peters produced Gorillas in the Mist and Rain Man. Peters knows that movie studios don't nurture death wishes. For Warners, Keaton was a calculated risk: What made him an unlikely choice is what also made him an intriguing one. "Bruce Wayne is a contemporary eccentric," says Warners production president Mark Canton. "Michael really brought that to life. I always felt the concept of doing this guy as someone who people could touch was the right approach."

"Whatever happens," says Peters, "I know one thing: This movie's gonna make Michael Keaton a folk hero."

Bat Timing

You baah-staahhdds!" Keaton is bleating in a British accent at the British production assistants who have come to extract him from his trailer. Keaton loves making fun of Brits. "But you never know how much fun you can make of them," he says, "or how much you can tease them."

Deprived of that knowledge, Keaton teases without restraint. It's nothing personal, but he has spent four months amid Brits. Batman began shooting last October outside London, at the mammoth Pinewood Studios; now it is mid-January, and only a few days remain before Keaton will hie himself homeward. He wants out desperately. Nicholson blew town yesterday, and most of the other stars — Billy Dee Williams (who plays Gotham City D.A. Harvey Dent, a character that may become the villain Two-Face in a sequel), Jack Palance (a Mob boss), Jerry Hall (the Joker's moll) — preceded him by weeks.

I have made a pond crossing to espy any final bits of bat behavior. On my first day abroad, I find Keaton at stately Wayne Manor, which is actually a sprawling, mossy Gothic ruin called Knebworth House, located thirty miles from London. (Dickens and Churchill frolicked in these rooms, as only they could.) Keaton has just completed a scene in which enigmatic millionaire Bruce Wayne shares a romantic dinner with Vicki Vale in the house's baronial banquet hall.

Vicki: Do you like eating here?
Bruce: Yeah, I love, uh — do you know, I think I've been in this room once. No, no, I don't think I've ever seen this room before.

Chronically discombobulated out of bat togs, Bruce has no knack for life's little details, like knowing his own floor plan.

He is not alone in his bewilderment. "I see places like these," Keaton says outside, cringing at the grandiosity of the digs, "and I get the urge to run down to Pier I Exports to pick out some wicker chairs and throw pillows. Kinda makes you appreciate a nice studio apartment, you know?"

Keaton, I had been told, would rather die than discuss Batman on British soil. He's too close to it here and would rather explore bat matters later, back in the States. "He's a great guy, a fun guy, a guy's guy." I was told, "but for God's sake, don't push the Batman thing." The problem, I surmised, was that he had been feeling picked on. Who wouldn't? Making a pointy-eared vigilante seem plausible is a tall enough order for a short guy. But to have the world defy you to pull it off seems not a little demoralizing. Maybe all he needs, I figured is a vote of confidence. After all, Keaton radiates an implosive volatility, a quirky rage (as demonstrated in his three most recent efforts: Beetlejuice, Clean and Sober and The Dream Team) that couldn't be more perfectly suited to the character.

So moments after we meet, I tell him how pleased I am that he got the job. "Oh, good," he says, sounding a bit defeated, anyway. "You're the fuckin' minority, I'll tell you that." But, I persist, the controversy will surely goose the box office. "Yeah," he says ruefully, "we're going to subtitle it The Last Temptation of Bruce Wayne. Wait until the comic-book fundamentalists see the scene where I make love to Mary Magdalene."

Bat Out of Hell

Gotham city. The city of Tomorrow: stark angles, creeping shadows, dense, crowded, airless, a random tangle of steel and concrete … as if Hell had erupted through the sidewalks and kept on growing. A dangling fat moon shines overhead, ready to burst."

Thus begins the Batman screenplay, full of portentous promise. A virulent crime pit, Gotham is abuzz with tales of "the Bat," a dark wraith that preys on sleaze. Thugs quake and swap apprehensions; members of their ilk keep turning up splayed on wet pavement, dropped from buildings. Corrupt city overlords scoff at press reports of giant-bat sightings. That is, until the night the Bat foils a chemical-plant heist and accidentally dunks the gang leader, a preening psycho dandy, into a vat of toxic sludge. The dip provides an instant villain makeover: His pigment goes white, his hair goes green, his smile goes crazy. Just like that, Batman has created the Joker — purply poseur, the hero's own doppelgänger of hate.

The Joker strives to repay the debt, and that is the plot of the movie. He takes control of the crime syndicate. He laces hygiene products with Smylex, a grin-inducing death goo. Hordes of Gothamites die happy. Batman stews. An incorrigible sort, Joker then tries pitching woo and squirting acid at Bruce Wayne's gal pal, Vicki Vale. He also mounts a garish parade, throws tainted greenbacks into the crowd and sprays poison-gas clouds. Batman races around in his hulking Batmobile and airborne Batwing, rescuing the girl and the masses. Finally the madness congeals in the belfry of Gotham Cathedral, a soaring godless wreck, where the two costumed freaks can no longer escape each other. There's nowhere to go but down.

"These images are very operalike," Tim Burton says, gleefully. "That's the thing I'm most excited about It feels like a real opera! It's Pagliacci, the clown, meets Die Fledermaus, the bat."

You may notice there's no bird on hand. In early drafts of the script, Robin figured, albeit briefly. Toward the end of the movie, amid the rampant mayhem, young Dick Grayson's aerialist parents, the Flying Graysons, were to get their wings clipped in a Joker-related explosion. They plunge to their deaths. The boy's spunk impresses Bruce Wayne, a spite-driven orphan himself, and they team up. "But ultimately it was too much psychology to throw into one movie," says Burton. "If there's another movie, Robin would have to be established at the beginning, not be crammed into the third act."

Still, it's a shame the Joker will be unable to utter the zingy taunt from the first draft, when he lays eyes on young Dick being restrained by Batman after the Grayson tragedy.

"Like your boyfriend," he says with lurid, lip-smacking insinuation. "He's kinda hot."

Batzophrenia

Why Bruce Wayne does it:

He's nuts.

"What compels a man to put on a bat suit?" asks the thirty-year-old director, Tim Burton. He is grappling with the issue over bad English lunch in the studio dining room. "If you hate crime, why not just write a letter to the New York Times? I kept looking for the psychological root. I mean, he's a human being, not somebody from another planet. He just has a split personality. You could say he's schizophrenic. It's not an easy thing to explain away. You just see somebody in conflict. He is as maniacally good as the Joker is maniacally evil. They're two psychotics."

"Is he nuts?" asks Sam Hamm, who shares credit for the Batman screenplay with Warren Skaaren. "That's the big question in the bat-fan community. Is Batman the real identity, or is Bruce Wayne the real identity? I feel essentially that they are two characters. That Batman erupts out of Bruce Wayne and takes control. In a sense, Bruce Wayne is an addict: He's addicted to putting on the suit and changing himself into an entirely different persona."

Why Keaton was sought for the part:

His eyes.

"Eyes are windows into the soul," says Burton, whose own eyes dance behind pallid, bedraggled features. "You can see in Michael's eyes that the guy has something going on. And Bruce Wayne is somebody who's definitely got too much going on in his mind. It's funny. Getting Michael wasn't my idea. One of the producers, Peter Guber, I think, said to me, 'What about Michael Keaton?' I said, 'Whooaaa.' I actually had to think about it. The more I did, the more it made sense. I met with some very good square-jawed actors, but I had real trouble seeing them put on the outfit. Physical presence didn't seem to be enough. I was looking for the unknown. Michael has an incredible temper, and I thought that was important for Batman. Plus, I'd had a very good experience with him on Beetlejuice. He comes up with a lot of ideas. We're going for a very shorthand psychology here. And Michael is very good at shorthand."

Why Keaton did it:

The demons.

"When Tim first came to me with the script, I read it out of politeness," says Keaton. "All the while, I'm thinking there's no way I'd do this. It just wasn't me. My name doesn't spring to my mind when somebody says, 'Batman.' But I read it and thought, 'This guy's fascinating!' I saw him as essentially depressed. I told that to Tim, thinking he wouldn't agree, but he said, 'That's exactly what I see.' The choice was to play Batman honestly. So I started thinking, 'What kind of person would wear these clothes?' The answer seemed pretty disturbing. This is a guy in pain."

Bat to the Bone

Bat clothes make the man … angry. On the only day I see Keaton don his forbidding fashion statement, he is seething. Batman of the comic books dresses gray (tights with blue outer underpants and accessories); Keaton's version dresses black, head to foot — except for the utility belt and chest emblem — decidedly and unmistakably black. Today his mood matches. Harnessed in the sweltering foam-latex bodysuit (with rippling-musculature effect), he storms through corridors of the sound stage, slamming doors and ducking into his dressing room at every lull. There are many lulls. The day, in fact, is one long lull. Keaton wears his hostility on his cape, and his cape has a thirty-two-foot wingspan. He mutters a lot and fiercely smokes cigarettes, exhaling in sharp bursts. (Call me priggish, but Batman with a weed is not a pretty picture.) Whenever our paths cross, he informs me, curt but apologetic, "You don't want to talk to me now."

As is often the case with those who seem to exude mirth, Keaton is a hothead virtuoso. If rubbed up sufficiently, he lathers to a froth. Much later he will regale me with the following details of his Vesuvian repertoire: "I'm a good thrower. And kicker. I kick things across rooms. And I love to throw things as hard and as far as I can. I like to see the impact I like to see the cup explode off the wall. Anything ceramic is good. But the best is a chair. I threw a chair across a sound stage one time and got good distance on it. Chairs are much better than people think they are. And a metal chair is exceptional, because it'll bounce and skid, and the noise really gets the message across. Tremendous gratification in that. It's what you do just short of hitting somebody, isn't it?"

His present dander is being stoked by futility: technical gaffes, homesickness, tricky last-minute dialogue changes. "I won't be able to talk at all today," he finally says to me. "I'll just get volatile and spew things. I'll get crazy and won't make any sense."

Under these testy circumstances, it is not difficult to understand how the costume frightens criminals. It looks like a tantrum — rubbery and petulant. It lends presence, ferocity, an aura of snappish omnipotence. (It's supposed to be bulletproof, too.) The ensemble even discharges sexual voltage, if we are to believe Basinger, who is something of a radar queen about such stuff.

"I love Batman, you know, the man Batman," she says, giddily. "I loved being around him. When Michael was in costume and he'd say to me between shots, 'Come here a second,' well, I'd just swoon for him. It made me weak. Oooooh, Batman. I'd run right over to him or, for that matter, do anything he'd ask. There was something so virile about that costume, so mysterious and just plain sexual. It wasn't Michael — it was Batman!"

Bat in the U.S.A.

Boy, I was in a bad mood that day, wasn't I?"

Keaton is back in Los Angeles. He has tried to put the specter of Batman behind him, turning his attention to playing golf and hockey and softball, to doting on his six-year-old son, Sean (who lives with Keaton's estranged wife, actress Caroline McWilliams). He apologizes for being so cranky in London. "That was the end of four straight movies in, like, twenty months," he says contritely, wearily. But those four movies resurrected Michael Keaton, yanked him out of a sodden comedy quagmire and forced Hollywood to reconsider his wares. Because of those twenty months of work, he had been able to shake off the glop of Johnny Dangerously, Gung Ho and The Squeeze, the sap of Mr. Mom and Touch and Go. He was reborn as an undead scumbag in Beetlejuice, a conning cokehead in Clean and Sober (he was named Best Actor for both by the National Society of Film Critics), a hair-trigger loon in The Dream Team. And now there's this caped schizoid.

Batman gnaws at him. Changing time zones has done little to quell his discomfort with the subject. Probably not unlike Bruce Wayne, Keaton worries that Batman will swallow him whole, that the commercial heft of the role will obliterate his identity. (Adam West would understand.) He has refused requests to pose for magazines in bat costume because, says his manager Harry Colomby, "he doesn't want to have to hide behind a mask in order to be on a cover. Can you blame him?"

Haze envelops Keaton's frisky eye works when I try to get down to batness with him. He is polite, but edgily so. "I'm still not totally sure I know exactly what I did in this movie," he says, genuinely befuddled. "It all happened real fast. This thing was bigger than me. So I ended up going with my instincts on every scene." By no means a bat fan in his wonder years, he rarely read the comics and saw the TV series "maybe once." Moreover, he jumped into doing Batman immediately after The Dream Team wrapped, so there was no time to catch up on research. And what would he have done anyway? Have his parents gunned down? He ponders that a moment and shrugs. "I could've," he says, sending a game eyebrow skyward.

Madcap pluck, as such, is Keaton's long suit (and ultimately it's what informs his bat performance). Like a coot at a campsite, he delights in recounting his wily adventure campaigns. Interestingly, he almost never plumbs showbiz stories. ("I don't find it as interesting as most people," he says.) But should he see a Mustang in a restaurant parking lot, he will tell you, "I wrecked one of those once," and then launch into a breathless re-creation of the incident. He will remind you to ask him about the day back home in Pittsburgh that he parachute-jumped on a dare with his brothers. He will happily reminisce about such boyhood exploits as running over a buddy with a car (he was unhurt), about stealing wood from construction sites, about his brothers' forcing him to beat up a neighbor kid ("I didn't have anything against him"), about spitting in his sisters' mouths ("a famous torture"). He will wax rhapsodic about later adventures, such as working on the Navajo reservation, or about dying "an uncanny death" doing his stand-up comedy act in Las Vegas. "Horrible nightmare," he says, grinning.

On his own turf he keeps his sense of wonder crackling. Stepping out of his snazzy Southwestern-influenced Pacific Palisades home, he clicks on the security system. It reports back in a robot voice: "Set." Keaton: "What if you had an insecurity system that told you stuff like 'I'm not sure the tie is right'?" What if? He pilots his red Isuzu Trooper past an empty new house he admires. "Scuse me, howyadoin'?" he says, hooting at a carpenter on the premises. "You guys gonna be around all day? I'm gonna cruise back later and look through it, okay?" Okay. He spies a sturdy lodgepole pine tree and instantly brightens. "Now, there's a tree with an attitude!" Indeed. He parks at a broken meter. "No matter how well-off and secure you become, there's still nothing like the thrill of finding a free parking place to park." Not one thing like it.

Bat to the Future

Hey, Mr. Batman!" Here it begins. There are still months to go before the movie opens. But the attendant in the reserved-parking section of the Los Angeles Forum is waving down Keaton in a way that is making Keaton blanch. There are no casting secrets in this town. Word is out. The parking guy, a most enthusiastic fellow, points the actor to a spot next to a Porsche, then hollers to a colleague, indicating his famous customer: "Hey, Mac! Look! 'I'm Batman!'" He is invoking the salutation Keaton utters while throttling a hood in the widely seen ninety-second Batman trailer playing in theaters since December. Mac seems nonplussed.

"Mac doesn't know what the fuck you're talkin' about," Keaton cheerfully tells the parking guy, who then begs for an autograph. "Sign it, 'I'm Batman,'" he asks, and Keaton obliges. It doesn't end here. As we run through the parking lot to the gate, I distinctly hear several teenage boys whispering in our wake, "It's Batman, it's Batman."

If Keaton hears this, he gives no sign.

We have come, one half-hour late, to watch the Lakers play the Chicago Bulls. We have come late because Entertainment Tonight has just broadcast a special batmania report that Keaton wanted to see. And, pleasantly enough, his spirits actually seemed buoyed by the program's optimistic predictions for the film. So much so that on the ride to the game, he submits himself to a rousing spate of bat talk. He tells me how going to the bathroom was impossible unless the costume was removed, a harrowing process. "We should've designed a little bat colostomy bag," he says. If he had his own Batcave, he allows, he would furnish it in beanbag chairs. "And lighting would be important," he adds. He says he has no sequel clause in his contract, and he isn't sure he'd do one, anyway. "Depends on if it's good," he says coyly.

Keaton mentions some of his ideas that were incorporated into the movie. Like the revelation scene with Bruce and Vicki in the Batcave. "That was originally set in the Wayne Manor library," he says. "But I thought it would be interesting to have him exposed." Playing Batman tired was another notion. "He's always out at night." And perhaps his finest stroke: After making love to Vicki one night, Bruce can't fall asleep — he's usually out thwarting scourges at that hour. So he climbs into gravity-inversion boots and hangs upside down like a bat, rocking gently, until dozing off.

"I always imagined Bruce had a very active sex life," he continues. "To venture into five-and-dime psychology, I'd say a guy with his manic personality would have an insatiable sex drive. Plus a lot of things happen at night for him. Nighttime is the right time." He pauses, then adds, "But forget Batman! I want to see Michael Jordan tonight! A man who can truly fly!"

But Keaton is on a roll. Inside the Forum we take his regular seats, five rows above the floor (he is a season-ticket holder), whereupon he proceeds to give an impressive display of his deductive-reasoning abilities. Spotting a man with an unusually large forehead, he says, "Runs a windshield-endurance school." Then a shaggy guy in tennis whites: "That's Vitas Gerulaitis's towel boy." A large bald man wearing a vile-colored coat: "I hate to say it, but that coat's phlegm brown. The guy must own a Lincoln dealership." Three tall, thin, solemn men in suits: "These guys look like they should come to your house with books."

Eventually his eyes land on a familiar figure crouched at courtside, intently studying the game. "Jack's wearin' the polka dots tonight," he says, meaning the socks. Jack Nicholson is wearing polka-dot socks — socks that would have tickled the fancy of a certain white-faced homicidal fop. It comes full circle, this bat stuff. Instead of green hair, he now sports a green turtleneck. Instead of flashing a lunatic smile, he frowns; the Lakers are getting beaten. Keaton loves to tell a story about the day he and Nicholson, as Batman and the Joker, were clenched in a death grip. "We were just about to do a take," he says, "and I leaned over and said to him, 'We're both grown men.'" Keaton giggles. "He died at that."

Tonight, a couple of months after their showdown in Gotham, the same grown men sit across the same basketball court, both aware of the other's presence, neither choosing to acknowledge it. They don't approach each other; that would be too obvious. Wire-service photos might appear the next morning: “Film Foes Foiled, Lakers Lose, Batman to Open in June.” It gets a little unsavory. So they sit coolly, if not obliviously, a pair of onetime archnemeses who happen to be rooting for the same team — just two guys with crazy eyes. Keaton regards his friend with an affectionate grin.

"Excellent socks, Jack," he mutters.