When Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice came out in 1988, no one had seen anything like it. Thirty years on, we have dozens of wacky comedies with brilliant performances, but back then, the film was bonkers and completely, utterly new. You’ve got a couple who has just died (Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin) and a weird corporate/artsy/goth family (Jeffrey Jones, Catherine O’Hara and Winona Ryder) that moves into the house they’re stuck in. You’ve got a peek at the afterlife, calypso music and an over-the-top bio-exorcist named Beetlejuice (Michael Keaton). There is stop-motion animation and the concept that those who commit suicide end up as civil servants in the afterlife. This should not have worked, yet somehow, we ended up with a film that not only holds up three decades later, but contains one of the best character performances of all time.
Before Beetlejuice, Keaton appeared in relatively innocuous (though funny) films like Mr. Mom and Gung Ho. If you go back and watch those now, you can almost see the seeds of Beetlejuice in his performances. There was always that just-slightly-crazy look lurking in his eyes, even when playing a husband and father forced to stay home with the kids. That look that made you want to see what would happen if someone let him off his acting leash.
When someone did let him off the leash, we got a powerhouse of demon/Vegas car salesman/unhinged baddie, all wrapped up in a slightly balding goofball creep. For the first time, Keaton was allowed to just go with it, and from an acting perspective, it’s hard to fault a single moment. It’s technically brilliant and pushes the envelope of what we’d seen in comedy before. I’m going out on a limb here, but as I rewatched the film (for about the 100th time since it came out), I kept writing down “Heath Ledger as the Joker.” The Dark Knight and Beetlejuice couldn’t be farther apart as films, but you can see the influence here, from the speech style to the expressions to the look in Ledger’s eyes. Just watch it again and tell me if you don’t see it.
The character of Beetlejuice doesn’t even make an appearance until 25 minutes into the film. By that point, we’re primed to meet this mystery character. When he does appear, it’s in a quick commercial, as a salesman for his “bio-exorcism” business. A salesman is what he is, and an opportunist. We learn later in the film that he was an assistant to another afterlife civil servant, Juno (Sylvia Sidney), but sort of went off the rails. He appears again for about 60 seconds at minute 38, with a Zagnut bar and a fly, then nothing until 47 minutes into a 90-minute film. Think about that for a moment. He’s the titular character and we barely see him. By the time the dead couple dig him up out of the ground in their miniature model town’s graveyard, we’ve waited almost an hour. We’re primed. Then Keaton is off his leash and barely stops to take a breath between lines. He’s rude, has no sense of personal space, frequents a miniature town whorehouse, tells us he’s seen The Exorcist 167 times (“and it keeps getting funnier every single time I see it”), plays on the fears of a newly dead couple, convinces a young girl to marry him to save some ghosts and turns into a stop-motion snake, scarring everyone.
There was nothing to base this on. There were no past performances like this to look at. Jack Nicholson’s unleashed Joker didn’t happen until the year after (with Keaton as Batman). There was no glamour in this role. He’s balding, paunchy and gross. On paper, he’s a nightmare. (Weirdly, Sammy Davis Jr. and Sam Kinison were considered for the role.) Keaton completely turned himself over to the role and kept us from blinking for the rest of the film. There is a craft to that, as well as an instinct that you either have or you don’t. It’s a completely fearless performance, which is something that doesn’t get mentioned that often when you’re talking about a comedy.
What’s even odder is that he made Beetlejuice lovable. Watch the film again…there is nothing that he does that should allow that. He hits on Barbara, tries to marry a very young girl, scares the crap out of her family, eats a giant fly and tries to mess with a guy who shrinks heads. Yet somehow, he’s so much fun to watch that he ends up being sort of the good guy in the animated series based on the film. You’re on the hook before he shows up, then you’re quoting his lines as you finish the film. Keaton’s performance is pure id. It’s libido, the pleasure principle and the desire for immediate gratification with zero regard for what’s coming next.
In a way, it’s almost hard to appreciate, watching it now. There are so many performances out there from more recent films that built on what Keaton did. It’s sort of like reading “The Princess of Mars” and thinking it’s derivative, without realizing that most of the sci-fi we love actually took their tropes and visuals from that story. Go, watch Beetlejuice again and think of what you would have done with the role with nothing to draw on. Try to make a line like, “I’ll chew on a dog” work and do charades with your name. You couldn’t imagine the role any other way.