Saturday, March 30, 2013

An Active Afterlife

"I'm the ghost with the most, babe."

Michael Keaton

Other folks would have their own nominee for most quirky movie direcrtor, I'm sure, but I think I would be safe in picking Tim Burton.

Burton's had some mainstream hits, like 1989's "Batman," but mostly he has directed movies that could best be described as "quirky."

Let me be clear. I have nothing against quirky. I didn't particularly care for his first effort "Pee–wee's Big Adventure" in 1985, but I know people who liked it very much.

"Beetlejuice," the movie that made its debut 25 years ago today, was his next directorial project. And I liked it very much. It was just good offbeat fun.

The plot was centered on a young recently deceased couple (Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin) haunting the home they occupied before their deaths. Their objective is to frighten the folks who have bought the house and are making changes that the former occupants find intolerable.

Doing his best to throw a monkeywrench into the works was Beetlejuice (Michael Keaton), a bio–exorcist who appeared to be aiding the young couple but, in fact, was motivated by his desire for the daughter (Winona Ryder) of the house's new owners. She could see the ghosts, but her father couldn't and neither could her stepmother.

She was also — shall we say — a bit goth. Well, more than a bit.

Lydia (Winona Ryder): "My whole life is a dark room. One. Big. Dark. Room."

Beetlejuice's offensive behavior created a wedge between him and the couple, and he proceeded to pursue Ryder's somewhat naive character, with no regard for Davis or Baldwin.

Beetlejuice could not be trusted.

And no one could have played that role better than Keaton.

I've seen him in several movies now. I guess the first movie I saw that featured Keaton was "Night Shift," in which he and Henry Winkler (then best known as the Fonz from Happy Days) played night–shift attendants in a morgue.

Keaton was probably about 30 when he appeared in that movie. He was closer to 40 when he appeared in "Beetlejuice," and he had persuaded me, by that time, that he was capable of a wide range of movie roles, not just comedic ones.

But I guess I've mostly thought of him as a comedic actor.

Everyone knows his famous line, "I'm the ghost with the most," and I do think of that line when I think of Keaton playing Beetlejuice — but I think of other lines, too.

Like ... "Go ahead ... make my millenium." A nice Clint Eastwood allusion there.

Or ... "It's showtime!" after Ryder's character recited his name the requisite three times. Conjuring memories of Roy Scheider in "All That Jazz."

But my absolute favorite is when Beetlejuice is asked for his qualifications, and he replies ...

"I attended Julliard. I'm a graduate of the Harvard business school. I travel quite extensively. I lived through the Black Plague and had a pretty good time during that. I've seen the EXORCIST ABOUT 167 TIMES, AND IT KEEPS GETTING FUNNIER EVERY SINGLE TIME I SEE IT ... NOT TO MENTION THE FACT THAT YOU'RE TALKING TO A DEAD GUY ... NOW WHAT DO YOU THINK? You think I'm qualified?"

I liked Davis since I first saw her in a small role in "Tootsie" a few years earlier, and she played another likeable character in "Beetlejuice." Baldwin was another matter. I've seen him in some good things since "Beetlejuice" was released, but I wasn't overly impressed with his performance, and I don't think I had seen him in anything else before "Beetlejuice."

Sylvia Sidney was, well, a different matter entirely. In her late 70s in 1988, most of Sidney's film work was before my time when, apparently, she was in some demand as a leading lady. My memory of her is spotty — and mostly of her in supporting, not leading, roles. When I saw her in other movies, I recognized the face but could rarely recall her name.

As Juno the afterlife counselor, though, she made quite an impression on me with her deadpan delivery. She didn't win Best Supporting Actress for her peformance — she wasn't even nominated — but "Beetlejuice" co–star Geena Davis did win it for "The Accidental Tourist."