40 years ago: Michael Keaton becomes a star in ‘Night Shift’

Happy Days was in his waning years in 1982, but for much of America, Henry Winkler was still the Fonz, the wonderfully cool and effortlessly feminine icon of the cozy nostalgic sitcom. And while he had left the series a few years earlier, former child star Ron Howard was still identified with Happy Days‘ sometime leading man, freckle-faced, Midwestern sweet guy Richie Cunningham.

Then the release of the 1982s Night watchman, directed by Howard and starring Winkler as a mild-mannered New York mortuary who becomes the unlikely pimp of a photogenic gang of prostitutes, served as a vehicle for both former costars to change their perceived images. Howard, who at the time had only directed one gritty theatrical feature – 1977’s Roger Corman exploitation quickie Grand Theft Auto – made his first studio film, an R-rated comedy about whores, no less. And Winkler stretched as an exaggerated version of a nice guy that was much closer to the actor’s truth and enduring reputation as one of the nicest people Hollywood has ever seen.

And Night watchman accomplished both goals nicely, with the film’s modest but undeniable box office success ($21 million on an $8 million budget for Warner Bros.) landing the young Howard a spot as a studio director, while Winkler broke typecasting to audition for future roles , who is not the Fonz. .

But none of that explains why people still seek it out Night watchman after all these years. That’s because Howard’s modestly raunchy, knockabout comedy marked Michael Keaton’s big-screen breakout.

Keaton, who would go on to become one of the most bankable comedic leads of the 80s (before winning over skeptical fanboys like Tim Burton’s Batman and emerging as an eventual Oscar winner) was a former stand-up comic and sitcom actor with only one minor big-screen role under his belt when he was cast as Night watchman‘s Bill “Billy Blaze” Blazejowski. Billy Blaze is a self-proclaimed “ideas man”, constantly brainstorming can’t-miss innovations in a handheld tape recorder (edible paper, microwave noise), and the role that finally allowed Keaton to channel his live-wire, improvisational comic persona correct. Deprived of good writing and/or a skilled director, the young Keaton’s undisciplined comedic brilliance could come across as unfocused and flailing. But Billy Blaze’s driving mix of obnoxious and unwarranted self-regard and guilt-free vulnerability struck right at Keaton’s wheelhouse.

Like an early 80s comedy, Night watchman is a competent – if pedestrian – piece of faux-risque fluff. As former stockbroker turned numbingly sheepish mortuary attendant Chuck Lumley, Winkler is the kind of nebbish who will never return an incorrect lunch order, confront a neighbor’s menacing dog, or be able to handle rush-hour subway traffic without getting smeared against the Plexiglas by the bustling crowd . Playing an anti-Fonzie, Winkler renders the uptight Chuck so helpless among the film’s cartoonishly gritty New York City that it seems impossible he hasn’t been eaten alive when new colleague Blaze shows up.

Entering Chuck’s boring but stress-averse life of infrequent mortuary duties to a raucous a cappella chorus of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” Keaton’s Billy is the kind of ever-babbling, self-involved man-child whose running commentary on the flummoxed Chuck is stopped only by his first sight of one of the morgue’s open drawers. “Hey, that guy’s dead,” Billy drawls, Keaton’s bravura entrance piling up like a derailed freight train.

But nothing can stop the irrepressible Billy from turning Chuck’s life upside down, his side business hiring out limo/hearse drivers to horny teenagers disrupting Chuck’s only desire for a safe and sane job that doesn’t make his hair stand out fall from stress. And that’s before Billy comes up with it Night watchman‘s high-concept big idea of ​​becoming pimps (or “love brokers,” as Billy promptly renames them) to a group of local sex workers, including a pre-Cheers Shelley Long as Chuck’s savvy call-girl neighbor Belinda.

No ’80s, New York-set, crime-adjacent mainstream film avoided stereotypes, and Howard and screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel kick things up a notch with a full complement. (A flamboyant black pimp is chased down and murdered by two toughs, and eventually is tossed through a back alley basketball hoop where two black teenagers argue over who can dunk while making “Yo mama” jokes.) Also, Chuck’s meekness is laid at the feet of the various shrewd women in his life (mother, weight-obsessed economy) with predictable outright misogyny. And Night watchman takes half an hour before Billy and Chuck decide to help Belinda and her suddenly vulnerable friends (it was their pimp who crashed through the hoop) by becoming the most squeaky clean (white) pimps. (They will only take 10% of the women’s earnings and will provide medical and dental care.)

Part of a wave of variously sanitized Hollywood depictions of sex work (Risky business released next year) Night watchman, with its sitcom pace, wacky, lightly announced premise and bouncy ’80s score, would play alongside other forgettable middlebrow comedies of the era — if not for Keaton. (Burt Bacharach and Carol Bayer Sager’s soundtrack incorporates their future mega-hit “That’s What Friends Are For” throughout and even takes center stage for a happy for-Beautiful woman shopping montage.)

As voluminous and fun as the 80s Bill Murray, but without Murray’s bulletproof wisecracking confidence, Keaton’s Billy Blaze plods on in search of the one thing that will give self-esteem to the crippled fool inside. Billy lays out the duo’s pitch to the assembled call girls on a blackboard, breaks down the word “prostitute” into increasingly disjointed syllables, with Keaton conveying the impression that Billy’s sweaty, mercurial slap is sparking from the top of his head. Keaton’s performance is all aside, embellishment and nodding commitment to the tap dance that is Billy’s ceaseless battle for attention and validation.

Watch the trailer for ‘Night Shift’

Famed critic Pauline Kael once compared Keaton’s on-screen energy to that of James Cagney, and in Billy’s nimble physical and verbal jabs, the comparison makes sense. Keaton is awake and reacting in the moment, Billy’s open mouth and dancing eyes as he listens to Chuck’s sensible objections prelude to a deluge of rebuttals and excuses he makes up on the fly. A full Christmas Eve chat between Chuck, Belinda and Billy sees Keaton slip Billy’s mask just enough to hint at the early traumas his needs stem from. “Call your mother, wish her a Merry Christmas,” Billy murmurs into his ever-present recorder, Keaton closing the scene with unexpected and telling delicacy.

Eventually, the film’s crime plot creaks back into motion. After one hour and 46 minutes, Night watchman intermittently groans to a halt as Keaton gives way to the inevitable love story between Chuck and Belinda, Winkler’s deft rom-com effort muddled by the script’s need to make him alternately naïve and judgmental of Long’s work. (Far, though an unlikely choice, makes her sex worker believably tough, at least until she’s sidelined in the girlfriend role.) At that point, Billy’s big mouth and two revenge-seeking thugs result in Chuck being strapped to a morgue table with a fire hose stuck in its mouth, finds the subsequent shootout and too quick resolution of the protagonists’ legal problems (the mayor hates the election-year scandal) Night watchman sputters to a hasty happy ending.

Part of every mismatched, buddy-movie wild card’s plan is to loosen up on his uptight partner, supposedly for his own good. Early in their relationship, Billy’s throwaway line, outlining a goal to “Make Chuck a man,” comes to uninspiring fruition here, with Winkler collapsing the attack dog and chasing down the rude deliveryman (Vincent Schiavelli) who put mustard on his egg salad, and even, in the climax, pushed movie tough guy Joe Spinell into a sex club pool for good measure. After dumping his neurotic girlfriend and driving out his frenetic mother (he uses his ill-gotten gains to erect a huge monument to his late, chicken-headed father) and taking up with Long’s idealized, sex-positive (now former) prostitute, There’s a brilliant anti-feminist spin to Chuck’s journey of self-actualization that sours Night watchman in retrospect. Fortunately, the decades can’t dull the shine of Michael Keaton’s new comedic stardom.

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