Not since Waiting for Godot has a guy with his name on the marquee spent less time on screen.
We see Betelgeuse (a.k.a. Beetlejuice) in the cowboy-themed commercial at the 25-minute mark. But we're 47 minutes into the film before he gets to burst from his coffin and actually exchange lines with other actors.
But Michael Keaton, in a crazy, manic performance, makes the most of his screen time and steals every scene he's in. Betelgeuse never stops talking, leering, and scaring.
Keaton didn't know quite what to do with the role at first. Here's what he said to Rolling Stone about it:
It turns out the character creates his own reality. I gave myself some sort of voice, some sort of look based on the words. Then I started thinkin' about my hair: I wanted my hair to stand out like I was wired and plugged in, and once I started gettin' that, I actually made myself laugh. And I thought, "Well, this is a good sign, this is kind of funny." Then I got the attitude. And once I got the basic attitude, it really started to roll.
[…] The attitude is, you write your own reality, you write your own ticket. There are no bars, I can do anything I want and under any rationality I want. […] At some point you show up on the set and just go [expletive] nuts. It was rave acting. You rage for 12 or 14 hours; then you go home tired and beat and exhausted. It was pretty damned cathartic. It was rave and purge acting. (Source)
Rave and purge acting? Weird, but it worked.
Ghost with the Most
Lots of characters talk about Betelgeuse throughout the movie, but they're mostly discussing how little they want to be around him. Like this moment, when Barbara and Adam think about calling up Betelgeuse for some help getting rid of the Deetzes, and Juno warns them against it.
BARBARA: What about that guy in the flyer? You know, Beetle—
JUNO: Shh! Don't even say his name. You don't want his help.
ADAM: We might.
JUNO: No, you don't. He does not work well with others.
BARBARA: What do you mean?
JUNO: I didn't want to bring it up. But rather than have you stumble onto it and make another mistake, I'll tell you. He was my assistant. But he was a troublemaker. He went out on his own as a freelance bio-exorcist. Claimed he could get rid of the living. Got into more trouble. In fact, I believe he's been sleazing around your cemetery lately. The only way he can be brought back is by calling his name three times. But I strongly suggest that you remove the Deetzes yourselves.
"Sleazing" is the operative word here.
Betelgeuse is a manipulator, a fast-talker, a conman. He's always trying to make a sale and get something for himself. Kind of like a slimy used car salesman. Or a boss who constantly sexually harasses his secretary. In other words, he's a dude you want to avoid.
After the Maitlands let him loose and then fire him, Betelgeuse takes a liking to Lydia, but we're guessing it's not a genuine attraction. He just sees another person that he can try to take advantage of (like the Maitlands).
It almost works:
LYDIA: Where are you? Help them, please.
BEETLEJUICE: Sure, I can help them. But you gotta help me.
BEETLEJUICE: Look, I'm what you might call an illegal alien. I want out for good. In order for me to do that, hey, I gotta get married. Hey, these aren't my rules. Come to think of it, I don't have any rules. Come on. Come on. Think of it as a marriage of inconvenience. Okay? We both get something. I get out. You get to say you're hitched to the most eligible bachelor since Valentino came over. We're even, babe.
LYDIA: Okay, just help them.
LYDIA: Betelgeuse. Betelgeuse. Betelgeuse.
BEETLEJUICE: It's showtime.
The movie never specifies exactly how he got cursed in the first place. All that matters is that he's willing to do whatever it takes to get back into the action.
But that's sort of the point. Despite the title, Beetlejuice isn't really about Betelgeuse. He shows up and wreaks havoc, but then he'll disappear and move onto the next scheme. It looks like he finally gets what he deserves in the afterlife waiting room when a headshrinker he tries to take advantage of shrinks his head down to softball size. Does it bother our guy? For a second, maybe. But he regroups:
BEETLEJUICE: This might be a good look for me!
Fun Ghost-with-the-Most-Fact: Michael Keaton originally shot all his scenes in just two weeks. When the movie was shown to test audiences, they complained that they wanted more of him. So the filmmakers had to go back and add in more Juice.