Diane Keaton: ‘Where would I be without Woody? I wouldn’t be here’

An Oscar-winning performance in Woody Allen’s ‘Annie Hall’ changed everything for Diane Keaton

Diane Keaton arrives for the American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement Gala   in Hollywood where she received a lifetime achievement award earlier this month. Photograph: EPA/Paul Buck

Diane Keaton arrives for the American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement Gala in Hollywood where she received a lifetime achievement award earlier this month. Photograph: EPA/Paul Buck

 

Will Diane Keaton be like Diane Keaton? It’s not such an absurd question. Forty years ago, in Annie Hall, she played a character with the actress’s own real surname. Woody Allen could hardly have made it clearer that the warm, bright, slightly befuddled Annie was a version of Keaton. But that may have been a clever finesse. Perhaps she’s as dry and abrasive as new sandpaper.

She certainly looks like Diane Keaton. Uncoiling from her patterned sofa in the Soho Hotel, she reveals a huge belt, a wide-collared shirt and wonderful boots with tongues the size of beach towels.

“You like them? Um, yeah. I know,” she laughs. So far, this is going as we had hoped.

Keaton has turned out to support a new romantic comedy called Hampstead. I challenge you to conceive of more delightful casting than Keaton as the middle-class widow and Brendan Gleeson as the eccentric park dweller for whom she falls. That’s really all you need to know.

Brendan Gleeson has patience for people who are different. I liked him a lot. He’s classically trained. His stage skills are excellent. That cannot be said of me.

“I didn’t know many of those films he was in. Harry Potter? Right?” she confesses. “But before we did it I saw In Bruges and he’s so great in it. Heartbreaking and scary.”

We’re proud of him. “Oh, you should be, man. You should be. He’s great.”

The two actors came from very different places. Keaton is a Californian who rose with the wave of post-classical American cinema in the 1970s. Gleeson worked his way up through Irish theatre. Was there a clash of approaches?

“He’s such a decent person,” she says. “And he has patience for people who are different. I liked him a lot. You’d think it wouldn’t work. He’s classically trained. His stage skills are excellent. That cannot be said of me. It’s a different way, but it doesn’t matter.”

Yet Keaton is a very definitely a trained actor. Born as Diane Hall in 1946, she was raised by middle-class parents in Los Angeles. She graduated from a decent school in Orange County and, after moving to New York, studied the Meisner Technique while at the Neighbourhood Playhouse. Those lessons have really stayed with her.

Prompted, she launches into a short lecture on how Sandy Meisner’s strategy works. It’s all to do with reacting to your environment. “Like, I’d come into the room and say: ‘Your glasses are on crooked.’ And then you would say: ‘My glasses are on crooked?’ in a way that says: ‘F**k you!’ Because that’s insulting. Right?”

So, it’s to do with repetition? Do I have that correct? “Well, yeah. It’s coming off the reality of the moment. You perceive whatever you can perceive from the person you’re with.”

Comedy persona

There seems to be no unpleasant edge to Diane Keaton. She throws herself into conversation with the enthusiasm you’d expect her to show for an old friend. The delivery is familiar to the point of eeriness. In real life, she does that Keaton thing of drawling the start of a sentence and then suddenly racing through the last few syllables. Like Annie, she says “right?” a lot.

I auditioned for Hair. I don’t know how I got it. But I was cast as a tribe member. Now, that was weird. I did not take my clothes off. I didn’t need to.

It’s the perfect persona for comedy. Was that what she always felt she would do? After all, one of her breakthrough performances was as poor, miserable Kay Corleone in The Godfather.

“I didn’t know what direction I was going in. I was always being surprised. Right out of the Neighbourhood Playhouse, I auditioned for Hair. I don’t know how I got it. But I was cast as a tribe member. Now, that was weird.”

I read that she was one of those who declined to disrobe in that famous hippie musical. “Nah, I did not take my clothes off,” she laughs. “I didn’t need to. It was not worth it. But that was very strange. Then I auditioned for Woody. I didn’t know how I got that. I didn’t understand. Why me?”

Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in Annie Hall
Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in Annie Hall

Even now, she sounds a bit baffled. Keaton won the first of many roles for Allen in the stage production of Play it Again, Sam. Both the film version and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather arrived in 1972. That’s the way to arrive. She was then 26.

“Yeah, I still don’t know how I got Play it Again, Sam. But I do understand The Godfather. Having seen it recently for the 45th anniversary, I now know why. I was not quite fully developed. And that woman didn’t have a voice. She was lost in that world. She couldn’t stick up for herself. So maybe I made sense.”

There was a wonderful photograph of the surviving cast at that 45th anniversary. They have aged at startlingly different rates. Keaton still looks fresh as a spring daisy. Others look soggier at the edges.

“There’s not so may of us left,” she says. “But we’ve done all right. Jimmy Caan is exactly the same. He’s full of energy and very funny. Frances was amazing: so articulate and so full of stories.”

Defining performance

Keaton has worked consistently ever since that auspicious debut. She has been a busy producer. She directed a feature film and – trivia, alert – one episode of the original Twin Peaks. But, after all these years, her defining performance remains that in Annie Hall. The film seemed to discover a version of mid-1970s style that the commentators had missed. There’s nothing tie-dyed about it. There’s certainly no whiff of punk about it. The film is all Allen and Keaton. So was that really her on screen?

“From what I told you already, I would have to say yes. He asked me to do it and then he let me do it as I wanted. Yeah, he was smart. He’s a good writer. A good writer for women in particular. I didn’t have any reservations at all. Funnily enough, he did. He kept saying: ‘This is just like a sitcom’. I had to tell him it wasn’t.”

Annie Hall was everything. Where would I be without it? Where would I be without Woody? I wouldn’t be here

The picture surprised many Oscar pundits – who argued the Academy never honours comedies – by winning four awards, including best picture and best actress. We are told an Oscar changes things. Life is never the same again for actor.

“It changes things a lot. But, you know, making money changes things the most. The movie was a big hit and that really matters. My career hadn’t really been about making money and then I got really lucky. Annie Hall was everything. Where would I be without it? Where would I be without Woody? I wouldn’t be here.”

Keaton has the enviable ability of remaining pals with her old boyfriends. She went out with Allen for a while. She dated Warren Beatty during the making of Reds. Al Pacino is also an old flame. She talks about all of them with some warmth. Is there a trick to keeping relations civil?

“Just be realistic. Right? I think that’s the thing. Right?”

And she never married. Did she ever come close? “No, no. Never close.”

I remember talking to Bill Nighy, who is only a few years older than Keaton, and, asked the same question, he replied that his generation didn’t really take to marriage. It came back into fashion later. But they thought it was a thing of the past.

“That’s so weird! I just met him yesterday in a restaurant,” she laughs. “I’d never met him before. Did he say that? Well, I think he’s wrong. Maybe oddballs didn’t get married. Ha ha.”

Fame’s downside

She gives no suggestion of disappointment. Life seems to have galloped along in reasonably exciting fashion. Resident in New York for 20 years, she eventually travelled west and set up house in the maritime LA suburb of Pacific Palisades. So associated is she with New York – that’s her beside the Queensboro Bridge in the poster for Manhattan – that it requires an effort to remind oneself that she’s a California girl.

“I am trying to think of what the downsides are to fame,” she ponders. “Hmm? I am not a highly gifted social person. So, I keep to myself. I get up real early. I get up at five every morning and never stay up late. I think I have farmer genes. I wasn’t even a night person in New York. There are demons in the night. You know what I mean?”

Oh, I would never give anybody any advice in life. Never. Would you?

She’s not alone. In 1996 she adopted a daughter. Five years later she adopted a son. That seems like a brave decision to make in middle age.

“It was late. You can say that. I had broken up with somebody and I thought: that was my last go round. What are you going to do with your life? I wasn’t sure.”

So what advice would she have for anybody facing the same dilemmas?

“Oh, I would never give anybody any advice in life. Never. Would you?”

I don’t suppose I would.

Diane Keaton on the set of The Godfather. Photograph: Paramount Pictures
Diane Keaton on the set of The Godfather. Photograph: Paramount Pictures

FIVE KEY DIANE KEATON PERFORMANCES

THE GODFATHER (1972)

And the Godfather Part II, obviously. Keaton made the most of a thankless role: the WASP outsider who marries into a Mafia clan. She is rarely in the heart of the action, but her character is vital as a measure of the extent to which the Corleones are adopting white-bread American values.

ANNIE HALL (1977)

The partnership between Woody Allen and Diane Keaton delivered an enormous string of comic classics: Love and Death, Sleeper, Manhattan, Manhattan Murder Mystery. But this is the film that really engages with Keaton’s persona.

REDS (1981)

Though praised at the time and nominated for seven Oscars, Warren Beatty’s study of left-wing journalist John Reed now feels like an underrated film. Keaton was superb as fellow journalist Luise Bryant.

THE FIRST WIVES CLUB (1996)

The revenge comedy brought together Keaton, Bette Midler and Goldie Hawn for a comedy that offered fluid expression of an increasingly common female frustration. A huge hit, it later became a stage musical.

SOMETHING’S GOTTA GIVE (2003)

Nancy Meyers knows how to work a good cast. Her 2003 comedy cast Keaton as a playwright juggling the attentions of Jack Nicholson and (why not?) Keanu Reeves. Diane received her most recent Oscar nomination for the film.

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