"She kept journals for 35, 40 years," Keaton says. "With my mother and me, it was all about sharing the dream. She documented everything. Like the first time I was onstage, I was in a Sunday school play and got so scared I said my line wrong. I burst into tears and ran off the stage. This ongoing humiliation, instead of putting an end to my lame-o dream, just fortified my need. Lots and lots of pain did not stop me. It motivated me." And that motivation carried her from a tract home community in Orange County, California, to Sanford Meisner’s Neighborhood Playhouse acting studio, in New York City, and to her comparatively chaste Broadway appearance in Hair (she was the only actor who kept her clothes on) and to a 1970 screen debut in Lovers and Other Strangers. In the first chapter of her career, Keaton carved out a niche playing the baggy-pants gentile sidekick to then-boyfriend Woody Allen’s hand-wringing Jewish nebbish; she followed that with a second chapter as muse to then-boyfriend Warren Beatty. Keaton and Beatty’s 1981 historical epic Reds was recently feted on its 25th anniversary at the New York Film Festival. But it was a year after Reds, with her performance as a freshly separated housewife in Alan Parker’s marital drama Shoot the Moon, that pundits pinpoint as the moment when Keaton’s craft and the roiling emotions she had been accumulating for years truly collided. "Before, she had played distraught for mostly comic effect in Woody Allen movies or more seriously in the Godfather films," says Christian Science Monitor film critic Peter Rainer. "But she seemed to fill out this role with lived-in emotions. I think that happens with some of the best performers: They have to get up to speed, and then you have to look at them in a different light. It was like looking at an oil portrait, whereas before you were looking at a cartoon."
Shoot the Moon also documented for the first time Keaton’s instinctive way with child actors. She knew exactly how to give rich emotional life to the part of a loving but depressed mother with four squealing daughters. At the time, Keaton was 36 and had, as she puts it, "no relationships with kids at that point in my life. None. Zero." It was 14 years later, at age 50, that she decided to adopt Dexter and then Duke. ("They’re not named after anyone," Keaton says. "Obviously, though, I like D‘s.") In the past, she’s cited everything from the death of her father, Jack Hall, when she was in her mid-40s, to her close relationships with house pets as the spark that emboldened her to make such a significant life change at age 50. Today, she says she’s not so sure what compelled her: "Listen, I don’t really know how decisions get made. Finally, you’re up against a wall. You have to make a decision." Later she adds, "I do feel now that the love of my children is all-encompassing."
For the past decade or so, Keaton’s agents have come to understand that she prefers not to travel far to shoot a movie. ("If I have to, I will," she says. "But it just disrupts whatever routine or stability we have.") Though her kids have been known to drop by Mommy’s work for a visit, neither is an on-set fixture. They attend a racially and economically diverse lab school/teacher training center connected to the graduate school of education at the University of California at Los Angeles. "It’s sort of an enclave, an island unto itself in the middle of this world in Los Angeles," Keaton says. "It’s a sweet start." And maybe in a school with such a strong sense of its particular pedagogical mission, her children themselves will be the main focus and less so their mother’s mile-long filmography, something that might have been seized upon at other blue-chip L.A. private schools.