Diane Keaton's Slant on Life

Regrets? She has a few. But at 61, Diane Keaton counts the joys: two young kids, three book projects, four new films (including the February release of "Because I Said So"), a slew of awards, and one great sunset after another.

by Margy Rochlin
Diane Keaton
Photograph: Photo by: Suzanne Tenner/Universal Pictures

Keaton the Renaissance Woman

It’s cocktail hour in the lounge of Shutters, an oceanfront hotel in Santa Monica, California, that’s ordinarily a model of gentility. But today, Shutters’ lobby has become the ad hoc headquarters for the American Film Market — the convenience-store equivalent of the Cannes Film Festival. B-movie producers from around the globe are in full hustle mode, looking for distributors. So preoccupied are they with The Deal, in fact, that they fail to notice Diane Keaton picking her way toward the hotel’s restaurant. It’s not as if she has come incognito either. From her attire alone, you can guess her identity: She wears a full-on Keaton uniform — a black beret jammed down to her eyebrows, tinted blue glasses, black fingerless gloves, a black turtleneck sweater, a fat black belt, black Marc Jacobs flats, a black flared skirt and…a pair of straight-legged blue jeans. ("It’s easier to throw a skirt over jeans than to have bare legs," she says later when asked about the genesis of this farm-girl touch. "And I like the way it looks.")

The aspiring film moguls at the hotel might do themselves a favor by heeding the showbiz veteran in their midst. Denim leggings included, Keaton, now 61, is a study in star charm, acting versatility, and professional longevity, the latter made all the more remarkable by the fact that she has forged a unique path in life and work. "If she had wanted to, she could have been as big a comic star as Lucille Ball, but she is so creative that she has got a dozen other interests that occupy her attention," is how filmmaker Woody Allen sums up his onetime flame via e-mail, perhaps referring to the fact that Keaton is the director of short films, rock videos, and feature movies; a photographer; an art book editor; an adoptive single mother of two — a girl, Dexter, 11, and a boy, Duke, 6; a model for L’Oreal anti-aging beauty products; and a tireless celebrity spokesperson for the Los Angeles Conservancy, an architectural-preservation organization. In her spare time, she has been known to restore sagging landmark residences, such as the Colonial Revival-style home in Bel-Air that she bought for a reported $6 million, returned to its vintage hacienda-style glory, then flipped for a reported $17.2 million.

But Academy Award geeks prefer to think of her less like a Renaissance woman and more like the only leading lady to be nominated for best actress in each of the past four decades. Conveniently, those particular performances seem like touchstones in an ideal career trajectory for a woman in the movies: the girlfriend whose quirks are funny and whose seriousness is heartbreaking (Annie Hall); the committed, brainy, passionate lover (Reds); the selfless caregiver (Marvin’s Room); and the smart, sexy older woman who gets to choose between two men, one younger and one age-appropriate (Something’s Gotta Give). Mandy Moore, who costars as the teen daughter to Keaton’s interfering mom in this month’s Because I Said So, a romantic comedy (with both Moore and Keaton having romances), says it’s hard not to take mental notes regarding on-set conduct when working with an actress with such an illustrious track record.

"It’s quintessential Diane to make everything seem off-the-cuff, sort of fun and spirited," Moore says. "She makes it look like she’s just coming up with it on the spot. But part of her process is putting in all this hard work. She’s on her game: She knows her lines, what she’s doing — she shows up on time. There’s no phoning it in."

Moore also recalls a moment during filming when Keaton picked up on her costar’s insecurity about a just-finished take, and suddenly the man calling the shots from behind the camera, director Michael Lehmann, had a collaborator.

"She said, ‘Hold on, hold on, hold on. Mandy? Do you want to go again?’" says Moore, who was then bestowed a crucial nugget of advice. "She was, like, ‘Never let them move on unless you’re ready. This is your work. You have to be 100 percent secure and happy with it.’" Yet on this late afternoon, when I remind Keaton of this incident and ask whether it is evidence of her rumored mentoring of younger creative women, she tries to dispel that notion with a pffft and a dismissive flap of her hand. "I have no interest in passing on any wisdom I don’t have," she says. "I just felt like maybe she wanted more takes and to go for it. It’s all right to ask."

Evolution of an Actress

It’s an evasive answer, but compared with the famously press-shy Keaton of yore, the woman now sitting in Shutters’ Pico One drinking green tea is a jabberer. My notes from a 1986 set visit to Bruce Beresford’s film adaptation of Crimes of the Heart, which starred Keaton, Jessica Lange, and Sissy Spacek as the loopy Magrath sisters, read "DK popular with townspeople … doesn’t want to talk to me …" and, later, "DK agrees to talk after shooting is finished." Then, months later, when I have finally managed to get her on the phone, she’s barely understandable: "Talking to me through a mouthful of sandwich." Be it midlife confidence or simply a better grasp of how to submit to interviews, today’s Keaton is a willing, if occasionally elusive, conversationalist, fixing you with her intelligent hazel eyes and offering answers filled with reflection. Her blunt assessment of why she never tied the knot? "When I was young, of course, I was terrified by the notion of being an old maid. But I don’t feel like my mother guided me toward marriage. She never hit the propaganda trail on that one," she says. Go to youtube.com and you’ll find that not one but two fans have reedited Something’s Gotta Give so that her fairy tale ending is by the side of a doting Keanu Reeves. But Keaton is matter-of-fact about her romantic life: She has forever closed the book on getting hitched. "I’m attracted to men, and I love playing around with them. But a life shared together? That’s a different world. I think you have to be somebody who can compromise and be realistic. I could never do it. Ever." Oh, and the men she dated — Woody Allen, Warren Beatty, Al Pacino — excelled at give-and-take? "I don’t blame myself for everything," she says with a little shrug. "But I wish I were more accommodating."

If Keaton’s mom, Dorothy Hall, neglected to plant Modern Bride aspirations in her eldest child’s head (Keaton has two sisters and a brother), she was Diane’s head cheerleader, wardrobe mistress, and all-around conspirator when it came to performing. Keaton, who assumed her mother’s maiden name when it turned out that the Actors’ Equity Association already had a Diane Hall, saw her every thespian step dutifully recorded in her mom’s diaries, books that Keaton occasionally still dips into when visiting Dorothy, who is 85 and lives in Newport Beach.

"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."

Life Offscreen

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.

"We have an odd life anyway," she says. "I’m a single parent. I’m sure there are awkward things for them about the experience of having a mother who is an actress. I think they are aware that people treat me differently, but they’re not wildly curious." Keaton’s thoughts suddenly turn to the mystery of what captures a child’s attention. "Somebody once said to me, ‘You’d be surprised by how many kids who are adopted have no real interest in discovering who their birth parents are. Life is about living and not about "Oh, gee. Let me go back."’ That’s fascinating, because you think, ‘Wouldn’t you be curious?’ I was told that by age 6 my kids were going to say to me, ‘Well, you’re not my real mother.’ Maybe that’ll come at some point, but it hasn’t happened."

At some level it’s all creative grist, especially judging by the titles of her four upcoming films (Because I Said So, Mama’s Boy, Smother, and Da Vinci’s Mother). The aftermath of her Golden Globe Award-winning star turn in 2003’s Something’s Gotta Give has been a long run of mom parts; still, it’s impressive — considering youth-obsessed Hollywood — that the two-and-a-half-minute trailer for Because I Said So is cut to highlight Keaton rather than the ebullient 22-year-old Moore. "Being an actress is an interesting adventure because it has been up and down," Keaton says. "Sometimes I’m marginalized; sometimes you can’t avoid me." When Keaton is truly charged up about a part, she is like an extra power source, says writer-director Callie Khouri (Thelma & Louise, The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood), who will direct Keaton as one of a trio of women thieves in the heist film Mad Money, which, Khouri has just learned, is scheduled to start shooting in March.

"Diane was enthusiastic about this movie from the start, asking, ‘What do I have to do? Who can I call?’" Khouri says. In Mad Money, Keaton will star as a federal treasury janitor who comes up with a scheme to liberate disused cash from her employer. When I tell Keaton that Khouri just found out Mad Money now has a start date, it seems as if a fifth Keaton gear shifts into place. "This is news to me. Oh, I’m excited! I like that project," she says.

Admiring the View

The sun is setting now, and Keaton can’t stop commenting on the view of the gray Pacific Ocean framed by the restaurant windows. "Look at it!" she exclaims, repeatedly pointing a finger at a horizon line so flat, it looks etched in the sky by a pencil. "Look at it! I don’t understand anything that could be so beautiful. It’s just too much." However, if an innocent snapshot of this panoramic seascape were to appear in one of the wonderfully eccentric coffee-table books Keaton edits, she would, no doubt, juxtapose it with other images in such a way as to render it laughably weird, ominously desolate, or inexplicably unsettling.

What Keaton loves to do as a maker of books is root through flea markets and eBay, organize her oddball treasures by category (clown paintings, newspaper crime-scene photos) and turn them into bound works of art. The thrill she gets from these endeavors is so rewarding that if she could figure out how to make them a source of steady income, she’d publish books full time. "For me, it’s about finding something that interests me visually and bringing it into the light of day," she says.

She uses the basement of her rented Pacific Palisades home as a storage area for years’ worth of collectibles. There, she’s now editing a trio of photography books. The most conventional one focuses on Spanish Colonial architecture, while another — Scrapped — reflects on people’s odd cut-and-paste obsessions, using pages selected from Keaton’s storehouse of vintage scrapbooks. The third in the photography trilogy spotlights the oeuvre of an obscure commercial photographer from Texas named Bill Woods Jr. "His work really pictures the culture, the community, and what every event was like in Fort Worth during the 1950s and 1960s," she says, her resonant voice rising with excitement. "It’s astonishing to see. You really have to see it. You will not believe it."

Back when Keaton was a young girl, her piano teacher gave her a small button that offered three words of guidance that she still believes in to this day: Make work play. "It really does make life different if you love your work," she says, adding that, in her mind, the piano teacher’s advice extends to everything, from hobbies to love. "Zoned out" is how Keaton describes how she lived her life during her 20s and 30s. What she loves about 61 is that everything is in sharper focus. "I feel much more alive. When you’re younger, you have a tendency to be relieved by fantasies. But now the drama of real life comes charging in."

It’s almost six p.m. "I have to pick up The Dex at swim team practice," Keaton says. Sitting on a bench in front of Shutters, waiting for the valet to bring her black Mercedes SUV, she shares a dream she has about one day moving to the saguaro-cactus-dotted foothills of Tucson. "We’d have some land…" she says, her sentence trailing off as she stretches out her legs and visibly cozies up to the idea.

In April, the Film Society at Lincoln Center will honor Keaton for her contributions as an "actor, producer, director, photographer, and style icon" at its annual black-tie gala. Keaton admits she’s flattered by the tribute, but it also seems to be, like her whole substantially splendid life right now, something that she just can’t wrap her head around. "It’s, like, uh, gee, recognition. Oh, god. How is this possible? It’s a surreal experience. I sort of feel like it’s not mine," she says, smiling but looking a bit puzzled. "I’m thrilled. But I don’t know exactly how it happened."


Originally published in MORE magazine, February 2007.

First Published Mon, 2009-04-06 18:05

Find this story at: