AARP Eye Center
Diane Keaton is perplexed by my question. Not many aspiring actresses become Hollywood leading ladies, and not many leading ladies have careers that span more than 50 years, that garner four Oscar nominations (including one win) or that link them to some of the most iconic directors and costars in cinema history. But when I ask Keaton for the secret to her success and longevity in the business, she seems stumped. Does she understand why directors and audiences have been so taken with her all this time?
A long silence. Then, “I understand my great good fortune. That’s what I understand,” says Keaton, 77, by phone from her home in Los Angeles. “There was an aspect to me that was, I think, a little more, I don’t know …” She hunts for words to explain the tragicomic, off-kilter appeal of so much of her work. “I wasn’t what you’d call ‘a real actress.’ I was more, well, not quite there. It just wasn’t me. Shoot, the whole thing is so strange to even think back on.”
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That “whole thing” includes roles as Kay Corleone in the Godfather films; as the endearing, self-deprecating heroine of Annie Hall; as a journalist in Reds; and as a hard-charging single mom in Baby Boom. Keaton’s pantheon of leading men has featured Woody Allen, Warren Beatty, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Jack Nicholson, Morgan Freeman, Mel Gibson, Michael Douglas, Sam Shepard, Richard Gere — let’s keep going — even Steve Martin and Keanu Reeves. Keaton also plays well with women, like Bette Midler and Goldie Hawn, her costars in the surprise 1996 smash hit The First Wives Club.
And she is still in demand. In director Bill Holderman’s Book Club: The Next Chapter, Keaton and costars Jane Fonda, Mary Steenburgen and Candice Bergen reprise their roles from the 2018 film to cavort through Italy, flirting with locals and draining bottles of prosecco.
Keaton has now added a new line to her résumé: Instagram star. Her account has been called “a national treasure” by the digerati at Mashable, “a wholesome hub of never-before-seen throwbacks, hilarious jokes, nods to impressive art and architecture, thoughtful birthday wishes to fellow celebs, and quality Crush Content.”
And we’ve discovered something. By talking to Keaton about her very public Instagram account — she has some 2.3 million followers — we got a better understanding of what’s behind the quirky allure that has fostered one of Hollywood’s greatest careers, an allure Keaton herself can’t quite explain.
The oldest of four children, Keaton spent her earliest years in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Highland Park, where her family lived in a corrugated metal Quonset hut. Once, seeing a similar building on the outskirts of Tucson, Keaton posted a photo to Instagram and wrote, “It made me miss my mom and dad.” Her father was John Hall, a civil engineer and real estate broker, and her mother, the former Dorothy Keaton, was a homemaker. (Keaton uses her mother’s maiden name because there was already an actress named Diane Hall.)
Dorothy, who was an amateur photographer, collagist, potter and diarist, yearned for recognition — a yearning that inspired Keaton’s own professional aspirations.
“When I was a young girl, about 6, I watched my mother get crowned Mrs. Highland Park,” Keaton recalls. “I remember going, ‘Oh my God, I want that too. I want to go up there on the stage where it’s all lit up.’ ” Dorothy went on to win the Mrs. Los Angeles title, but a family move to Santa Ana, south of Los Angeles, curtailed her broader ambitions. “That was the end of it,” Keaton recalls. “Life changes.”
That Dorothy couldn’t realize her dreams fueled her daughter’s drive. “I saw what my mother went through,” she says. At 19, Keaton moved to New York to study acting. “I wanted to be famous,” she told AARP in 2015. “I wanted to be a movie star.”
It didn’t take long.
Keaton worked with famed acting coach Sandy Meisner before making her Broadway debut in the original cast of Hair — in which she notably refused to disrobe — in 1968. She next teamed up with Woody Allen on the stage and film versions of Play It Again, Sam. Then, long before Allen’s film came out, Keaton auditioned for The Godfather.
The Mario Puzo novel had spent 67 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list following its publication in 1969, but somehow Keaton had missed it. “I didn’t even know what The Godfather was,” she recalls. “Someone said to me, ‘You’ve got to go and audition for things,’ so I auditioned for the film, and I got the role of Kay Corleone,” wife of a mafia scion. In an Instagram video marking the 50th anniversary of the film last year, Keaton narrated clips from her audition with costar Al Pacino, sounding incredulous that she, a comic actress, had been cast in the dramatic role: “That was the strangest thing to ever happen to me in my whole life.”
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