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The Curious Mind and Singular Success of Diane Keaton

How the star of stage, screen — and, now, social media — has remained an icon for more than 50 years

spinner image Diane Keaton photographed in her home office in February 2023
Diane Keaton in her home office.

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.

spinner image Diane Keaton looking sharp in white hat and turtleneck, black blazer, and white dress slacks

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.

spinner image Keaton in her home office under a large picture that says 1948

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.

spinner image Diane Keaton in black and white outfit including her signature hat

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.”

spinner image Diane Keaton at home - a kitchen entryway with her hats and cutting boards
A kitchen entryway with Diane Keaton's hats and cutting boards.

In the spring of 1972, Play It Again, Sam and The Godfather were released six weeks apart. “After that, things were different,” Keaton admits. She was on her way.

Her Oscar for Annie Hall followed six years later, when her affinity for oversize menswear and floppy hats sparked a trend. That film was followed by decades of comedies and a few dramatic roles, including Reds and Marvin’s Room, both of which earned her best actress Oscar nods. (Her fourth nomination was for writer-director Nancy Meyers’ Something’s Gotta Give.)

Last August, Keaton stuck her hands in wet cement as part of a ceremony to place her handprints and footprints at the TCL Chinese Theatre. Choking up during her speech, she dedicated the moment to her parents.

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On Valentine’s Day this year, Keaton posted a montage of some of her steamiest make-out scenes, dedicated to “all the men who were paid to kiss me.” (Responded Meyers: “Hilarious but as someone who was around for a few of those — those guys always wanted one more take.”)

The actress has had several high-profile romances in her life, including with Woody Allen, Warren Beatty and Al Pacino, but she has never married. Today, she declares, she is happy on the shelf.

“I don’t date,” she says. “Highly unlikely. I don’t remember anyone calling me, going, ‘This is So-and-So. I’d like to take you out.’ They don’t happen. Of course not.”

spinner image Diane Keaton at home with her golden retriever dog

But Keaton didn’t allow the lack of a partner to keep her from having a family. At age 50, she adopted daughter Dexter, now 27. Son Duke, 22, arrived five years later. “They’re great,” she says simply. “They’re doing good.” Over the past few years, though, as her nest has emptied — Dexter got married and Duke got his own place — Keaton’s golden retriever, Reggie, has become her day-to-day companion.

“A friend of mine gave her to me,” says Keaton. “I didn’t even ask for her. He came to me and said, ‘I think you need this dog.’ I was like, ‘OK, I guess?’ Of course, now I just love her. Dogs are irresistible. They’re just idiots. Reggie is a big jerk, and she’s a great jerk, and she’s hilarious.”

On Instagram, Reggie can be seen greedily soaking in Keaton’s attention while the actress, looking into the dog’s eyes, croons “How Deep Is the Ocean?” Keaton captioned the post, “Don’t forget to sing to your dogs!”

One of Keaton’s main inanimate passions is photography. Her time in Italy during last year’s shoot for the Book Club sequel “was one of the best experiences ever for me on a movie,” she says. “My entire trip was really about all of the things I saw and took pictures of. You walk around the streets and don’t know what you’re going to come across — that’s how rich it is.” On Instagram, Keaton posted a montage of door and window photos she’d snapped in Italy, calling doors “my new obsession.” Her friend Allison Kaye, a manager, commented: “Obsessed with you.” Replied Keaton: “❤️❤️❤️”

spinner image a few pairs of Keaton's boots in front of a framed photograph by Ruven Afanador
Diane Keaton’s boots in front of a framed photograph by Ruven Afanador.

The actress has published three memoirs in all: Then Again, a remembrance of her mother, in 2011; Let’s Just Say It Wasn’t Pretty, on the culture of beauty and Keaton’s iconic style, in 2014; and the intimate and heartbreaking Brother & Sister, the story of her brother, Randy, and his battle with mental illness and alcoholism, in 2020.

“He passed relatively recently — it’s been a couple of years,” Keaton says, with a catch in her voice. A poet and artist, Randy “had a hard time with the world at large and just in life,” she says. “He was so delicate in some ways, so sensitive. He was a real artist at heart.”

After Randy’s death, Keaton shared some of his collages with her followers in an Instagram video. “I love this one,” she says of a bold, abstract work in tones of red, cream and blue. “What is it about? I’ll never know. I’ll never understand.”

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spinner image Diane Keaton photographed by AARP at home in Los Angeles on February 10, 2023
Diane Keaton photographed by AARP at home in Los Angeles.

Keaton has a small team that helps her put together her Instagram videos and posts. “I need the help, and I cherish it,” she says. “It’s like making little movies, in a way. It’s collaborative.”

Not too long ago, she posted a video that one of her helpers had shot of Keaton doing a goofy dance outdoors to the Miley Cyrus song “Flowers.” “Your incredible song gave me a reason to dance in my own backyard!” Keaton wrote, tagging Cyrus. The post received nearly 1 million likes, including from admirers Lindsay Lohan, Ellen Pompeo, Alicia Keys, Kerry Washington and Roma Downey.

“It was just one of those days when I thought, I’m going to do something stupid,” she says of the viral post. “The music was on, I was outdoors and thought, What the heck. It happened out of nothing.”

Maybe that’s the answer to my earlier question: What is Diane Keaton’s eccentric appeal, the reason she has stayed for so many years on Americans’ screens and in their hearts? It could just be that she lives life on her own idiosyncratic terms — and encourages the rest of us to try it too.

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