Perhaps no living actress possesses more cinematic cool than Diane Keaton. From her iconic Oscar-winning turn as Woody Allen’s ditsy shikse conquest in “Annie Hall,” trilling “la-di-da” and inspiring an entire generation of women to don khaki trousers and men’s neckties, to playing a snooty journalist with a disdain for Ingmar Bergman in Allen’s “Manhattan,” to her role as an uptight playwright who captures the affection of perennial bachelor Jack Nicholson in Nancy Meyer’s “Something’s Gotta Give,” Keaton, who will be honored with an AFI Life Achievement Award on June 8 at Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre, is sharp-witted, self-deprecating, neurotic and insightful. In short, Keaton is the thinking person’s movie star.
“Part of the reason she’s so funny is because she’s unvain,” says Amanda Peet, who played Keaton’s daughter in “Something’s Gotta Give.” “I don’t think she was ever interested in being cool — even though, probably to her dismay, this made her the coolest. It’s hard to say which I admire the most: her fashion sense, or her acting.On top of everything else, she’s also kind.”
In her latest dramatic excursion Keaton played Sister Mary, nun and spiritual adviser to Jude Law’s Pope Pius XIII, in Paolo Sorrentino’s HBO series “The Young Pope.” The series mixed the serious with the surreal — Pius favors Cherry Coke and cigarettes and in an opening dream sequence, crawls out from underneath a pile of babies. Keaton, says Sorrentino, was the perfect actress to balance both the humorous with the heady. When you think about it, while Hollywood has certainly made a habit of making films and TV series about cheery, sing-songy nuns, few actresses aside from Keaton — Audrey Hepburn in “The Nun’s Story,” Jennifer Jones in “The Song of Bernadette,” Meryl Streep in “Doubt” — have successfully pulled off playing the part in any realistic fashion.
“Diane knows the secrets of comedy and I trusted her instinctive abilities,” Sorrentino says. “We’ve seen and loved Diane in recent years mainly in comedies. I thought it would be an unprecedented idea to reintroduce a less well-known aspect of Diane and one that goes further back in time: her ability to also be dramatic, serious and suffering.”
While Keaton made her big-screen debut in “Lovers and Other Strangers,” Cy Howard’s 1970 wedding comedy about a group of miserable relatives who gather for a family wedding, it was her role as Kay in Francis Ford Coppola’s Oscar-winning classic “The Godfather” that put the budding starlet on the acting map.
“I had seen Diane in ‘Lovers and Other Strangers’ and I thought she was beautiful as well as charming and very funny,” says Coppola. “Her role in ‘The Godfather’ was written as the ‘pretty, but predictable WASP girlfriend and wife,’ and I worried about it being too straight. I thought that by casting Diane it would bring her personality along with her and help liven up the character.”
As the long-suffering wife-turned-ex-wife of Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone in “The Godfather” trilogy, Keaton and Pacino shared several memorable scenes, the most painful and gut-wrenching of which takes place in “The Godfather: Part II.” Kay confronts Michael, announcing that she’s divorcing him and taking the kids with her and then, to Michael’s horror, reveals that she had an abortion. While you’re rooting for Kay to disentangle herself from the world of Mafia crime and violence, you’re terrified for her, understanding full well the impossible obstacles that stand in her way.
“Diane is a very resourceful actress, with her own unique way of preparing and getting herself into a state of emotion that is ready to burst into the moment,” says Coppola. “Al too has his own personal way of preparing — and so the two of them independently built the emotion within — which, of course, collided when they did the scene.”
Aside from Keaton’s performance, which is one of the most potent onscreen portrayals of Mafia marital trauma in cinematic history, there was also the matter of Keaton’s soft, porcelain-skinned features and sunny, California-girl beauty, which even Coppola admits could be distracting, if not downright nerve-wracking.
“I guess you could say that Diane’s presence while on the set is ‘peculiar,’” says Coppola. “She pretends to be intimidated by you and waves you off as though she can’t deal with you. I frankly thought she was so attractive that I couldn’t deal with her either.”
Decades later, Keaton remains a style icon and thespian hero — and inspiring role model, especially to women — who appreciate and admire and love Keaton as much for her acting genius as her determination to age gracefully and naturally in a business saturated with Botox injections and over-the-top plastic surgery.
To this day, one can’t don a floppy bolero and read books about “death and dying” and not think of Keaton’s Midwestern heroine Annie Hall.
Her 1970s cool is firmly intact.
“I love that she’s more interested in writing, art, and architecture than she is in doing all that stuff to her face,” says Peet. “Her face is still the face of Diane Keaton, thank God.”