Turn up to an appointment with Diane Keaton hoping to meet Annie Hall and, by and large, you won’t be disappointed.
It’s no secret Woody Allen based the subject of his critically adored 1977 romantic comedy on Keaton, his then girlfriend – even down to the name (she was born Diane Hall). And, 40 years on from her Oscar-winning performance in the title role, Keaton retains much of the same kooky, slightly awkward, self-deprecating charm. She even talks like Annie, communicating in what CNN once described as ‘endearing little whirlwinds of semi-logic’.
Take this reply, for example, when Weekend asks if, at 71, she’s any closer to figuring out the mysteries of life: ‘No, no. The older you get, the more astonishing and incomprehensible it becomes. I don’t even question it. I just don’t understand it. I’m like, “Oooh, that’s a leaf”. Wow.’ This causes her to burst out laughing. ‘It’s really insane.’
Indeed. But how much of this ditzy, mildly chaotic image is the real Keaton? Surely there’s a glint of steel in there? After all, you can’t become a successful director, producer and writer – not to mention acting in more than 50 films that have, collectively, taken more than a billion dollars at the US box office – without being a sharp, shrewd operator.
‘I’m more frantic than chaotic,’ she says. ‘I still need a lot of help with things. But I guess the truth is I’m ambitious – I’m really ambitious.’
Today, Keaton, dressed in one of her idiosyncratic, distinctly un-Hollywood ensembles of suit jacket, ripped jeans and military boots, is in London to talk about her new film, Hampstead. Inspired by a true story, it traces the unlikely friendship between Emily Walters, an American widow, and Donald Horner (Brendan Gleeson), an Irishman whose years of splendid isolation living in a ramshackle hut on the edge of Hampstead Heath are now under threat from rapacious property developers.
As well as being a love letter to one of London’s most hallowed green spaces (which was new to Keaton – ‘I’d never even heard of Hampstead,’ she admits), Joel Hopkins’ charming film is a romantic comedy, of sorts – though Keaton isn’t convinced about the label.
‘Is it really a romance?’ she ponders. ‘I don’t think it’s a classic love story. To me, it’s about a person coming into their own, and realising who they are. It’s about what to expect out of life, and asking: what do you want from yourself?’
While Emily starts out as something of a lost soul, claiming ‘I have nothing of value to offer anyone’, Keaton – perhaps ironically for someone with a reputation for being so scattershot – has always had a clear sense of purpose, and knew from a young age what she wanted from herself.
‘Something in me, very early, wanted to perform,’ she says. ‘I didn’t know what performance was, but that’s what I wanted. I wanted to do things in front of people, where they paid attention to me. How pathetic!’
And pay attention they did. From her breakthrough role as Kay, reluctant wife to Al Pacino’s mob boss in The Godfather, through her various collaborations with Allen and her later success in Father of the Bride and The First Wives Club, she remains the only actress to have been nominated for an Academy Award in the 1970s (Annie Hall), 80s (Reds), 90s (Marvin’s Room) and 2000s (Something’s Gotta Give).
‘It didn’t go bad,’ she concedes, with typical understatement. ‘I really got lucky. I got lucky with my mom. My dad, too, but my mother was the foundation for everything, in terms of performing.’
Keaton was one of four children born to Jack Hall, a California real estate broker and civil engineer, and his wife Dorothy, a ‘beautiful and charming’ housewife who once took the crown in the Mrs Los Angeles Pageant for Homemakers. She thinks her mother, a talented amateur photographer, was probably frustrated at being unable to fulfill her creative potential, and that her parents must have had ‘complicated feelings’ when their daughter headed east and found success as an actor in New York.
‘What was it really like for them? I don’t really know,’ she says. ‘They were happy for me, but I don’t think it’s the greatest thing for families, necessarily, when one person gets a lot of breaks in life over others.’
Though she’d already made her name in The Godfather, Keaton insists that, if she hadn’t met Woody Allen, her career would have amounted to ‘nothing.’ How did she feel when he wrote Annie Hall for her? Flattered? Daunted?
‘Are you kidding?’ she says. ‘I read the script and I thought it was great. What am I going to tell you? I mean, really. He was the one who didn’t have confidence, because he’d never written a script like that. He’d written Sleeper and Love and Death, which are really funny movies, but this had more depth to it. It was a kind of love story about a love that didn’t work.’
Today, Keaton and Allen still talk often on the phone, and she stood by him during accusations – never proven – of sexual abuse, insisting simply: ‘I believe my friend.’
After Allen, Keaton had serious relationships with her Reds co-star Warren Beatty, and then Al Pacino. But she is currently single and, unlike many of her most recent roles – in Something’s Gotta Give (opposite Jack Nicholson), And So it Goes (with Michael Douglas) and, indeed, Hampstead – is not on the lookout for what movie marketeers like to call ‘autumnal love’. She's happy in her own company, then?
‘I don’t know if happy is the word,’ she says, thoughtfully. ‘I’m okay with the way things are right now. But you never know.’
Maybe you just haven’t met the right man living rough in a shack in the woods?
‘Yeah, she smiles. ‘I think that must be it.’
She is a mother, though, having adopted a baby daughter, Dexter, at the age of 50, and a son, Duke, five years later. She’s done a pretty good job so far, she reckons, but adds: ‘I do think it would be good to be younger. Nature kind of made it that way.’
Between jobs, Keaton has a profitable sideline as a property developer (not the evil sort she’s fighting in Hampstead, she stresses; she specialises in renovating old buildings, including a ‘beautiful, beautiful Spanish colonial’ home that she sold to Madonna). But she remains in thrall to the art of acting and, specifically, ‘the live experience of being with someone else’.
‘For me, it’s always been about the actor or the actress I’m acting with,’ she says. ‘Reading behaviour means you’re interested in the person that’s with you. It doesn’t mean you’re a great actor, it just means that’s what’s coming from you is a spontaneous interpretation. And I think that applies in life, not just in acting. If you’re not paying attention to the person you’re with, then what are you getting out of it?’
Looking back on her 71 years so far, Keaton rejects the modish notion of 'the journey'. ‘I sort of feel that we are what we are, and things probably don’t change that much,’ she says. ‘To me, it’s about, “how do we adapt, and make the best of it, and feel good about ourselves in the end?”. I don’t really see myself as much different [to my younger self], except that I’ve had a lot more wonderful experiences. I mean, generally, it’s been really wonderful. And relatively harmless.’
Published in Waitrose Weekend, June 22, 2017
(c) Waitrose Weekend