A conversation with Diane Keaton by Will McCrabb
The following is a breeze of a conversation conducted over the phone on an overcast day.
When we’re children the power of movies, of fantasy is everything. Do you remember the first time that power overtook you?
Sure. When I was young it was the “image” or “the presentation,” do you know? Image was so important, the fantasy. I remember this actress named Gale Storm and she was on the TV show called My Little Margie and I just idolized her. Then one day years later I met her! I met Gale Storm and it was the strangest thing. Her son and I studied acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse and Phil took me home to California to meet his mother, Gale Storm. And it was the strangest thing, she must’ve been fifty years old, I think? Yeah, let’s go with that. She was fifty and she would wake-up at noon! This was unheard of to me. I mean it was just so scary, because my mother Dorothy, your aunt would wake at six in the morning. So this was a whole Sunset Boulevard kind of deal. But you see it was this fantasy that I projected on these idols and these are powerful influences when you wanna get into that same business. But yeah, it’s so strange to meet celebrities and to realize that they’re just people. Then came the image deal. Do you know I wanted to be Debbie Reynolds and Doris Day? But to be honest I really wanted to be Doris Day more. You see, because I was cute and I didn’t want to be cute! I wanted to be beautiful, not taking anything away from Debbie, but she was cute and I think Doris Day was beautiful. You see it’s this image thing. You form these ridiculous ideas that stay with you your whole life and they are powerful! These images are powerful! So these were some of the people I wanted to be like, because you know, I had no choice. I knew this was what I had to do. No question.
Acting? You always knew that you wanted to be an actress or a performer?
Right! Well, I wouldn’t say acting. I just wanted to be up in front of people in someway. Singing was the first thing. Music. I mean, when you think about it music is first with me. It fills the emptiness of the soul, God, music is the ultimate revelation. I mean music is by far the greatest of all the arts to just place you into a moment and that’s thrilling. So singing was always first and that’s how it started.
Do you play an instrument?
No. But, as you know, Mom played the piano and she always played at the holidays, you know, Christmas carols. I was always moderately disappointed in Mom because she could never play in the key I wanted. I mean I wanted to sing Al Jolson and you know that was kind of a pathetic disaster.
Dorothy was a huge part of your creative development.
Dorothy was the greatest partner I’ve ever had in my life. I wanted it so much (to be an actress) and she was willing to give so much. That’s the thing about Dorothy, she was just a great, great partner and she couldn’t have been better. You know I had a lot of ambition right from the get go, I guess. I’m not sure if it was being the first and seeing the others coming along (Diane is the oldest of four children) that made me more competitive for attention, I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not. But yeah, it taught me to work.
There has been a great deal of talk in the industry of late about the inequality of Women in film, by virtue of pay, ageism and the lack of good roles. How do you see this?
I really don’t see it that way. I don’t. I can’t stand people complaining about things. I mean, everyone has to fight hard to get whatever they get in any industry, not just films. Also you know you talk to people who say, “oh the movies in the ‘70s were so much better than today,” um, yeah, I don’t think so, dude. We are here living in the now and “the now” is offering things you couldn’t possibly imagine back in the days of old. You’re going to like what you like but you have to be here in the moment and not thinking the past was better than the present. Because I don’t think the past was better.
In what regard?
In regards towards women fighting for their rights in the film industry. You know, that’s just not how I see it. We have more opportunities today than ever! I just can’t think about it in a generalized way, but I think about it in a specific way. Like of course it’s not really fair that some do better than others when they don’t really have anymore talent than others, and I’m sure that includes me totally! I feel I partially got lucky and I was talented enough to do the best I could with what I have and that part of my life was a success. Life is tough for a lot of people in a lot of industries and the thing about movies or any type of celebrity deal is that it’s a romantic situation, you know. People romanticize it a lot so it gets more attention, but I don’t think it’s any different than any other industry.
So Dorothy Hall, was she your main mentor growing up?
She was number one. There is no one else. And she was a woman that wanted more from her own life but perhaps didn’t get it. In terms of her own artistic desires she was a writer documenting her life in all those journals and she was a photographer. So she was the greatest person I’ve ever known. But there were others that are shadows that creep up in memory as I get older, like a piano teacher I had as a child, and you know I was just dreadful at piano and she was really old and she retired and this made me sad. But do you know when she retired she gave me this button to wear that read, “make work PLAY.” As a child I didn’t get it. Why is she giving me this? What am I supposed to do with this? Only as I grew and became an actress did I get it. MAKE WORK PLAY. Wow man! That concept really sticks with me to this day. That’s my job, to make work play. But sometimes a mentor in life can come in the form of negativity, or let’s say self perceived negativity. I grew-up in Orange County and there was this guy called Kenny Aiken and he would put on these shows in Orange County, these musicals and, man, that’s all I wanted to do, to be cast in one of his annual musicals, you know Babes in Toyland or something like that. But this Kenny Aiken never cast me in anything! So I asked mom why and she had no answers. So I went to Kenny Aiken and asked him, “Why don’t you ever cast me?” I remember this was a real defining moment in my life when he said, “do you know what the best thing you could do for yourself is? To go to this school for modeling to learn how to walk, talk and hold yourself like a proper woman.” You see, I’ve never been graceful or skilled and I’ve never been easy to train. So what this guy said really crushed me. But I went back to Mom and the first thing Dorothy did was sign me up for this model school. I lasted two days then quit. I hated it, flat out did not get it. I mean, come on, get real! But here’s the deal, Will, I believe that because of this Kenny Aiken guy I learned the ability to fight back and just say, well your idea of who I’m supposed to be isn’t working out for me, and to take the losses and keep going, and this was something that meant a lot. Because I had a lot of set backs starting out. I faced rejection with blind determination and I didn’t stop. I kept going back and if I couldn’t get the lead part I would get any part. I could never stop moving forward. I suffered early on from the losses but I learned how to fight. I kept trudging ahead. In a way it made me stronger because I found my own version of what attractive was and I wasn’t going to do it their way. So it’s like some of these people in your life that you think are crushing your spirit are really in the end fortifying you for the longer battle in defining your character and how you approach who you are.
Did it take awhile to recognize the transformation?
Oh no, I never realized it at the time as being helpful. But my response was to just keep going. At the time it hurt like the worst thing ever and it really felt disastrous. It’s only in retrospect that I recognized that these people were significant in shaping my character.
As we get more linear we see that sometimes no transforms into yes.
That’s right, sometimes no is yes. Well, until it isn’t. Sometimes it’s just NO. But if you have the strength to keep going you’ll find someone that believes in you. We all need people to believe in us.
Woody believed in you.
Woody did. Yep he did, that’s true.
Did he tell you what he was doing with Annie Hall, or did he just give you a script?
He told me that he had an idea he was working on, then he gave me the script.
Did you know from the page what it was?
Yes. I knew it was good. I don’t think I knew that it was going to change my life completely, but I knew it was one of the great opportunities. A great role in a great film.
There seems to be a transformation in your acting at that point in your career that mirrors Woody’s transformation as a director. You know, going from just straight comedies to doing something that has serious elements in it. I mean, after all, it’s about falling in love and then falling out of love.
Yeah, okay, well that’s your perception. I’m not going to try and project what Woody was doing with that film. I learned so much from Woody. He’s a genius. Here’s a guy from Brooklyn who began writing jokes at age sixteen who went on to become a major figure in the world of cinema. He’s an artist and I’m very conservative with that word. But since he started making films he’s made a film a year on his own terms. He’s had complete control over every film he has ever made. This is unprecedented. I think he’s the only one to do this. The thing I will say about Woody is that he gets the whole thing about not overdirecting. Overdirecting destroys the soul of the actor, at least in my opinion it does. I hate to rehearse, I can’t hit marks, and I can’t repeat a scene the same way twice. God, I would have never made it in the Golden Age of Hollywood. I’m not good at craft and multiple takes, it’s just not a good feeling.
So Hitchcock and Kubrick wouldn’t have been a good fit.
Oh God no! But I loved watching their films. I love Kubrick, I just would never have wanted to work with him.
The Godfather, where do those memories go?
Well, the two memories I have of that film are I had to wear the worst wig ever created by man and Marlon Brando would always drop his pants and moon me. Well, not just me, the cast and the crew.
Did you know you were the first person cast that Paramount approved of?
Before Brando or Pacino.
I did know that. Because I was the one that had a hand in casting Al Pacino. Francis asked me of all the men who auditioned which one I would like to play Michael and I said hands down it has to be Al, I mean look at his eyes! He expressed so much with his eyes.
Alan Parker (who directed Keaton in Shoot The Moon) said you have one of the greatest “bullshit detectors” he’s ever witnessed.
There’s a scene in Shoot The Moon that I call “the bathtub scene.” I’ve studied this scene for years just to figure out how you did it. So how did you do it?
For those of you who have not seen the film, Diane’s character is recently divorced from her husband played by Albert Finney and she is the mother of three kids who finds herself home alone for the first time in her adult life soaking in a tub smoking the remnants of a joint quietly singing, If I Fell by The Beatles. The camera slowly moves-in as her singing fades into a heartbroken isolated whimper.
Well, usually I like to get jacked up before I act. I mean, I really get pumped to play a part. But for this I was calm because I was supposed to be smoking pot and it was comfortable sitting in the tub and I had the opportunity to sing this beautiful song so it really worked out well.
That scene is a master class in acting. I know that sounds pretentious as all hell, but that’s my truth and I’m sticking with it.
I’ll take it.
Diane, I think we did pretty well here.
Yeah? Okay, alright, well…bye.
I wanted to give the final word of this piece to Diane’s mother Dorothy Keaton Hall. What follows is an excerpt from her journal dated, March 27th, 1977 having just come out of a screening of Annie Hall.
ANNIE HALL. I only saw Diane, her mannerisms, expressions, dress, hair, ect., the total her. The story took second place. When she sang, “It Had to Be You” in a room full of talk and confusion I fought back tears. But the song “Seems Like Old Times” was the hard one to take; so tender. I was exploding inside. I tried to hold it all back. She looked beautiful. Gordon Willis did a great job on the photography. Annie Hall is a love story that ended in separation, just like real life. The audience loved it though. They were clapping and laughing the whole way through. This will be a very popular movie.
With grateful thanks to Will McCrabb for these stunning photos.
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