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Our Lady of Perpetual Fluster: An Ode to Diane Keaton

‘Book Club,’ one of her best and most fun movies in years, is a reminder of all that’s great and complicated about Keaton as a performer and hero

Diane Keaton in front of a scene from ‘Book Club’ Paramount/Ringer illustration

Nearly seven years ago, I went with two of my best friends to a book signing for Diane Keaton’s memoir Then Again. I am not sure there’s an official name for Diane Keaton superfans—Di-Hards? Keat-Freaks?—but that is what we were then, and in some ways that are more complicated than they were seven years ago, it is what we remain.

Throughout my late teens and early 20s, as I bumbled my way through new friendships and ill-fated romantic encounters, Annie Hall was my cinematic hero. I so often felt tongue-tied and clumsy in early adulthood, but Keaton’s portrayal of Annie gave me hope that there could be not only a charm, but maybe even a kind of grace in female awkwardness. Maybe there was a kind of power in not quite fitting inside a box. My friend and fellow Di-Hard James drove up from North Carolina to D.C. just for that book signing; during the Q&A, when he stood up and asked if the rumors about a possible First Wives Club sequel were true, he burst into tears mid-question, to the raucous applause of a bunch of late-middle-age women in grey and beige Eileen Fisher. La-di-da, what a night it was.

When we finally got up to the table where Keaton would sign our books, having a brief 20 seconds to stand before her felt like getting the chance to ask God one question—what pressure. James breathlessly informed her that they shared a birthday. My friend Mia asked Keaton about her nails, matte silver polish with houndstooth decals (“Sally Hansen!” Diane Keaton informed her, as if she herself couldn’t believe it. “Try it!”). My brief encounter with the patron saint of lovable fluster involved a mix-up she’d made when inscribing my book: “TO LINDSAY! HAPPY BIRTHDAY!” it reads, even though it wasn’t my birthday. When Keaton realized her mistake, she was as self-deprecatingly apologetic as one of her characters. “Oh, it’s no problem!” I told her. “My birthday’s only about a month away!”

“She’s absolutely everything you imagine,” we gushed to our friends for weeks afterwards.

When the girl then known as Diane Hall was in 10th grade, she saw Splendor in the Grass at the Broadway Theater in Santa Ana. “I’d never seen anything like Warren Beatty,” she writes in Then Again. “By thing, I mean he wasn’t real. He was to die for.” She was so affected by this tale of tragic romance between two beautiful young people that she wrote the director, Elia Kazan, a letter asking why the ending had to be so sad. He never wrote her back.

She was also transfixed by Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird: “His unassuming, quiet approach to solving the moral dilemmas of life inspired me,” she wrote. “If only there was a way to meet him. Mom had to understand that he alone could teach me to be the kind of person I wanted to be, a hero in my own right.”

As celebrity memoirs go, Then Again is unconventional and poetic—a rare gem. It is a side-by-side comparison of the lives of Keaton (who never married, and adopted two children in her 50s) and her mother Dorothy Hall (who married young, had four children, and spent much of her adult life depressed by her thwarted dreams of being an artist). Keaton reprints long and often poignant journal entries written by her mother, who died a few years before it came out, and sometimes responds to them, as if they’re having a conversation across the gulf of life and death, in full view of the public. “The story of a girl whose wishes came true because of her mother is not new, but it’s mine,” Keaton writes. “The profound love and gratitude I feel now that she’s left has compelled me to try to ‘unravel’ the mystery of her journey. In doing so I hoped to find the meaning of our relationship and understand why realized dreams are such a strange burden.”

Some of Keaton’s wildest dreams, quite literally, came true. I picture it in the imagery of another Woody Allen movie lodged permanently, maybe troublingly, in my brain: As in The Purple Rose of Cairo, Warren Beatty steps out of the luminous movie screen and into Diane Keaton’s three-dimensional life. Her first real glimpse of him came in 1969, when she was getting her break in Hair on Broadway. (“[B]ig stars have come to see it,” she wrote home, when the musical became a smash, “like Warren Beatty—remember my crush on him from Splendor in the Grass?”) Then, about a decade later, not long after she’d won the Oscar for Annie Hall, her childhood movie star crush started courting her, and they began an affair. “Warren turned out to be a far more complex character than I could have imagined when I saw him kiss Natalie Wood in Splendor in the Grass,” she wrote. This complexity had perks and drawbacks; the latter eventually won out, and their relationship fizzled. Beatty was particularly baffled by Keaton’s creative restlessness, the way she sometimes seemed more occupied with photography and collage projects than with being a celebrity. “‘You’re a movie star,” she recalls him saying to her. “That’s what you wanted. You got it. Now deal with it. What is all this art stuff going to get you anyway?”

Her love of art outlasted her love of Beatty. A few years and many creative projects later, in 1983, she would compile and write the introduction to a book called Still Life, a compilation of old Hollywood production stills. “It’s hard to love someone you’ve never known, but it’s easy to long for someone you’ve seen idealized to the point where you think you’re in love,” she wrote in the intro. “When you grow up, you’re supposed to be able to distinguish between fantasy and real affection. For instance, I know Gregory Peck isn’t going to enter my life and become an intimate part of it. Most people know that, and by the time they reach adulthood, they don’t want Gregory Peck anymore. But if Gregory Peck touched them once—he touched me once—he remains a very vital part of their makeup. The ideal image of him takes on many dimensions.”

Peck did enter her life, unfortunately—shortly after the book was published, he wrote Keaton an angry letter. He resented his photograph being included in the book, and he didn’t like whatever fantasy Keaton was projecting onto him in her writing. “He thought the book was stupid,” she writes, of her only interaction with her childhood hero. “He ended by saying my heartfelt introduction was total crap.”

For as long as I’ve known her, a framed Annie Hall poster that belonged to her late father has hung in one of my friend’s living room. Lately, as the accusations against Woody Allen have reemerged, she’d been struggling with what to do with this memento. Then one day her partner surprised her by decorating it with little pieces of white paper that playfully blocked out and wrote over Woody Allen’s name and likeness. “Written by NOBODY,” the poster now reads. “Directed by NOBODY.” He taped over Allen’s name in the billing of actors, and in its place wrote “DIANE KEATON,” so that her name now appears twice. The figure that the bowler-hatted Annie Hall stares at, adoringly, now looks like a crudely drawn ghost.

“I could, I suppose, declare that I won’t watch any more of his movies,” The New York Times film critic A.O. Scott wrote earlier this year, in a piece about the besmirched legacy of his childhood hero Woody Allen. “But I can hardly unwatch the ones I’ve seen, which is all of them, at least half more than once. And even if I could, by some feat of cinephilic sophistry, separate those movies from Mr. Allen’s life, I can’t possibly separate them from mine.”

There has been plenty of writing by men who grew up admiring Allen and seeing in him an aspirational version of themselves—the self-deprecating aesthete with impeccable taste who somehow managed to acquire a harem of beautiful and (sometimes) intelligent women. The questions I’ve been grappling with—or more accurately, avoiding—are just as thorny: What does it mean that, when I was younger, I saw something of myself in the women that Woody Allen wrote, specifically those portrayed by Diane Keaton? Can I let myself off the hook by attributing the creation of these characters to Keaton’s performance, even if she herself gives credit to her director (“Every idea, every choice, every decision,” she writes in Then Again, “came from the mind of Woody Allen.”)? And what do any of my justifications matter if she continues to publicly support him?

“Woody Allen is my friend and I continue to believe him,” Keaton tweeted this January, along with a link to a 1992 60 Minutes interview in which Allen vehemently insisted that he had not molested his 7-year-old daughter Dylan Farrow. She had previously stood by him in 2014, after Farrow had written a New York Times op-ed detailing the allegations. (“I believe my friend,” she said once again.) My appreciation for Diane Keaton has, for most of my life, felt light, uncomplicated, and easily justifiable. And even though Keaton has supported Allen since the allegations against him emerged in 1992, the release of her light, uncomplicated new comedy Book Club marks the first time I’ve cast a more critical eye on my admiration of her.

There are a lot of obviously green-screened sunsets in Book Club, as though it all takes place in the vaguely too-good-to-be-true fantasyland of a Nancy Meyers production. In front of one of these backdrops, Keaton (playing a character named Diane, natch) delivers an unexpectedly moving monologue about her first kiss while on a first date. With its CGI skies, flimsy premise, and crudely photoshopped flashback photos that try to convince us that these actresses who range in age from 65 to 80 all went to high school together, much of Book Club is pure, enjoyable fluff—a Sex and the City episode fast-forwarded about 30 years. And then there are moments like that first-kiss speech, or another one late in the film when the widowed Diane stands up to her daughters, who fret about her frailty as though she were 95 years old. These moments remind you what her breezy, off-hand nature sometimes makes you forget: Diane Keaton is a phenomenal actress.

If only she had better opportunities to show that off. In the past decade—save for her gloriously bizarre turn as a basketball-playing nun on The Young Pope—Keaton has appeared in quite a few duds that seem content to reheat the iconic roles of the second part of her career: She’s either the daffy matriarch in Father of the Bride or the flustered single woman trying to get her groove back, which she perfected in 2003’s Something’s Gotta Give. Since that day at the book signing, I’ve followed Keaton through the dregs of The Big Wedding, And So It Goes, and Morning Glory—the less said about any of these movies, the better. And yet even I could not talk myself into seeing Darling Companion, a film whose Wikipedia plot summary contains the sentence, “They engage the service of a psychic gypsy to find the dog again.”

Even when it flirts with self-parody, though, Book Club is far and away the most enjoyable Diane Keaton movie in years. Its highlights include but are not limited to a scene in which Mary Steenburgen tap dances to a Meat Loaf song, a remarkably prolonged set piece about Craig T. Nelson ingesting too much Viagra, and a moment when one character sighs, “We’re not exactly spring flowers,” and Jane Fonda quips, “More like potpourri!” I took James, my friend with the same birthday as Diane Keaton. We had both had bad days, and we needed to laugh, and we did.

But there is something poignant beneath the film’s schlocky surface, something that is contradictory to its overall message. This movie cheers: “Women can have rich, complex, adventurous lives past retirement age!” But it seems that we are only told that in the context of movies that are, formally speaking, neither rich, complex, nor adventurous. Book Club is a part of a recognizable sub-genre that’s all too easy to dismiss or pass off as “niche,” a fact all too apparent as it prepares to go head-to-head with Deadpool 2 at the box office this weekend. (“You’re not the only one that kills in a tight little red outfit,” Jane Fonda tweeted saucily at Ryan Reynolds this week.) In Then Again, which Keaton wrote in her mid-60s, she recalls that her acting teacher Sandy Meisner used to tell his students how much better they’d be at acting when they were older and had more life experience. “Now that I’m the age he was when he stressed the necessity of being more mature in order to become a fully realized actor, now that life has become so much more engaging, if unfathomable, it’s hard to believe the accumulated knowledge I’m ready to give isn’t what audiences are interested in.”

The woman Keaton plays in Book Club is as flighty as ever. But she reminds us yet again that to be confused, dizzy, and flustered is not necessarily a weakness or a failure—it just means that the rules, the norms, the linear path, and the question as it’s posed doesn’t make much sense to you. It means that you’re searching for and sometimes stammering toward an alternative. This is what Diane Keaton has always meant to me, the tongue-tied nature of living without a script.

Like Keaton’s ideal image of Peck, my idea of Keaton is a necessary fiction—contrary to what we told each other after that book signing, she is not exactly everything you imagine. Reality is infinitely more complicated than even the best movies, and when we hold our idols to the standards of the real people in our lives, they will inevitably let us down. But even when they confound, frustrate, and disappoint us, it doesn’t mean the things we’ve learned from them weren’t true.