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DIANE KEATON--A NERVOUS WRECK ON THE VERGE OF A BREAKTHROUGH

By the time I interviewed her for the Los Angeles Times in 1974, Diane Keaton was known chiefly as Woody Allen's quirky leading lady in a couple of modest comedies and as the pretty but mousy wife of Michael Corleone in "The Godfather."

Few could have imagined that within three years she would be critically acclaimed for her portrayal of a promiscuous barfly who is brutally murdered in "Looking for Mr. Goodbar" and the winner of an Oscar as the Best Actress of 1977 for her dazzling turn as the daffy heroine in "Annie Hall." And, as we now know, a string of major performances--in films ranging from "Interiors" to "Manhattan," "Reds," "Shoot the Moon," "Little Drummer Girl," "Mrs. Soffel," "Crimes of the Heart," "The Good Mother" and "Marvin's Room"--followed. Here's what Diane Keaton was like offscreen before the breakthrough. --GUY FLATLEY

 

 

Monday night at Reno Sweeney’s is amateur night. An intimate Greenwich Village nightspot where an untested, unpaid youngster can stumble out onto the tiny stage, atremble with the hope that she’ll come back a star.

Such show biz dreams seldom come true this side of Ruby Keeler, and tonight is no exception. Yet, for a tension-charged second, the speakeasy-like swirl of Reno Sweeney’s comes to a halt and there is an expectant hush. All eyes are riveted on a stunning girl who has suddenly slipped into the spotlight and now stands timidly peeping out into the darkness. She’s all spiffed up like a boy-about-town, with blue velvet pants, pin-stripe jacket, and a jazzy polka-dot tie. But her face seems frozen in fright.

She’s dressed like a boy, but you can’t help noticing she’s a girl. Her hair is silken red, her skin smooth and creamy, and her figure –- even in those just-a-buddy duds –- is full where it should be full and frail where it should be frail. Her voice, too -– when at last she sweetly glides into "Goody, Goody" –- is choir-girl pure. And her manner afterward, as she floats on a sea of boisterous applause, is flushed and bubbly, like that of a child whose birthday has finally come.

"Boy, this is weird," she gasps, making a nervous motion to quiet the clapping. "Wow! I can’t believe this!"

What the absurdly insecure Diane Keaton can’t believe is that she’s something to shout about. Try as she may, she cannot shake the fear that she’s a fluke, a flash-in-the-pan, a Cinderella whose midnight is nearing. It doesn’t seem to matter a bit that Paramount recently paid her a pretty penny to repeat the part of Kay, Al Pacino’s sublimely submissive wife, in "The Godfather Part II." Nor has the clamoring of the critics, who see signs of a budding Carole Lombard in her splendidly daffy performance as Woody Allen’s scatterbrained, sci-fi sweetheart in "Sleeper," brightened Diane’s gloomy self-image. Nor even the knowledge that Woody wants to woo her again in his next excursion into cinematic lunacy –- a flick she will surely manage to miss sitting through.

"I never did see ‘The Godfather,’ " Diane admits a couple of nights after her turn at Reno Sweeney’s, a turn which may blossom into a legitimate, full-length engagement once she summons up the courage to face the critics. She’s sitting now in the living room of her modest East Side apartment, amid mounds of books and records, clean-scrubbed modern furniture, an antique lawnmower, and framed snapshots of a woeful Woody. "I guess I really don’t want to see myself on the screen. I haven’t seen ‘Play It Again, Sam’ or ‘Sleeper,’ either."

What a shame!

"Who knows? It might be more of a shame if I did see them."

Ridiculous. How the devil does a girl with beauty and talent to burn develop into a bundle of inferiority feelings?

"I hate to tell you this, but when I was growing up in Santa Ana, I was never considered pretty. I was the personality type, or at least, I wanted to be the personality type."

Diane blushes, fidgets with her hair, and recalls a youth misspent as Diane Hall, high school dum-dum. "The only thing I had on my mind was boys, though I never had much success getting dates. I just couldn’t concentrate on English and geography and math, but I jumped right into the singing and drama groups. Even there, the big thing was to make everyone like me. I still remember playing Blanche in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ in our drama class, and do you know something? I had no idea –- no idea –- of what that play was all about."

But she had an idea of what being an actress was all about, and the idea struck fire to her fancy. So, in 1965, the 19-year-old dreamer dropped out of college, said bye-bye to Mommy and Daddy and the three younger Hall children, headed for Manhattan and acting classes with Sanford Meisner, and –- quick as a coed on her first streak –- joined that daring young "Hair" brood on Broadway. However, Diane Hall –- by now Diane Keaton –- was not the streaking sort, and she is best remembered by "Hair" audiences as the redhead who refused to disrobe.

"It wasn’t a moral choice. . . well, maybe it was. But, at the time, all I knew was that I was just too frightened, too embarrassed to take off my clothes. I was scared. And I must say that nobody ever tried to pressure me into doing it, though once Gerome Ragni came over to me and said, very seriously, ‘Diane, you really should take your clothes off –- it’s so cool to take your clothes off.’ But it never seemed very cool, or meaningful, to me. After all, nudity was just something they threw into ‘Hair’ at the very last minute."

Overdressed as she was, Diane hung onto "Hair" for nine months before cutting loose and auditioning for Woody Allen’s "Play It Again, Sam." "I have a vivid memory of that day. Woody had to come up on the stage and walk round and round with me, since one of the major concerns was to see whether or not I would be too tall for him. I was absolutely astonished to find that Woody was more frightened of me than I was of him."

 

Fright or no fright, height or no height, Diane and Woody built a strong and rapid rapport, both on and off-stage. It has even been suggested that their relationship has from time to time has been that of lover to lover. What has Diane to say of her reputed passion for this pint-sized Lothario?

"I wouldn’t want to comment on that," she says, shooing away the question as if she had been asked to predict the outcome of Watergate. "But I would like to say that Woody has been a great influence in my life and that I feel very close to him."

Besides, he must be a bottomless barrel of laughs. "Not at all. He can be quite serious. I do find him funny, of course, but often in a way that is different from his public funny. And –- one other very important thing about Woody –- once you’re his friend, that’s it. You can call him any hour of the day or night, and he’s there for you."

Is there anyone else who is there for Diane day and night –- like maybe a potential husband?

"No. There’s no one. I’ve never even come close to marriage. I would like to have children, but not right now. I guess it would be wonderful to care enough about somebody to want to have children with him, but I can’t seem to get anywhere near that point. It just hasn’t happened to me."

For the time being, Diane will settle for being Mrs. Michael Corleone. "At first, I was skeptical about playing Kay again in the ‘Godfather’ sequel. But when I read the script, the character seemed much more substantial than in the first movie. Also, it’s nice to have a chance to be straight again. Oh gosh, I’m having a little verbal trouble. I wish that wouldn’t happen to me, but it always does.

"Anyway, I enjoyed doing the second ‘Godfather’ movie, partly because I wasn’t afraid of everybody this time. On the first one, I felt so inconsequential and all I could do was be very friendly and very nice and very scared. Jeeze, every time I’d run into Marlon Brando on the set my face would turn red and I’d start laughing and laughing. I was so high school. So totally into self-loathing."

Self loathing? That sounds like shrink talk.

"I’ve been in analysis for nearly two years."

How do you like it?

"I guess I like it fine, since I go every day."

Has it helped?

"Yes, I’ve changed quite a bit. I used to be very isolated –- like nobody ever came to my apartment. But now people do visit me. For example, you’re here. My life is really not so awful these days. There are bad moments, of course. I mean, you could say that my personal life is sort of grim, sort of barren. Sometimes I feel like a dried-out soul. But it’s kind of a nice time for me, too. I’m beginning to feel that I want to get involved with things, with people."

Maybe it’s time to get involved with some high-powered supper club people who can whip together a sophisticated act for Diane, a la Ann-Marget and Raquel Welch?

"I’m not ready for a smart supper club and I don’t want to buy an act, to have someone write jokes and patter for me and do my arrangements. I don’t want to get too glitzy, too show biz. I don’t want to do just anything to make people like me.

"Of course, I wish I could milk an audience the way Liza Minnelli does," Diane says, suddenly thrusting her arms out, Liza style, then bringing them back in a self-congratulatory hug. "I love it when Liza does that, because you know that she knows the audience loves her, and that she loves them for loving her. It’s like she’s saying, ‘Yes, you’re right, you wonderful people. I am good!’ But me –- I’ve always got to kill it, I’ve always got to say, ‘There’s some mistake here, folks, you shouldn’t be clapping for me.'"

Yet they are clapping for Diane Monday nights down at Reno Sweeney’s. "Some nights the audience is great, and that’s fabulous," says Diane, smiling dreamily. "There are nights, though, when the audience is actually hostile, and I say to myself, ‘Oh, darn it! Why don’t they like me?'"

Diane’s dreamy smile has turned to a worried-as-Woody frown.