Oscar History

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The Dramas of Diane Keaton

“It’s not a good idea to be identifiable, though it’s reassuring. It feels safe in most ways, and that’s bad, because it means that you’re accepted, and once that happens that’s where you stay. You have to watch yourself. I’d like a life like Katharine Hepburn’s in terms of work. She matured. She made the changes. Like Martha Graham.”

Diane Keaton,  New Yorker, 1978

Diane Keaton is to receive the American Film Institure Lifetime Achievement Award on June 8th. We should be pleased, not only deserved because Keaton is a true legend, but also because highly accomplished comic actors are so often overlooked by awards bodies. Think of Keaton and Annie Hall comes immediately to mind along with other Woody Allen films, as well as comedies like The First Wives Club, Father of the Bride and Something's Gotta Give. But few actresses have a dramatic filmography that can match Keaton's. For all her fluffy breeziness, her dramatic skill is equally sharp and coldly acerbic, with films like Shoot the Moon, Looking for Mr. Goodbar and Reds capturing this dichotomy. And we can't forget the entire Godfather trilogy.

In the same New Yorker profile, Keaton says that at eighteen she was unhappy in a role in Little Mary Sunshine "because I wasn’t being what I was supposed to be, which was the comedy lead." Keaton has lent so much of her comedic nature to her dramatic roles. In the Godfather, Keaton's cautious simmering perfectly suits Kay's role as a woman trying to avert her eys from her new family's true nature. She embodies the fear of the audience, watching her husband Michael Corleone slide into the shadows and violence he tried to escape. 

There are scenes in Shoot the Moon that perfectly demonstrate Keaton's unique ability to go from the sunniest of moods to the most palpable coldness. Alan Parker showcases this dramatic range in much the same way that Woody Allen could use her as both Annie Hall and the caustic, dismissive and brilliant Mary Wilkie in Manhattan two years later. In Shoot the Moon she shifts from maternal enthusiasm to disdain for her lying husband Albert Finney in a single frame and you don't doubt her for a moment. Later, in a rare moment alone, she lies smoking a joint in her bathtub. Pauline Kael described Keaton as "worthy of a Jean Rhys heroine; her eyes are infinitely sad - she's cracking, and you can sense the cold windy remnants of passion that are cracking her".

Those of us who grew up with Keaton of the 1990s might be quick to recall her as zany and neurotic. Roles like The First Wives Club showed us her offbeat comic brilliance, but by that point she'd been somewhat pigeonholed in wacky, non-threatening "Mom" roles. If the sexual politics of Looking for Mr Goodbar were not so painfully dated and the film had any redeemable social value, it would be remembered in the same breath as Annie Hall, also released in 1977. But Keaton's Theresa Dunn is clever, determined, erotically-charged and the scenes where she teaches deaf children are just as potent. 

For every scene of open enthusiasm, she can effortlessly call upon rage and incredulity just as enthusiastically, like her brilliant scenes with Jack Nicolson's Eugene O'Neill in Reds:

I have a special fondness for Marvin's Room, where a less credible actor would be subsumed by the character's needling personal tragedies. Her acting style is a game of keeping it together, and while Meryl gets to shout, Keaton's optimistic stillness calms the raised voices. Keaton saves her character from being aggressively selfless because of the humanity she brings to the surface, and forces Meryl into the second lead. Stealing an Oscar nomination from Meryl Streep is always fine with me.

Raise a glass on the 8th. It may be a lifetime achievement, but it's not over yet.

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Reader Comments (23)

The best scene of career is dramatic: "it was an abortion, Michael!"

June 6, 2017 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

Streep suggested Keaton for casting so they really are like sisters. I am thrilled that AFI chose Keaton, and I hope Jodie Foster is not far behind.

June 6, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJono

When will she get her Oscar nom this decade?
I mean she has gotten an Oscar nom for every decade after her win!

June 6, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterCraver

I think the 1977 Best Actress Oscar should've been awarded to either Keaton for "Looking for Mr. Goodbar" or Shelly Duvall for "3 Women".

Keaton's next best dramatic performance is "Reds". Better than Streep in "The French Lieutenant's Woman", better than Hepburn's "On Golden Pond".

Annie Hall's iconic but the character is underdeveloped in my book.

The amount of crap Keaton's managed to appear in post-Something's Gotta Give is cringe-worthy.
Her career is totally in line with the rather appalling choices of De Niro and Pacino, her Godfather co-stars.

Meryl Streep is so completely trashing them all, it's delicious to watch.

June 6, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterYavor

My favorite of her dramatic work remains Shoot the Moon, she's just brilliant in it matched by Albert Finney every step of the way.

I didn't like the film, it was ugly and corrosive, but she's also very good in Looking for Mr. Goodbar.

June 6, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

joel: I"m with you. Goodbar is pretty disgusting, but she's great in it.

June 6, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMike in Canada

I really like Keaton in dramatic roles. I find her comedic movies a bit more mannered.I loved both Keaton and Streep together in Marvin's Room. They balanced each other quite well. I thought she should have been Oscar nominated for Goodbar.

Anxious to see the AFI awards. She totally deserves the honor.

June 6, 2017 | Unregistered Commenternatalie

Her performance in "Shoot the Moon" is truly colossal. So is Finney's. They both deserved Oscars but weren't even nominated. I wonder whose bright idea it was to release this film in February. That and "Unbearable Lightness of Being" are the two most underrated films of the 1980s.

June 6, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Humphrey

She is definitely daughter of Katharine Hepburn, the same way Meryl is Greer Garson's daughter.

June 7, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterIngrid_Essex

When I'm down, her Baby Boom always cheer me up especially the pass out scene.

June 7, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJack

Meryl has been more Bette Davis I believe.

June 7, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAAA

The scene in Marvin's Room when Diane spills the pills on the floor and Meryl is helping her pick them up and Diane gives that great speech about it being a privilege to take care of their parents ... if/when I need a good cry, that's a go to. She's really magnificent in that movie. I think it is her best performance.

June 7, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterCharlieG

The reason Keaton is a legend she let a great snot ball fly from her nose in Marvin's Room and continued on in the scene,Classy,I prefer Streep in MR slightly more.

Reds is her best dramatic work but like her in the underseen The Good Mother.

She has been is some real dross that relied on her persona more than anything and she played along but lazily.

I don't like her in TFWC either she plays to all the wrong parts of her comedy persona.

June 7, 2017 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

Diane Keaton fan here too! Yes, some of her screen appearances were indeed cringe-worthy. Yet some of them manage to move me in strange ways. The Family Stone was not without its flaws, but Keaton's sick matriarch made me believe she is real rather than a caricature.

I love her performance in The Good Mother which was based on Sue Miller's novel of the same name. That part when she was in bed with Liam Neeson and her daughter joined them. The look she gave perfectly captured Sue Miller's description of a woman feeling complete for the first time. Of course, that completeness will not last and won't go well later in the film. The Good Mother is probably one of her underrated films -- no one really discusses her Anna Dunlop character. Also I thought she was truly funny in Baby Boom -- esp. that part where she was doing baby talk on the phone while a board meeting's in progress. And that line: " I can't have a baby because I have a 12:30 lunch meeting."

And am I the only one who like her 'hysterical' turn in Woody Allen's Manhattan Murder Mystery? Really, just me? I read countless bad reviews calling her shrill, self-indulgent, even un-funny. I thought she was perfectly in tune with her neurotic Carol Lipton character all throughout the movie. But what do I know?

June 7, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterOwl

Owl -

Manhattan Murder Mystery is one of my favourite Woody Allen films and the WA fans I know have a lot of love for it. It came out in the height of Woody's tabloid furore with Mia/Soon-Yi so I think he wasn't exactly loved at the time - the reviews surely reflected that. Keaton is HILARIOUS in that role.

June 7, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterSeán

I think she is perfect in Manhattan Murder Mystery. I love this movie.

June 7, 2017 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

@cal roth, thanks for the reminder, Keaton is amazing in "Manhattan Murder Mystery", totally Oscar-nomination worthy

if I had to give her 4 Oscar nods (based on what I've seen), it'd go like this:

* Looking for Mr Goodbar (wins Oscar for this or Reds)
* Reds (wins Oscar for this or Goodbar)
* Manhattan Murder Mystery
* Shoot the Moon / Crimes of the Heart

I'm unimpressed by Marvin's Room and Something's Gotta Give.

June 7, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterYavor

@ Seán & cal roth -- thanks and great to hear that! I thought I was the only one.

She's indeed hilarious when she says things like: "I don't understand why you're not more fascinated with this! I mean, we could be living next door to a murderer!"

June 7, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterOwl

Diane Keaton's one of my favourite actresses.

I really like her in Manhattan Murder Mystery too - and indeed the film as a whole. Very funny, properly suspenseful when it needs to be - and with the lovely Alan Alda and Anjelica Huston, what a great quartet!

I think her win for Annie Hall is one of Oscar's best choices. Such a great performance - so much so, it doesn't feel like a performance at all, and yet it is character-specific and works perfectly for the movie.

Love her in Reds and Something's Gotta Give too.

I haven't yet seen Shoot the Moon - must rectify that.

Hope she gets her fifth nomination soon, to keep up her one-a-decade pattern!

June 7, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterEdward L.

Sorry I disliked her in MMM as much as in TFWC and or the same reasons then after The Family Stone she went back to shrill and mannered,far superior as a dramtic actress.

Maybe i'm one of those fans who adores her in dramas Hello! Mrs Soffell and The Little Drummer Girl rather than what is her Annie Hall persona.

June 7, 2017 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

Trivia: Diane Keaton and Richard Dreyfus won the Lead Oscars in 1977 for comedic performances: Annie Hall and The Goodbye Girl. However, they both had a very strong dramatic role the same year. Diane in Looking for Mr Goodbar y Dreyfus in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I'm OK with Keaton, but my Best Actor choice was Richard Burton in Equus.

June 7, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMarcos

There is a moment in Something's Gotta Give when her character has just hooked up with Jack - she get up from the bed for some reason and he tells her he doesn't want to spend the night because he's an old dog. The camera just focuses on her face and what she does in 20 seconds is amazing - she goes from elation, confusion, hurt, consideration, understanding, appreciation, sweetness then to a bittersweet pain & joy - a masterclass scene.

June 7, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJM

Sean, super fun article! I think Keaton is one of cinema's greats. Agree with Daniel that her work in Shoot the Moon is "colossal"...she's stunning in it. She's made a lot of bad mainstream movies but her dramatic work in Reds, Little Drummer Girl, Mrs. Soffel, The Good Mother, and Interiors is all phenomenal. Glad we're celebrating her here!!!

June 7, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterEricB

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