In conversation: Diane Keaton

On understanding her mother, Warren Beatty’s seduction skills and how to feel attractive

On understanding her mother, Warren Beatty’s seduction skills and how to feel attractive

Munawar Hosain/Fotos International/Getty Images

Diane Keaton is known for portraying memorable women onscreen—Annie Hall in Woody Allen’s 1977 movie of the same name, Kay Adams Corleone in the Godfather trilogy and Erica Barry in the 2003 hit Something’s Gotta Give. Now, in her new evocative memoir Then Again, the 65-year-old Oscar winner weaves her own life with that of her mother, Dorothy Deanne Keaton Hall.

Q: You’ve written a unique memoir, which is not about you per se but a duet with your mother in which you weave her journals and letters with your life story. What inspired you?

A: Well, my mother died in 2008 and there was this mass of information that she had collected over the years, which included journals and letters and scrapbooks and photo albums, and every single bit of detail you could possibly have on four kids, so it needed to be tended to. I’d had an incident earlier in my life, in the ’70s, where I was using my mother’s darkroom and I came across this journal. So I opened it up and there was a harmless entry saying she had gotten a job at Hunter’s Bookstore and she was excited about this. I thought, “Oh, yeah, that’s kind of nice,” and then I moved on, and it said, “You friggin’ bastard,” something like this. I just went, “Okay, that’s it, I don’t want to read this.” I didn’t want to know about my mother’s personal problems.

Q: So you became the custodian of 85 journals, and some are illustrated in the book, and they’re quite beautiful. Your mother had artistic aspirations that were thwarted in part because of her responsibilities raising a family and because it was the 1950s. Yet she entered and won the Mrs. L.A. Homemaker contest. It seemed as if her ambitions stoked yours.

A: When I was at Santa Ana Junior College, I was the big musical comedy star, I took a tour of the Orient for the USO when I was a student at Orange Coast College, and just everywhere my mother was supportive. I would audition for the talent show when I was in junior high school and I was going to sing All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth, but it was my mother’s idea that I black out my teeth at the tryout, and that of course secured my position on the list of people who would be in the talent show.

She was generous to a fault with regards to us. We were her life. It became more difficult for her when she became an empty-nester, and she didn’t know how to achieve the goals that she wanted for herself. She made some efforts but it’s like being on the outside looking in, how do you get in?

Q: You came across a journal or a scrapbook your mother made that followed your career from 1977 to 1984 and you ask, “Why was mother so engrossed with the process of validating my life?” But could it be that what she was actually doing was validating hers?

A: I guess it made her feel a little more on the outside. That’s what I would say. When I first got to know Woody and I was going out with Woody, I noticed that people never wanted to hear anything that I had to say at all. They just wanted to be in the shadow of his light and I remember really having a hard time with that. And I think that the more successful I became, the more it separated my experience from mother’s experience, which caused a chasm between us. I didn’t need her anymore because I found other partners. It’s just so painful, and it makes me think about what that’s like for so many mothers. You love your children, and you love watching them grow and develop and become adults, and then they go. It’s a goodbye problem!

Q: I want to ask about your father, Jack Hall. At one point you refer to him as being the enemy you held close within the family.

A: There were so many things about my father that were hard to know. He, too, wanted to be the person telling Dorothy—the great listener—his concerns. Their intimacy and their love for each other, while volatile at times, was deep and profound and romantic, but it’s so odd that these were things that were never spoken.

Q: You wrote about their marriage and the complexity of it, and the romance of it, but you also say that it wasn’t an aspiration you had for yourself. You shied from intimacy and wanted the love of a huge audience.

A: Yes, the love of a lot of people. I was aware by the time I was in high school and I had achieved my great successful moment being Mata Hari, it dawned on me that I’d have to give up something in order to do this.

Q: You talk about being bulimic and the pressure to be thin and pretty. Was it difficult to write candidly about that?

A: No, it’s so long ago. Before I wrote the book, before Mother passed away, I told my sisters that I’d been bulimic, and one of them said, “Oh, yeah. It did seem like you ate a lot of hamburgers.” It is important in the sense that when you have an addiction it’s what it does to you, how it stunts your growth as a human being. It’s just shameful to me when I think back on it. This idea of speaking your thoughts out loud is so important. It’s been downplayed recently because now we have medication to help people in situations, but I also think it’s important to talk your thoughts out loud, because you don’t really own them until you do that.

Q: The book also discusses your relationships with well-known men you’ve had inter-professional and personal relationships with. You write about missing Woody Allen and that he would cringe if he knew how much you cared about him. Why?

A: I say that because I think that he too is very embarrassed about his deeper feelings. I think he would look at me and think that I was just a big, sappy, top actress.

Q: Now, you also offer insight into Warren Beatty’s legendary prowess as a seducer of beautiful women. You write, “Once Warren chooses to shine his light on you, there’s no going back,” and it seems his major skill is really being smart and really paying attention.

A: Oh, you have no idea.

Q: I loved your quote, “I wanted to be Warren Beatty, not love him.” What does that mean, exactly?

A: I wanted to be him in the sense that I wanted to be as creative as him.

Q: You also reveal you wanted to marry Al Pacino. You said, “Marry me, or commit to the possibility.” Why did you shift gears on the subject of marriage?

A: Well, because I was getting older. It’s like what Warren always told me, you know, “You’re a really late developer.” I couldn’t address the issues of really being a wife or a mother until of course it was on the cusp of being too late.

Q: You’ve become such a generational kind of force because of the roles that you’ve had; Annie Hall to Baby Boom, The First Wives Club, and Something’s Gotta Give, which you refer to as your favourite movie. When [producer and director] Nancy Meyers had lunch with you in the early 1990s, you were thinking of giving up acting and refurbishing and selling houses instead. That surprised me. Were you thinking of just giving it up altogether?

A: Oh, no. I would never give it up, it’s just that I wasn’t wanted, so I was trying to figure out ways to continue on with the kind of life that I was living.

Q: I wanted to ask you, because it was a radical movie to have a romantic lead being vied for by two men, one of whom was younger. Did you like the way it ended?

A: Of course, because it’s a dream come true. They worked, they fit, they were a wonderful couple.

Q: You became the face of a huge cosmetic company at age 60. Did that surprise you?

A: Surprised? Yes, I was. That happened because of Something’s Gotta Give. I’m not a model. I’m not Andie MacDowell, who has been a spokesperson for L’Oréal for years and years. [L’Oréal] felt like, okay, Diane represents the hope of women who are in their 50s or 60s to feel good about themselves, feel that they’re romantic, that love is possible, that they’re attractive. Right now I’m talking to you, I’ve got a lot of cream on my face. It’s nice to have lipstick and cream. If you just feel like you’re attractive, you are attractive.

Q: Absolutely. You adopted your daughter 15 years ago when you were 50, and your son several years later. Is the book intended to communicate with them as well?

A: I don’t know that they are capable of really listening to me. I talk too much and they’re just going, “Shut up, lady.” Maybe, you know, one day.

Q: You write at the beginning that the book was about holding up your life alongside your mother’s, to see her and your life in a more understandable light. What would you say was your primary revelation?

A: I regret that I didn’t address more of the love I had for Mother, that I wasn’t more generous. I really hope that I can stop needing so much attention for myself. I say that at the end of the book, but it’s really hard for me to let go of my ambitions, my desires, my ridiculous, grandiose dreams for myself, but I do feel like this book has made me face how invaluable that would be for me, to just start looking out instead of looking in to what I can do for myself and my life.

Looking for more?

Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.