'Then Again': Diane Keaton On Owing It All To Mom

Nov 14, 2011
Originally published on November 16, 2011 7:39 am

In 1977, Diane Keaton's charming incoherence in Woody Allen's Annie Hall earned her an Oscar and turned her into the star she had dreamed of becoming since she was a little girl.

Back then, no one believed Keaton would make it more than her own mother, Dorothy Keaton Hall. A child of the Depression who had been abandoned by her father, Keaton Hall lived for her children. So when she died three years ago, after a slow decline from Alzheimer's disease, Keaton began writing a memoir for the both of them.

That memoir, Then Again, pulls from the 85 journals Keaton's mother kept over her lifetime. Keaton tells NPR's Renee Montagne that the depth of her mother's devotion is what ultimately moved her to read through her journals.

"The two of us were partners in life. My mother really was this person who was in love with my aspirations," she says. "That's really why I forced myself to read them. And of course, I was completely unprepared for the depth that I encountered."

Finding Inspiration In Mrs. Highland Park

Through the journals, Keaton learned of her mother's resolve to give her children the childhood she had never had. She also learned of her mother's sincere belief that her children had brilliant futures ahead of them. So Keaton Hall encouraged Keaton's brother to write poetry; one sister was a singer and another was known as the smart one in the family. As for Keaton, she discovered her path at 9 years old, when she saw her mother win Mrs. Highland Park, Los Angeles.

"There was Ms. America, but there was also Mrs. America, and this was the world's greatest housekeeper," Keaton explains. "I saw my mother on the stage with other women, and suddenly they announced her name and she was crowned Mrs. Highland Park and the curtain opened and then there was this cornucopia of gifts. ... And all I remember was I wanted to be on that stage. It really did define the fact that I was going to definitely go into the performing arts."

A 'Sad Story' In A 'Funny Movie'

Keaton's real last name is Hall, and as a child her father used to call her "Dianie." So playing the role of Annie Hall was perhaps not much of a stretch. All the same, Keaton describes the role as life-changing.

"I'm so proud to have been part of Annie Hall, because it is a great American comedy," Keaton says. "It was also an innovative American comedy because of all the choices that Woody [Allen] made. Not just his script, but the creative choices he made."

The film was full of unlikely combinations. For one thing, Allen hired The Godfather's Gordon Willis, known as the "Prince of Darkness," to do the cinematography. ("You don't usually, at least not in those days, hire the Prince of Darkness to shoot a really sweet little comedy," Keaton says.)

Allen also gave Keaton plenty of creative license, encouraging her to be casual in her acting and to wear whatever she wanted. Keaton's wardrobe decisions ultimately gave birth to a signature style of feminized menswear and bowler hats that have become synonymous with both the character of Annie Hall and the actress herself.

But according to Keaton, the most unconventional thing about Allen's film was the story itself.

"It gave the audience an opportunity to see the sad story of a love that isn't going to last in a funny movie," she says.

Writing To The End

Keaton's mother first heard that she might have Alzheimer's in June 1993. The journal entries she wrote during that period betray her anxieties as well as her fear of the disease.

"She had, in fact, been quite secretive about her thoughts and feelings and the only place she actually put them down was when she'd sit alone at a desk and write," Keaton says.

And Keaton's mother kept writing almost to the end of her life.

"She wrote words and then when she couldn't write, she started writing numbers," Keaton says. "She wouldn't give up."

The actress says looking back on her mother's writing also allowed her to appreciate her own life's work, and how it saved her from keeping her feelings inside the way her mother had.

"When you think about my fame, it was really that I became famous for being an inarticulate woman in a Woody Allen movie," she says, "but I found a way to express myself through words."

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It is one of the classic American movie moments: Annie Hall's parting words to her new crush after meeting him on a Manhattan tennis court.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ANNIE HALL")

MONTAGNE: That charming incoherence in the 1970s Woody Allen hit earned Diane Keaton an Oscar, and turned her into the star she longed to be as a little girl. No one believed Diane would make it more than her own mother, Dorothy Keaton Hall. A child of the Depression, abandoned by her father, Dorothy lived for her children. And when she died three years ago after a slow decline from Alzheimer's, Diane Keaton began a memoir for both of them.

That memoir, out today, contains sometimes painful passages of unrealized dreams from the scores of journals her mother kept over a lifetime.

: The two of us were partners in life. My mother really was this person who was in love with my aspirations, so she was the person who - I would design my clothes when I was a teenager, and she would actually make them for me. She was an unusual mother in that regard.

I was the first-born, but I was never treated like what you imagine the first-born daughter is treated like - another mother, you know. No, no, no, no. It was like, she couldn't have been more excited by anything I was excited by. So that's really why I forced myself to read them. And, of course, I was completely unprepared for the depth that I encountered.

MONTAGNE: Well, one thing that comes out, when your mother decided that she was going to give you the childhood that she didn't have, really, she also believed it. And she believed her children had brilliant futures, as she put it. So your brother wrote poetry. Your one sister sang. The other was considered the smart one in the family. You were considered the funny one. Did you think you were funny?

: No. I think I was the one with the big personality. You know, I think I'm the person who you play against, who can be funny by responding. I remember there was a very important moment in my life, my mother - was when I saw her crowned Mrs. Highland Park. You know, a long time ago, there was Miss America, but there was also Mrs. America. And this was the world's greatest, you know, housekeeper.

I remember - I was 9 years old, so I was allowed to go to the theater. And I saw my mother on the stage with other women, and suddenly they announced her name, and she was crowned Mrs. Highland Park. And the curtain opened, and then there was this cornucopia of gifts, like a Philco washer and dryer, a Selby television set and, you know, coronation roses. And all I remember was, I wanted to be on that stage. It really did define the fact that I was going to definitely go into the performing arts, as they say.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ANNIE HALL")

MONTAGNE: I might be the only person who was surprised in reading this to discover that Hall is your real name.

: Yeah, Hall. Yes.

MONTAGNE: Yeah. As it turns out, that your father called you Di-Annie as a nickname.

: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

MONTAGNE: Tell us about the movie that you made with Woody Allen that, in a sense…

: Changed my life.

MONTAGNE: Yeah.

: Well, of course, in retrospect, you know, I'm so proud to have been part of "Annie Hall," because it is a great American comedy. And it was also an innovative American comedy because of all the creative choices he made. Like Gordon Willis, the cinematographer, was the cinematographer of all three "Godfathers." He was known as the Prince of Darkness. OK, you don't usually - at least, not in those days - hire the Prince of Darkness to shoot a really sweet, little comedy.

So he did that. And then as well, he came up to me and he said, you know, just wear what you want and when you act just, you know, don't worry about those marks. And just kind of act, you know, normal, and just forget about it. And I was going, say what? I get to wear what I want? That was the most interesting thing of all. And I wore a lot of like, men's-type clothes and, of course, the hat.

And also, the other really sweet thing about "Annie Hall" was that it gave the audience an opportunity to see the kind of sad story of a love that isn't going to last, in a funny movie.

MONTAGNE: How much did it parallel your life with Woody Allen?

: In the filming of it, we were friends. We were no longer romantic together. I mean, I remember seeing Woody Allen when I was a kid with my family, and we'd see him on Johnny Carson. And he'd always wear these really cool suits, and he just seemed so adorable. I loved him before I met him. You know, it's one of those stories. You know, he could do no wrong. I adored him.

MONTAGNE: You had a pretty charmed experience, in a certain way, because you had another person that you were with who you had had a crush on - like, I think every girl, probably, in America.

: Oh, yeah. You mean my unattainable greats, Warren Beatty? Are we talking about Warren?

MONTAGNE: Who you'd seen - what, as a like, a 10th grader.

: Yeah. I was a - yes. I worked at the Broadway Theater, the movie theater in Santa Ana, and I sold popcorn and hotdogs. And that's where I saw "Splendor in the Grass," which was, of course, a kind of a Romeo and Juliet story about this love that could never be. And it's really kind of interesting, because when I think back on Warren and I, I sort of think that there were parallel things there. I mean, I was this kind of - I saw - I see myself as kind of the working-class girl, and he the elite. And it doesn't quite work sometimes.

MONTAGNE: As close as you were to your mother - and you describe her as a partner - you write that you never really discussed men with your mother.

: No, no. No, no, no. This was the part of my life that was secret. My feelings about boys and men, and what I wanted for myself, I couldn't talk about that. I don't think my mother was really comfortable with that, either.

MONTAGNE: Piles and piles of journals into this, your mother wrote an entry in June of 1993.

: Mm-hmm.

MONTAGNE: Tell us about that.

: Well, she's concerned about her mind throughout her journals. And in this one, she had received the suggestion that she might have Alzheimer's disease. And she talks about - well, she said one word, which was "scary."

MONTAGNE: But she kept writing.

: She kept writing for as long as she could. She wrote words, and then when she couldn't write, she started writing numbers. I mean, she wouldn't give up.

But in the process of this, you know, I always thought about her and kept thinking - she had always been riddled with self-doubt. She had, in fact, been quite secretive about her thoughts and feelings, and the only place she actually put them down was when she'd sit alone at a desk and write.

And I think that that was one of the great gifts for me, was to find performing, because you know, when you think about my fame, it was really that I became famous for being an inarticulate woman in a Woody Allen movie, but I found a way to express myself through words and saying them. Because somehow, when you say something, you own it more.

And I'm sorry that my mother and I weren't able to have her tell me about what her problems were. And I just miss her.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: Diane Keaton's new memoir charting her life, and her mother's, is called "Then Again." This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.