Screen comedienne Diane Keaton is primarily known as Woody Allen’s muse – the two have made some of their greatest movies together, though she has given some strong performances in other director’s films as well (she’s helmed a a couple movies herself). Her style of comedy is reminiscent of Carole Lombard or Katherine Hepburn (with whom Keaton was compared when she first was famous) – she’s a sparkling comic with a way with one-liners, but also has a balletic prowess for physical comedy, as well. Along with comedies, Keaton’s also been successful at more dramatic flair, however, audiences seem to gravitate toward her funny work.
Her best work was in the 1970’s when she established herself as a cinematic icon. In the 1980’s and 1990’s, she was a box office star and while she was able to command a high salary for her work, the films she was in were often commercial products that weren’t up to snuff. In the 2000’s, there seemed to have been a resurgence in Keaton’s popularity after the box office success of her 2003 film Something’s Gotta Give which won her a shelfful of awards and a fourth Oscar nomination. She followed up that film with others of varying success, but she’s often called-upon to be a reliant source of mirth in films, usually elevating the work she’s in.
This isn’t a list of all her films, but merely the ones I think Keaton shines best – that also means that some mediocre films might make the list, as well. It’s interesting because Keaton’s starred in a surprisingly high number of classic American films: The Godfather, The Godfather II, Reds, Manhattan and Annie Hall. Please feel free to comment. Note: some of these movies will overlap with my Artist in Spotlight: Woody Allen.
The Godfather (1972) – This is one of the most important films of American cinema, yet to be honest Keaton’s impression isn’t all that strong – she seems overwhelmed by the cast and her character – the sole WASP in the Italian-American family – appears bland and whitewashed. Keaton’s character, Kay Corleone becomes a bigger presence in the film’s two sequels, however it would be remiss for me to not include this film in the list.
Sleeper (1973) – this is Allen’s fifth film he directed – it’s a pretty high concept film. Allen stars as Miles Monroe, a jazz musician who cryogenically frozen and thawed 200 years later. He wakes up in a world ruled by a police state. Allen hooks up with Luna Schlosser (Diane Keaton), a bubbly socialite. They fall in love and end up in a screwball revolt. Though the film’s plot may sound a bit strange, the script’s hilarious and both Allen and Keaton have a wonderful chemistry.
The Godfather Part II (1974) – Francis Ford Coppola’s followup is a rare instance with a sequel outclassing the original. Keaton’s Kay Corleone represents an important outsider role as she’s an observer of the intricate world of organized crime. There’s an amazing scene between star Al Pacino and Keaton as their characters confront each other their conversation dissolved into shocking violence. Again, Pacino, Robert DeNiro and the other stars manage to outshine Keaton, but that seems appropriate for the role.
Love and Death (1975) – this another interesting entry in Woody Allen’s resume. Like Sleepers, Love and Death has an interesting plot – it’s a period film, set in during the Napoleonic Wars – not a natural setting for a comedy. This is a funny movie, but I find it a bit challenging, because Allen includes his interest in philosophy by having his main characters engage in philosophical wordplay. Another plus for this movie is that it’s another great Allen-Keaton collaboration.
Annie Hall (1977) – this is probably Allen’s greatest film. It’s a bittersweet comedy, very autobiographical with Allen trying to examine his failed relationship with Keaton by writing this wonderful film. Keaton’s performance in the title role is brilliant and she proves herself a genius comedienne. Beautiful and fresh-faced, she plays the inspiring force in Allen’s Alvy Singer, whose life is completely changed after being in love with Annie. The supporting cast is great, with a special note to Tony Roberts, Christopher Walken and Colleen Dewhurst. The film won a slew of awards for both Allen’s writing/directing and Keaton’s acting. There are lots of one-liners (“don’t knock masturbation – it’s sex with someone I love”), but there is a lot of emotional truth in the film, and the ending is a major tear-jerker.
Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977) – One of Keaton’s most offensive entries – this is a total relic of films that punish women for exploring their sexuality. Keaton plays a young school teacher who lives a double-life – during the daytime, she’s a sunny, responsible teacher, but at night, she trolls through the bars, picking up strange men. The ending of the film is heart-stopping and will inspire lots of rage from its audiences – especially the female members. Still Keaton’s performance outclasses the smarmy, cheap, sexist plot.
Interiors (1978) – This is probably his best drama, with obvious inspiration from Ingmar Bergman. This is another Keaton film as she plays a frustrated poet who deals with the split of her parents with her sisters. This isn’t an easy movie to love – it’s stark, but still worth a watch.
Manhattan (1979) – A great valentine to New York City – try not to be moved by Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” Allen plays Isaac Davis, a man who is having an affair with a teenager (a luminous Mariel Hemingway), while pining for his best friend’s mistress (Keaton). Isaac is a comedy writer, who finds his work unsatisfying, and tries to distract his general feelings of midlife crisis with his relationships with the various women in his life. One of his ex-wives, Jill (Meryl Streep), came out as a lesbian, who is writing a memoir about their failed marriage. Like Annie Hall, Allen combines heart-tugging melancholy with his trademark wit.
Reds (1981) Keaton got a second Oscar nomination as writer Louise Bryant in Warren Beatty’s epic film about the Russian Revolution. Keaton is great as Bryant, who must deal with her emotions as she loves Beatty’s John Reed but feels stymied by her lack of genuine talent. Jack Nicholson costars as Eugene O’Neill and shares an incredible chemistry with Keaton too. There’s a great scene with Keaton and Beatty when they meet on a train station and fall into each other’s arms. It’s not an easy movie to watch, and it drags a bit, but it’s still full of great performances (peaked by an Oscar-winning turn by Maureen Stapleton as revolutionary Emma Goldman).
Shoot the Moon (1982) – Keaton and Albert Finney star in this domestic drama about the failure and collapse of a marriage, where both spouses cheat on each other and hurt their children and each other in the process. This is an incredible film and it shows just how mature an actress Keaton has become, as she firmly removes herself from Woody Allen’s shadow. She doesn’t get to do her wonderful daffy persona, and so without being able to rely on her schtick, she has to tax her talent – which as seen by this film, is more than up to the challenge.
Crimes of the Heart (1986) – I love watching Keaton work with strong female costars, and few are stronger than Sissy Spacek and Jessica Lange. The three powerhouses star as a trio of Southern sisters who reunited after one fails to start a singing career in Hollywood (Lange) and the other gets arrested for shooting an abusive husband (Spacek). Keaton stars as the mousy of the three, and despite her distinctive speech patterns, she does a credible Southern accent, in this Southern drama-comedy based on Beth Henley’s Pulitzer-Prize winning play. While the screenplay betrays its stage roots, the interplay between the three Oscar-winners is wonderful.
Baby Boom (1987) – Keaton stars as a very 1980’s yuppie who inherits a baby. The plot is super-thin and very trendy. But Keaton’s incredible and she gets to use her comic genius to full-effect as a woman who discovers her latent maternal instinct. The film is very glossy and mainstream – similar in tone and plot to the bigger hit Three Men and a Baby and is fluffy to the point of floating in thin air, but still it’s enjoyable because of Keaton’s first-rate performance.
Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) – this was a light, fluffy film about a middle-aged couple, a bit bored with their lives, who find themselves sucked into a murder mystery. The film was funny and exciting, and as a great bonus, it was a reunion of Allen and Keaton, who hadn’t worked together in over 10 years. Their chemistry was undiminished as they seemed to slip effortlessly in their roles. Angelica Huston and Alan Alda also offer great support.
The First Wives Club (1996) – Keaton is teamed up with fellow comic gems Goldie Hawn and Bette Midler in this surprise box office smash about three middle-aged wives who were left for younger women by their husbands. What follows is a comic fable about how these women draw inspiration from their friendships as they plot their revenge. The film struck a note with women viewers and the movie’s got a ton of great cameos, including Ed Koch, Gloria Steinem, Heather Locklear, Stockard Channing, Kathie Lee Gifford and a priceless one by Ivana Trump. There’s also a wonderful supporting case that includes a pre-Carrie Bradshaw Sarah Jessica Parker, Marcia Gay Harden, Eileen Heckart, Elizabeth Berkely and a great acerbic Maggie Smith – it’s Hawn, Milder and Keaton, though who own the film.
Marvin’s Room (1996) – Keaton won a third Oscar nod as a woman dying of cancer, and being forced to reunited with her estranged sister (Meryl Streep) and nephew (Leonardo DiCaprio). The film is far from maudlin, and Keaton’s character, Bessie, is a prickly woman, who while angelic, is far from a one-dimensional martyr. Streep’s performance is predictably good, but a bit mechanic. It’s a joy though to watch the chemistry between DiCaprio and Keaton whose characters learn they’re kindred spirits. Though it’s a very serious film, the humor and cast save it from TV Movie of the Week territory.
Something’s Gotta Give (2003) – Keaton’s fourth Oscar nomination was for her brave and hilarious performance as Erica Barry, a middle-aged playwright who has to choose between either Jack Nicholson or Keanu Reeves. She’s wonderful and won a lot of awards for her role, and a lot of renewed affection from audiences for this film that became a box office hit. The film does indulge in some wish-fulfillment, but Nancy Myers’ writing is sharp and Nicholson and Keaton (who owns the film) have great chemistry.
The Family Stone (2005) Keaton does wonders in this role as Sybil Stone, the shark-toothed matriarch of a family of self-satisfied liberals who act as cliquish as high school kids. Their golden child brings home a beautiful girl, Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker) who immediately starts off on a wrong foot with Sybil and the rest of the klan and the more Meredith tries, the more she alienates them. The plot is funny, but there’s a beautiful, though tragic subplot that Keaton handles wonderfully.
Picture: Firooz Zahedi