Diane Keaton: Avatar for Boomer Nostalgia

Let me quickly clarify the meaning of my title. It refers not to the nostalgia of Boomers for their own era (at least not primarily) but for the time before they were born, that of their parents and grandparents; for some background on the wider phenomenon see the long form essay I wrote here a couple of years ago, The Necromancers of New Hollywood: How Nostalgia in 1970s Pop Culture Fed My Love for Vaudeville.

Diane Keaton (Diane Hall) was born the very instant the Post-War Baby Boom became a thing: 1946. (If you’re of a younger generation — I’m Generation X — I need you to read this without the negative connotations the term has come to embody for many of you, okay? They were young once, and you’re going to be old, and heavily criticized by new crops of nattering nubiles, in about two minutes). Originally from California, Keaton came to New York and studied with Sanford Meisner before being cast in the original 1968 Broadway production of Hair. This led to her getting the female lead in the original Broadway production of Woody Allen’s Play It Again, Sam in 1969. These two productions embody the two themes that reverberate throughout her career.

We’ll take the second one first, as that’s the nostalgia one. The 1972 screen version of Play It Again, Sam set the tone for the rest of Keaton’s screen creative partnership with Woody Allen. Its fetishistic foregrounding of Hollywood kitsch is almost in a league with Myra Breckenridge! Allen and Keaton were a screen pair (itself a nostalgic concept) through the rest of the decade, with Sleeper (1973), Love and Death (1974), Annie Hall (1977), Interiors (1978, with Allen behind the camera), and Manhattan (1979), with two later additions: Radio Days (1987, in which Keaton had a cameo that evoked Annie Hall), and Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993, a full fledged reunion). Sleeper was heavily influenced by silent comedy, which added resonance to the fact that her professional name is “Keaton”, her mother’s maiden name, but also the name of one of the greatest of silent screen comedians. With Annie Hall, featuring that iconic, Chaplinesque costume, we began to realize that she was something like Allen’s Edna Purviance, at once Allen’s muse, leading lady, and former lover. Interiors, in fact, is like A Woman of Paris, a melodrama directed by a comedian, with his usual screen partner as star.

But Allen’s films weren’t the only ones in which Keaton appeared that summoned the past. There was Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather Trilogy, in particular the first two installments, set in the 1940s and ’50s, in which she played a wholesome American woman trapped in a world of violent, brutal men. The first film (1972), in fact opens in 1945 when Michael Corleone returns from World War Two — right around the time Keaton was born. And this period of her career ends, I think, with Warren Beatty’s Reds (1981), set against the backdrop of the Russian Revolution. By the ’80s, that period of ’70s nostalgia had ended, although one late entry I might include that is very savvy in its casting of Keaton is the 1994 TV movie Amelia Earhart: The Final Flight.

The last example raises the fact that Keaton’s image embodied (and embodies) something very specific. It’s not just the past — but a certain kind of woman in the past, the kind of woman someone from her generation might admire, free and independent spirits, bohemians, and sexual creatures who fought against being defined as wives and mothers. Physically gorgeous (her eyes SLAY me), she pursued a certain gender ambiguity. She has spoken of Katharine Hepburn (who famously wore slacks when women didn’t do that) as a role model, and Keaton became every bit as influential on changing fashions herself when she wore that men’s necktie and jacket in Annie Hall. This is obviously why she played Amelia Earhart as well (on TNT no less). In the Godfather films, it’s about her being stifled in the role she is expected to play and rebelling against it (the scene where she reveals her secret abortion to Michael is the climax of this arc). And naturally she is living the ultimate hippie fantasy as the Bohemian, free loving political radical Louise Bryant in Reds. She sort of became that in real life, with her succession of famous Hollywood lovers — and zero marriages.

And yet what makes her endlessly fascinating and universally beloved is the complexity of her image. Her sexuality doesn’t make her a “slut”. By the way, I never use the word slut pejoratively, but I mean to say that she is not dominated conceptually by perceptions about her sexual drive. She’s not an object. She’s not a sex addict. She’s not a bunny or an exhibitionist or a porn diva. She is the Girl Next Door who has a sexual life but doesn’t compromise with antiquated ideas of what a woman’s role is. She is neither Madonna nor Whore, except in the eye of the beholder. The anecdote about her refusing to strip naked in Hair is also a reflection of this. She is part of the sexual revolution, but her hand is firmly on the till. She intends to get what she wants out of it, and not allow herself to be someone else’s peep show. It’s quite a trail she managed to blaze, but when I think about all of my female friends and girlfriends I grew up with, so many of them adored her, emulated her, reminded me of her. Nice girls who had sex and weren’t “bad” somehow. It was an absolutely new cultural development in the 1970s.

Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977) also seemed to be all about this, and uncharacteristically, also the perils of sexual freedom, and yet we must admit that Keaton was perfect casting for it. The Puritanical moral of the movie is the element that makes it problematic in this context. It’s like casting Diane Keaton in a film that demonstrates the dangers of being Diane Keaton. Well, it’s not “like” that; that’s what it is. And yet, the real takeaway here is that in real life the real Diane Keaton was not punished by God for her lifestyle; instead she is one of the most popular and beloved of Hollywood stars, living a life most of us would envy.

I said this piece wouldn’t be about nostalgia for the Boomers’ own era — primarily. But we must admit that since the ’90s, Keaton’s presence in films has largely been about reconnecting with her, which naturally IS nostalgia for the 1970s. She is still in hit films all the time. In fact, when I Googled to find a photo of her to use for this piece, I was DELIGHTED that the ones at the top were all contemporary. I have associated her for decades now with aging Boomer rom-coms and family films and so forth, which is more than fine. These aren’t my favorite genres by a long way but she’s always the best thing about them because she still has her comic chops, her charm, her style, and her beauty. Dayum! Count your blessings, young ‘uns! When I was a kid, the old lady movie stars were Bette Davis and Joan Crawford! Talk about scary!

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