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Diane Keaton has said that she felt miscast in The Godfather. The movie, her first, offers compelling evidence that she wasn’t. But that note of self-questioning honesty, familiar to anyone who has seen her interviewed or read her memoirs, is also essential to her distinctive work as an actor, whether she’s spoofing it up in a wacky satire, bringing a historical figure to full-blooded life or exploring the recognizable challenges of parenthood and marriage.
Her turn as Kay Adams-Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 saga (her second big-screen role after Lovers and Other Strangers) introduced many moviegoers to the singular mix of intellect and heart, innocence and yearning that has infused dozens of roles over the past 45 years. She would go on to play stronger women than Kay, and funnier ones, but something of Kay informs many of those performances: She’s a non-Sicilian in a Mafia clan, a Baptist among Catholics, a woman in a man’s world. She’s the outsider looking in.
Keaton’s discerning gaze is evident in her trend-resistant sense of personal style, her work as a photographer and some of her decidedly off-the-beaten-track choices as a director (the documentary Heaven) and producer (Gus Van Sant’s Elephant). But it’s also a key part of what sets her apart as a movie star. Even when her characters are at their most rash or ridiculous, there’s a core of piercing insight; we know that, beneath it all, she’s sensible.
And even when she’s playing a woman who’s quite clearly grounded, Keaton infuses the simplest exchange with shades of emotion, as in her recent work opposite Morgan Freeman in 5 Flights Up. Delving into the long-term and moment-to-moment negotiations of a good marriage, she delivers one of her loveliest performances.
There’s never anything capital-A actorly about Keaton’s work, but rather a remarkably unforced presence and a generosity toward her fellow actors, whether she’s sparring romantically with Jack Nicholson in Something’s Gotta Give or playing sympathetic aunt to a teenage Leonardo DiCaprio in Marvin’s Room — both performances that were nominated for Academy Awards. She doesn’t need to stake a claim on center stage, even when she’s playing the title character — the immortal Annie Hall — in a movie that’s a valentine to her talent and spirit. She draws us in effortlessly.
Making comedy look easy, notably in her celebrated collaborations with Woody Allen and, later, with Nancy Meyers, Keaton has brightened everything from satires to rom-coms to the category-defying crowd-pleaser First Wives Club, in which she formed a powerhouse trio with Goldie Hawn and Bette Midler.
But though she’s one of the screen’s greatest comic actors, Keaton has long taken risks with serious material that demands more of the audience. Early in her career, there was her harrowing walk on the wild side in Looking for Mr. Goodbar. Later, she stepped to the helm for the thoroughly unorthodox Heaven. And as she demonstrated earlier this year with her uncompromising turn as Sister Mary in HBO’s darkly trippy limited series The Young Pope, Keaton is a daring performer who’s still evolving, and still taking chances.
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