It was only day one, but Diane Keaton had already hit the ground. Hard. In the summer of 2009, she was in New York shooting the comedy Morning Glory, which opened Wednesday. She plays a perky morning news anchor who's so desperate to goose the ratings of her failing show that she undertakes kooky stunts like the one being shot that day: tangling with a sumo wrestler while wearing a blimp-sized fat suit.
"We were going to wing it," Keaton said over lunch at New York's Plaza Hotel. She was dressed in her signature style (grey bowler hat, crisp white shirt, rectangular glasses with green lenses), and chatting in her singular way: long, looping sentences in which she introduces an idea, contradicts it, then talks herself into and out of it a few more times, all without taking a breath. In someone else, this might be irritating, but Keaton's mind is so facile, her delivery so peppy, that it's enormously entertaining.
"It was my idea to just run into him," she continued. "But he was 450 pounds, his breasts were, like, boing boing. And bang! We didn't have a mat there, and I hit my head. I didn't pass out, but it was like, 'Oh, I can't just get right back up.' Not that anybody could, by the way, in that fat suit. But it did make me realize that there could be an end to me." She grinned, as if that thought both horrified and tickled her.
An end to Diane Keaton? Unthinkable. At 64, she's made 40 years' worth of films that are touchstones for her generation, from Looking for Mr. Goodbar, Reds and the Godfather trilogy through Annie Hall (for which she won a best-actress Oscar) and Manhattan to Baby Boom, The First Wives' Club and Something's Gotta Give. She came of age with actresses whose sex appeal sprang from their originality - including Jane Fonda, Sally Field and the late Jill Clayburgh - and she's resisted Hollywood's pressure to look anything other than her age.
But Keaton's been thinking about endings a lot lately. In 2007, the Film Society of Lincoln Center honoured her in its annual gala tribute; in 2008, her beloved mother Dorothy died and left Diane her stack of immensely detailed journals (Keaton's father Jack Hall died in 1990); and in 2009 Keaton addressed women's groups of up to 3,000 on the Unique Lives & Experiences lecture circuit. Those three events called forth a torrent of memories and provoked a period of self-examination that Keaton treated with the enthusiasm and curiosity that she usually reserves for other people.
Though she's "never enjoyed looking at my movies," she had to choose clips for the Lincoln Center tribute. "And looking at the people that I shared these intensely intimate moments with - seeing them then, and seeing who we are now - I realized how grateful I am for that," she said. "When you make a movie, you know people very intimately for a very short time. They're not really part of my life. But it's this magical time that we had together, a heightened situation that's sort of the best of both of you. At the time, I was like a deer in the headlights. I couldn't feel it; it was too much for me. I now want to own it in some way."
She calls her filmic relationships "romances," whether they were sexual (Woody Allen, Warren Beatty) or not (Meryl Streep). "Woody Allen was the defining romance of my life, because it was the romance that kicked in the other romances," she said. "How sweet it was, how bittersweet it was. Then, the older I got, I played opposite women more than men. With them, it was a romance of reality. I'd watch these women grappling with love and life. That's the romance of accepting life for what it is, rather than the fantasy of it, as it is with men."
Keaton got even more personal in her lecture series. "It was all about my mother, who she was [a skilled homemaker who was a finalist for Mrs. California] the differences of our lives [Keaton always worked, never married and adopted two children while in her 50s]and my relationship to her [mutual devotion] I showed footage of her, both when she was young and also when she was in the throes of Alzheimer's, but in a funny phase. She was completely charming and spontaneous, freed from some restrictions on how she dealt with people. If she had a thought about you, she would just say it. It was really kind of great."
Yet despite everything Keaton has done - she's an architecture preservationist, she's published photography books, she's filmed upcoming comedies for directors Bill Condon and Lawrence Kasdan, and she's raising her daughter Dexter, 14, and son Duke, 9 - what her audience at speaking engagements most wanted to hear were her thoughts on aging. "It's always about aging," she said. "I mean, always. I'm sorry to say it, but if you're over the age of 40, that's all anyone cares about: aging. And if you're 30, you're prepping for 40. Women are - God, it's heartbreakingly touching."
I ventured that I'm surprised that baby boomers haven't found a way to make their collective aging more cool, or at least palatable. "But that would require the ability to let those early fantasies go," Keaton replied. "We're holding onto them for dear life. 'I'm so loveable,' or whatever we're thinking. The fear that people would not look at you because you're not attractive any more, you're stuck there. But there are other things, many more things to deal with."
Such as? "Talking to the women after those lectures, hearing their stories," Keaton answers. "I tell you, ordinary moments, everyone's lives - it's a mystery. I think you finally recognize that the relationships you have with people really are the substance. It's not the rest of it at all, the fame or the validation.
"When you're younger," she continued, "you have the fantasy that those things will provide for you, sustain you and make everything different. We all know they don't, but the power of the fantasy is shocking. You get lost in the magic of the validation, or of being beautiful, or being loved. It's really difficult to let go of. But it's also very painful while you're holding onto it. So it's like: 'Are you going to let it go, or are you just gonna sit in your misery?'" She paused. "It's about goodbyes," she said, looking me right in the eye. "This age, it's a lot about goodbyes."
No one's ever ready for the end of themselves. But Keaton is nodding at the possibility - acknowledging yesterday, yet still attacking tomorrow head-on. Even when it weighs 450 pounds.