Skip to main content
johanna schneller: fame game

Diane Keaton would always see them around her parents' house – her mother Dorothy Hall's journals. Brick-thick notebooks stuffed with photographs, collages, adages, to-do lists, self-improvement tips. And feelings – rivers, cascades, waterfalls of feelings that were never revealed on Dorothy's strong face, or in her impeccable manners. Keaton peeked into one once when younger, then quickly shut it again. It was too personal.

But when Dorothy died in 2008, after 15 years in the grip of Alzheimer's disease, Keaton took possession of the journals, 85 in all, thousands of pages, and started reading. (I interviewed her a few years ago, and she let me leaf through one. It practically pulsed with energy.)

Keaton has always believed in, as she puts it, "finding redemption through documentation." In addition to being an actress, she, too, is a journal keeper – though she ripped up her more embarrassing efforts – and a collagist; she's published books on photography and architecture; she's on the board of the Los Angeles Conservancy, which fights to preserve buildings. And she realized something she suspected but never admitted when her mother was alive: Dorothy's voice was aching to be heard.

"I knew she was complicated. I knew she wasn't always happy," Keaton said last week in a phone interview. At 65, she's funny, self-aware, self-deprecating and still speaks in Annie Hall's la-di-da cadences. She frequently holds mini-Socratic dialogues with herself, asking herself questions, answering them, then debating the answer in the same sentence streak. At one point she excused herself to holler to an unseen someone – "Anna? Did they put the trash away? They did, okay" – then came back to me with a wry, "Yeah, I worry about that trash."

"But Mother was quiet," she continued. "Unlike me. That's the great thing about acting for me, it's a release. And I was constantly telling her how I felt, asking for and wanting her attention. She was happy to give it – she was a spectacular, active listener. But she didn't speak. She got everything out on the page, but sometimes it has to be witnessed, and it wasn't."

So Keaton hit on an idea: She would juxtapose her story against her mother's journals. A world-famous, Oscar-winning actress, who dated three of moviedom's most glamorous men (Woody Allen, Warren Beatty and Al Pacino) but never married, and adopted her daughter Dexter and son Duke in her 50s; versus Dorothy Keaton Hall, a housewife so ideal she was once crowned Mrs. Los Angeles, who married young and stayed married until her husband Jack died of brain cancer in 1990, who was only 24 when Diane was born, and who made Diane and her younger brother and two sisters her life entire. Keaton would write their memoirs. The resulting book, Then Again, debuted last Sunday at No. 6 on The New York Times bestseller list.

Keaton has dubbed her living situation, bustling with her children, siblings, friends, assistants, housekeepers et al., a "family-of-man scenario," and they all dived in to the project. Three typists turned the handwritten journals into text, which Keaton read, often crying, mainly in the back seat of her car while waiting to pick up her children from swim meets. Then she'd type out responses on her laptop.

"I would read her on, say, how we'd go to Goodwill [the thrift store]" Keaton said, "and that would make me think, 'Why didn't she feel better about herself?' Then I'd just start writing. I loved it."

Much of what she read was "heartbreaking," she said. "Filled with all kinds of beautiful passages – sad, angry, in love with beauty – she was so in love with beauty, on and on and on. And her to-do lists, and how she was going to get better, how everything was going to be so much better, and hope. It made me feel really guilty. For not having been grown up enough to take an interest in what she wanted, and her dreams. Which were every bit as big as mine, but she didn't have the opportunity my parents gave me."

One notebook gave Keaton especial pause – entitled "Diane Keaton," it was full of clippings and PR photos, as impersonal as any anonymous fan's scrapbook. "I think Mom was separating herself from me," Keaton said. "I think in some way it fulfilled some dream of hers. It's the presentation of what the dream of me became when my dream came true."

Keaton's passages about the men in her life are generous – she describes Pacino's mystery, and the teasing notes Allen wrote to her (he once described her style of dress, "With the black clothes and the hat and the sensible shoes … she looks to me like the woman who comes to take Blanche DuBois to the institution"), and Beatty's "insane largesse." (Example: After she confessed to Beatty that she was afraid to fly, he surprised her at the L.A. airport, escorted her onto the plane, held her hand all the way to New York, then kissed her goodbye and flew right back.) She's also honest about how they goosed her career. "Without a great man writing and directing for me," she writes, "I was a mediocre movie star at best."

She also matches every difficult revelation from her mother – Dorothy's slide into drinking and depression after the children left home, for example – with one of her own, including this: For five years, Keaton was a raging bulimic. She spent six hours each day ingesting 20,000 calories, only to throw it all up. "Oh, I was busy," she said. "As I said, I like to work. But I think it's over for bulimia as a news item." She laughed. "No one seems to really care. You've got an eating disorder? Leave me alone; there's a recession going on, lady. But I do think that when you're addicted, you're living in your own self-made prison. That was the worst time in my life." For all their closeness, Dorothy died without ever knowing about it.

Keaton also writes that "people evolve into who they want to be," but says she hasn't gotten there yet. "Oh no no no. Mm-mm. Some. But no," she said. "I don't exactly know who I wanted to be, besides just the word Famous. It was like Heaven – yeah, I hope there's heaven, but what is it? I just want it. That's what Famous was. So vague. And when I got there, it was even more vague. Weird. Very uncomfortable. Probably because I knew that I was always out for more than my fair share. I'm aware of my grandiose expectations. Yeah. I wanted so much."

She has a few regrets. "I had a good relationship with my mother, I did," she said. "But not one where I would just hold her. We had a partnership, and it was a lot of fun. But to actually go and kiss her, put my hands on her face, say, 'I love you so much and I want you to know that'? Never did it. It was impossible for some reason. I really wish I had. By the time she was in the throes of Alzheimer's and she was no longer Dorothy, it was easy to do that. But when we were together, cognizant – never happened."

Perhaps that's why the most beautiful passages in a book full of them are about the shimmering grace of ordinary family moments. "I love our dinners every night at home, or driving in the car with my kids, or being at the beach, which are all things I liked when I was a kid," Keaton said. "Just simply being part of a family. Like, this morning I got up and I drove Dexter over to the swimming pool, again. A eucalyptus tree had fallen down on Sunset Boulevard. Dexter was being her typical self, not speaking, and I'm going, 'Gee, that tree fell down, did you see that, Dex?' I really love that. Being in the car, with someone I love. That's about as good as it's going to get."

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow the author of this article:

Check Following for new articles

Interact with The Globe