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Fragments of Sadness & Uncertainty: Keaton as Everywoman
on December 2, 2011
'Then Again' (2011) is a poignant but often frustrating 'collage' of a memoir by cultural icon Diane Keaton. The book's best feature is that Keaton writes in her own inimitable voice; there are no ghost writers present here, though ghosts of other kinds abound.
'Then Again' is a work of memory and feeling; it conceals more than it reveals, and hard facts are few.
Its most striking quality may be the depth of Keaton's self-depreciation. At 65 years of age, an Academy Award-winning actress (nominated for Best Actress four times over four decades, winning once), an accomplished director of film and television, a highly stylized comedian, an author of multiple books on photography and painting, and a vital presence in American cinema and culture, it is surprising how little self-esteem, and how much active self-loathing, Keaton has for herself.
Not only does the author seem burdened with regrets, which she freely acknowledges and makes a point to underscore, but she consistently magnifies the relatively inconsequential while ignoring her many actual achievements: she discusses a late 1970s Vogue cover which was cancelled because Keaton insisted that the editors use a black and white Irving Penn photograph, but she doesn't mention her 1987 Vanity Fair cover at all.
About the first two Godfather movies (1972, 1974), both of which are acknowledged American film classics, Keaton's most prominent memory is that makeup artist Dick Smith saddled her with an unbecoming "10-pound blond wig," as if her performances and other contributions were little more than wallpaper or window-dressing.
While filming the third Godfather film in Palermo circa 1990, Keaton notes that the reassembled cast is "older but not happier," and focuses on Winona Ryder being replaced by Sofia Coppola, the director's daughter, whom, she notes, "was soon to be seen on the cover of Vogue."
'Then Again' is full of such biting but apparently only semi-intentional asides. Of all the elements Keaton might have enjoyed, appreciated, and remembered about filming in southern Italy, the reader will question why Keaton decided to focus on what she presumably saw as an act of nepotism by Francis Ford Coppola.
Of her performance as Renata in Allen's first dramatic film, 'Interiors' (1978), Keaton believes she was simply miscast.
Though Keaton discusses Woody Allen's 'Anne Hall' (1977) at length, she mentions his 1979 masterpiece, 'Manhattan,' in which she played the female lead, Mary Wilkes, only once, and then only by name.
Worse, however, is how little appreciation she has for her own comic genius in some of Allen's "early funny" films of the 70s, from 'Sleeper' (1973) to 'Play It Again, Sam' (1972, written by and starring Allen, but directed by Herbert Ross) and 1975's hilarious and underrated 'Love & Death.'
Readers are very likely to appreciate Keaton's candor when it does manifest, though the author herself remains inexplicable, perhaps because, even in late middle age, she still seems rudderless and ungrounded. Keaton doesn't seem to really know what she thinks or feels about almost anything.
Though Keaton rejects her father's simple, Dale Carnegie-driven aphorisms, despite the presence of literate Woody Allen in her life, Keaton never discusses any books she's read and loved. Had she read Blake, Charlotte and Emily Bronte, Emerson, Freud, Jung, T.S. Eliot, Simone de Beauvoir, Isak Dinesen, Muriel Spark, or even Camille Paglia, Keaton might have gained some necessary insight into her own existence as well as the general human condition.
For example, upon winning the Oscar for Best Actress for 'Annie Hall,' Keaton unexpectedly comes face-to-face with her childhood idol and role model Audrey Hepburn, who congratulates her on her achievement. What Keaton recalls most vividly is only that Hepburn "was old," and not the elegant young woman Keaton remembered from a 1953 photographic spread in Life magazine, as if Hepburn's aged appearance was a personal affront to Keaton at the moment of her triumph.
What are readers to make of such undigested and shallow perceptions? Keaton often seems to lack insight about herself on a grand scale.
The author discusses her romantic relationships with Woody Allen, Warren Beatty, and Al Pacino in the same hazy but breezy manner. She was 'sort of' the girlfriend of each for extended periods at different points of her life, though each man apparently refused to commit to a structured, traditional relationship with Keaton, which, she says, tended to make her push harder for exactly that.
One of the key points of Robert Bly's 'The Sibling Society' (1997) was that men and women in the West, having significantly surrendered traditional gender roles, no longer act or relate to one another as different sexes; instead of dating and interacting in any formal, structural manner, they simply 'pal around' like brothers and sisters; often, neither party even knows whether or not they're on a date in fact---all of which is disastrous for sexual relations. Keaton seems to have succumbed to this syndrome in each of her major relationships, or at least in those discussed here.
Keaton believes that Pacino is "an artist," while she is merely "artistic." Why? For Keaton, the grass always seems to be greener on the other side.
A major theme of 'Then Again' is Keaton's relationship with her family, especially her relationship with her creative but frustrated mother, who also made collages and also seemed unable to ground herself, especially after her four children had grown.
However, again, hard facts remain sketchy: readers are told that Keaton's father abandoned her mother at some point, but it is almost impossible to tell when, and if he ever returned; Keaton's younger brother, Randy, apparently suffers from some form of debilitating psychological illness, but almost nothing concrete about his illness is declared.
Keaton's lengthy passages concerning her own five-year struggle with bulimia, becoming an advocate for aging gracefully (which doesn't square, obviously, with her comments about Hepburn or the airbrushed photographs of her on a recent Chico's clothing catalog), her father's fatal brain tumor, and her mother's later decline into Alzheimer's disease are largely touching and courageous. The book's early chapters are more appealing than the latter, as, despite joyfully adopting two young children in midlife, Keaton's adulthood appears to have been largely an unhappy one, her ego constantly knocking against the hard facts of life.
Very much like Keaton's public persona, typified by her 'Annie Hall' character, the author of 'Then Again' seems constantly caught between opposing forces of humility and repression on one side and an unacknowledged sense of ego, ambition, and entitlement on the other. Is she 'special' and thus exempt, or is she 'common' and subject to the usual list of life's vicissitudes? Keaton doesn't seem to know.
One critical lesson 'Then Again' may unintentionally convey is that the life of a beautiful film star and talented artist is essentially no different from anyone else's. Keaton, it seems, despite her dilemmas, has been spared nothing.
Readers who have read Mary Astor' grueling autobiography, 'My Story' (1959), may recall it while digesting Keaton's memoir. Though Keaton hasn't suffered Astor's crippling alcoholism, the same terrible tone of sadness pervades both books.
And that tone is probably the last thing most Keaton admirers would want for their much-loved and respected comedian.