Diane Keaton’s memoir seems like a recipe for disaster. In place of a detailed account of what it was like to be Woody Allen’s first muse (admittedly, my initial motivation for reading it), it is a medley of letters between non-famous people, diaries documenting everyday anxieties, and reminiscences of an all-too-normal family life in Southern California. But here’s the really surprising thing: for some reason, it works.
Maybe it is Keaton’s unassuming choices of what to include: “Dear Diary, … Boys are never going to like me because I’m flat. Well, maybe one boy might, but I’m not sure”, reads an early diary entry – but Keaton is too merciful to her reader to indulge in stories of teenage agony.Or perhaps it is the self-deprecating tone she never veers from, be it about her Best Actress Oscar (she is still mortified by the memory of mumbling something unintelligible when approached by Audrey Hepburn) or how she kept forgetting her lines after kissing Jack Nicholson on a film set twenty-five years later. Her relationship with Warren Beatty – an experience many women would sell their souls for – was apparently destined for failure: “after all, Warren was “The Prince of Hollywood” and I was, as my dad called me, Di-annie Oh Hall-ie.” After a while, you get the false but persistent impression that Keaton is a minor flesh-and-bone character in her own tale of ‘life with the stars’.
Or maybe it is the bonds and banality of family life, a theme to which the book owes its most heartfelt moments. “Diane, I want you to know something,” blurts out her aloof father after a radiotherapy course fails to curb the growth of his brain tumour. “I’ve always hated my work. I wish I’d travelled more, gotten closer to you kids …”. Keaton’s mother, to whom the memoir is a posthumous tribute, gets the stark and tender dedication that reads like a six-word Hemingway novel: “You see, Mom, it was always you.”
Not all the surprises are pleasant. One is taken aback by the nationalistic undertones cropping up in the writing of someone you thought of as an ultra-cosmopolitan hybrid of Annie Hall and Louise Bryant. Driving by a war cemetery, Keaton tells her son Duke of “all the soldiers who lived and died to help keep our country safe” (safe from whom?). On another occasion, she is proud to be riding a bike over the Brooklyn Bridge, “one of our country’s greatest feats in the greatest city of them all.” You’d think someone like that has lived too rich a life to see it that way.
Then again, the fact that she hasn’t has prevented me from adoring her, and has made me like her instead. And, despite Keaton’s claims that she had always dreamt of being loved by millions of people, her book is too human to convince me that voracity still holds: I think she would prefer it this way.