The woman born Diane Hall found her artistic voice at six years old, watching Gale Storm on the sitcom My Little Margie. “She was everything I wanted to be—clever, fearless, and always up to wacky antics…,” she wrote in her 2011 memoir Then Again. “She was funny but fragile. I liked that.” Later changing her name to Diane Keaton, the Oscar-winning actress has had a varied career, but that buoyant vibrancy she describes in Storm could just as easily apply to her body of work. To celebrate her 70th birthday, here’s a look back at a career full of choice performances: some wacky, others fearless, all Keaton-esque.
The Godfather (1972)
The original gets the nod over the equally iconic 1974 sequel for its introduction of Kay, the sweet, shy girlfriend of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) and the de facto voice of conscience amidst a family of mobsters. In lesser hands, Kay could have been merely a dutiful love interest shoved aside while the men do their dirty work, but Keaton (in one of her first film roles) never lets her character reside in the margins. Instead, she’s the saga’s moral compass. The Godfather is very much about Michael’s reluctant ascension from outsider to all-powerful don, but the horror of that transformation is seen through Kay’s perspective, and Keaton makes that Faustian bargain sting. The film famously ends on the door being closed on Kay: Who could forget how the actress made that moment so full of anguish and hurt?
Love and Death (1975)
By Love and Death, Keaton had appeared with writer-director Woody Allen in a few films and on stage. But here she hits all the notes in her comic repertoire: completely zany, wonderfully deadpan, kookily sexy, downright adorable. Love and Death is a parody of Russian literature and Ingmar Bergman movies set during the time of Napoleon, with Keaton playing the object of Allen’s dorky affections. A transitional film that found Allen moving away from the gag-a-minute antics of Sleeper into the more philosophical leanings of his late-1970s-and-1980s heyday, Love and Death required Keaton to deliver hilarious dialogue full of faux-profound existential angst with a straight face. (Sample line: “To love is to suffer. To avoid suffering, one must not love. But then one suffers from not loving. Therefore: to love is to suffer; not to love is to suffer; to suffer is to suffer.”) She made pretentious ramblings deeply appealing.
Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977)
This is the other movie in which she appeared in 1977, the year of her Oscar-winning triumph. Based on Judith Rossner’s controversial novel about a free spirit who teaches by day and picks up random men at bars by night, Looking for Mr. Goodbar was considered risqué for its time, daring to portray a boozing, carousing woman seeking some sort of escape from an unhappy childhood and a life of convention and responsibility. Keaton beat out many actresses for the part. “I wanted to do it like everyone else,” she once recalled, “but for some reason [writer-director Richard Brooks] cast me, which remains an interesting choice on his part.” Goodbar showed Keaton unafraid to explore her dramatic side after years of Allen comedies. Still, it’s the Allen comedy from 1977 that everybody remembers…
Annie Hall (1977)
Some actors snag an Oscar for a showy role or because they’re a beloved industry veteran who never got the golden statuette. In other words, they received it for a performance that wasn’t worthy. That’s not true of Keaton: If her turn in Annie Hall isn’t her finest moment, it’s in the top two or three, playing an insecure, delightful goofball who falls for an insecure, curmudgeonly stand-up (director and cowriter Woody Allen). Keaton’s character, inspired in part by Keaton herself, became a feminist icon of the late 1970s, her quirky fashion sense soon adopted by the masses. And almost four decades later, the movie (which won Best Picture, beating out Star Wars) is still wonderful, as is her performance, creating in the culture’s mind an image of the “real” Diane Keaton: effervescent, lovable, happily marching to the beat of her own drummer.
If Annie Hall was all sunny, loopy self-doubt, Manhattan’s Mary is her caustic polar opposite: an uptight urban pseudo-intellectual who oozes attitude without an ounce of charm. But Keaton located the soft heart within this potentially unpleasant character, showing how her snooty posturing was merely a prickly self-defense mechanism. Manhattan is very much a story about how art, culture and big-city sophistication can’t protect us from the loneliness we all feel, and in Mary filmmaker Woody Allen found the perfect woman to bewitch his discontented main character. After the warmth of playing Annie Hall, Keaton seems to be having a blast portraying someone so biting: The adorableness of her earlier performances is here offset by a grownup sense of bitter resignation.
Keaton’s second Oscar nomination came in a movie that, weirdly, could be seen as a spiritual cousin to her role in Annie Hall. In the true-life drama Reds, she plays Louise Bryant, the loyal wife to journalist/Communist sympathizer John Reed (director and cowriter Warren Beatty), who in the 1910s believed that America’s workforce need to rise up against the scourge of Capitalism. Like in Annie Hall, Keaton portrays a talented, sensitive woman who lacks the confidence of her lover, and as a result must live somewhat in his shadow. And in both movies, Keaton niftily navigates her characters’ evolution, winning us over with their determination and desire for independence. Reds was Beatty’s years-in-the-making passion project that won him a Best Director Oscar, but this romantic epic wouldn’t mean much without Keaton’s fiery portrayal of an aspiring writer who learns that she can support her man without having to give up on her own dreams.
Baby Boom (1987)
A decade earlier, Keaton had emerged as a symbol of a certain kind of enlightened 1970s woman. With Baby Boom, she embodied another archetype: that of the go-go 1980s gal who had decided to forgo motherhood for a successful career. Everyone who watches Baby Boom knows what’s going to happen: Yuppie exec J.C. Wiatt (Keaton) becomes the legal guardian for an infant after her relative dies, a development that this all-business woman has never wanted—except, wouldn’t you know it, she ends up falling in love with the little squirt. Never particularly sophisticated, Baby Boom goes a long way on Keaton’s slow-burn comic frustration. Even when she’s playing a total grump, you can’t help but root for her.
Father of the Bride (1991)
Like plenty of gifted actresses, Keaton eventually transitioned into playing mom roles, and this hit remake of the Spencer Tracy classic finds her bringing plenty of zest to what could be a pat part. In this new Father of the Bride, harried dad George Banks (Steve Martin) endures the rigmarole of wedding planning for his beloved daughter (Kimberly Williams), resulting in plenty of hijinks of a consistently mildly humorous variety. But Keaton’s graceful, lively presence helps bring a level of class to the proceedings, which has been her career formula for much of the next two decades: Whenever she shows up in the movie with her grownup sexiness and glowing, comforting smile, everything suddenly becomes a notch or two more special.
Something’s Gotta Give (2003)
The fourth of her four Oscar nominations—she also got a nod for 1996’s Marvin’s Room—came in Something’s Gotta Give, which reunited Keaton with her Reds costar Jack Nicholson to portray Erica, a successful playwright who ends up being wooed by a music executive (Nicholson) who tends to date much younger women. (In fact, when Keaton’s and Nicholson’s characters first meet, it’s because he’s dating Erica’s daughter.) Written and directed by Nancy Meyers, Something’s Gotta Give hits at some of the pain middle-aged women feel at being cast aside for prettier, shinier newer models, but Keaton never makes that righteous anger feel like whining: Erica is such a vibrant figure it’s little wonder she has to decide between Nicholson and Keanu Reeves as a hunky doctor.
The Family Stone (2005)
If Father of the Bride was the best of Keaton’s first lovable-mom roles, The Family Stone is the clear standout since: an imperfect but heartwarming and moving tale of a dysfunctional family getting together for Christmas. She plays Sybil, the adoring matriarch who’s dying, and writer-director Thomas Bezucha works hard to keep the melodramatic clichés at bay as best he can while orchestrating a large ensemble (including Claire Danes, Rachel McAdams and Sarah Jessica Parker) through several plot twists. Even now as a senior citizen, Keaton radiates an off-kilter sparkle that can leave her characters feeling like the only thing in the movie that’s not completely by the book. And with The Family Stone, where Bezucha allows each character to be a real person, she’s the highlight of a winning holiday film.