The white girl has thin arms, expressive hands, and long hair. The first time we see her is in a series of black-and-white stills taken in a twilight world of bars and clubs and discos. They’re part of the opening credits for the 1977 film Looking for Mr. Goodbar, the story of Theresa Dunn—Diane Keaton—who, in the photographs at least, looks a little lost to us, even before we’ve lost her.
When the movie proper starts we notice that the white girl has a distinctive gait. Strolling down the street or climbing a flight of stairs, her feet are slightly turned out, like a dancer’s, or a clown’s. You wouldn’t call her fashionable, but she has some nice clothes: a denim jumpsuit, sensible skirt, knee-high boots—like that. You wouldn’t say the girl was “plain”; nor would you reduce her to anything as banal as “pretty.” She’s beautiful like Diane Keaton—a “real” beauty the ladies can relate to—but cut off from any chance of it being celebrated, especially by the men whose attention she craves.
But she will not be known. To be seen is to be exposed and to be exposed is to be hurt and to be hurt is to be what she once was, all the way back in childhood: a vulnerable child suffering the aftereffects of polio, which included curvature of the spine, and the indignity of living, for a time, in a body cast. Left more or less to herself in that cast on a table in the family sitting room—in their guilt her Irish-American parents would not look at her—she listened as her family talked about Jesus. But he would not come.
Eventually she walked away from polio with a scar on her lower back and a heavy aspirin habit. She rarely lets any of this show on her face, though; her kids—after completing her college studies she began teaching at a school for the deaf—wouldn’t be able to process any of that. They’re in the first grade, deaf or partially hearing, and they watch her face for everything—she’s their world—as she teaches them to sign, and maybe say a few words from their actual mouths, which are as vulnerable as their teacher’s own.
Watching her face as she looks at her students can be painful because of its naked care, and her desire to conceal her inner life. There’s one little girl in her class, though—her name’s Amy; she’s black—who loves Theresa, more than she could say if she could say it.
In the black night the white girl becomes someone else. Restless, anxious, sad, she trolls singles bars. This is in the 1970s, when places like Maxwell’s Plum and Plato’s Retreat were the spots, and girls like this white girl have earned what a number of birth control advocates and feminists had fought for: a woman’s right to her own body and, perforce, its own pleasures and disasters.
But despite her best efforts, emotional disaster attaches itself to Theresa’s vulnerability like something awful burrowing into the skin. As a hard-working college student she fell for a married professor; he was rank with misogyny. When Theresa asked this guy once why he wanted to break off their affair, she provided him with a list of reasons—Did her breath smell? Was her sex too straight?—questions that sounded like one of those checklists you’d find in a women’s magazine—you know, one of those lists that shows you just how little or how much you’re pleasing your man. When, in response to Theresa’s inquiry, her lover and mentor shouted, Theresa drew back; her hope had been punched in the face. And yet, later, she smiled when he granted her an audience in his car.
Eventually the white girl only gives as good as she gets. The high of sex is met with sour dawns—which, by the way, no man can share with her: it’s the only rule of the house, she says; none of her temporary lovers can sleep over. In a way she’s trying to imitate her former professor’s not so casual disregard—once he told her that after he’d slept with a woman he couldn’t stand her company—but you get the sense that Terry doesn’t so much dislike the smell of a man on her person, in her postcoital bed, as she can’t stand her own smell on her male partners. Jesus couldn’t save or love her. Then other men couldn’t, either.
By the time Diane Keaton played in director Richard Brooks’s film adaptation of Judith Rossner’s best-selling 1975 novel, “Looking for Mr. Goodbar” had become a term no longer connoting the sex-equals-death equation that some unabashed second-wave feminist-minded “sluts” felt the story promoted; by then it described an ideologically forced, sexually “liberated” world where single white women in particular were struggling, still, with internalized Eisenhower-era expectations regarding hearth and home. (Then as now single women of color had a different set of concerns, especially if they’d been raised in a single-parent household where Mom was Dad.)
The question for single white women of the Goodbar era was this: If I crack the egg, am I “oppressed”? And do my own eggs oppress me? During this time, literary artists ranging from John Updike to Gay Talese devised female characters, in Couples and Thy Neighbor’s Wife, respectively, who felt the pull between Betty Crocker and cocaine, but those writers could only go so far; their ladies were precursors to the main characters in Sex and the City, flat and archetypal all at once.
To get any sense of what was happening in women’s lives before and for a time after Looking for Mr. Goodbar came out, watch the movies. In 1971 Jane Fonda starred in Klute, one of the greatest studies we have of late-twentieth-century femaleness-as-performance. (The black actress Cicely Tyson took naturalism to a new level in 1972’s Sounder, an elegiac film where the focus was manhood, not motherhood.) While Klute and Looking for Mr. Goodbar were both directed and written by men, they’re “women’s pictures,” because of their respective stars’ powerful sensibilities, and their articulation of what Fonda once said she equated her gender with: losing.
After Klute, Fonda went on to appear in a number of films that explored the boundaries of convention—motherhood, marriage, and so on—but Keaton’s best film roles continued to mine what she laid out in Goodbar and the other pivotal film she appeared in the same year, Annie Hall: single white female uncertainty, joy, and isolation. On winning the 1978 Best Actress Oscar for her performance as Hall—her given last name; Keaton is her mother’s maiden name—the actress writes in her first, remarkable, and uncategorizable book, Then Again (2011):
I didn’t know…who I was…. When I heard the D sound in a first name that became Diane, I still wasn’t sure, but I got up anyway and more or less rushed to the podium. I knew winning had nothing to do with being the “best” actress. I knew I didn’t deserve it. And I knew I’d won an Academy Award for playing an affable version of myself. I got it. But the fact that Annie Hall, a comedy, won best picture thrilled me. For some unfathomable reason, comedy is invariably relegated to the position of second cousin to drama. Why? Humor helps us get through life with a modicum of grace. It offers one of the few benign ways of coping with the absurdity of it all.
If acting, as Sanford Meisner, an early mentor of Keaton’s, once said, is behaving realistically in imaginary situations, Keaton’s real feelings, recollections, and perceptions at the unreal or fantastic Oscars ceremony were of a piece with her screen work. There as elsewhere, Keaton’s signature characters are women who do not know who their “I” is but nevertheless “more or less” rush to the podium, hiding to be seen.
She came by all of this natural, as the elders used to say. Born in Los Angeles in 1943, Keaton is the oldest of four children. Her parents were an admixture of western pragmatism, eccentricity, and romantic conservatism. Her beautiful mother, Dorothy Hall, a Los Angeles native, was once voted Mrs. Los Angeles; she made collages, kept a diary, and took photographs—pursuits her eldest daughter eventually fell in love with, too. Her father, Jack Hall, moved to Los Angeles from Nebraska as a boy with his mother, who was something of a con artist. A civil engineer, Hall was an advocate of positive thinking. His two bibles, his daughter writes in her first book, were Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking and Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People.
Later Jack discovered PACE, an acronym for Personal and Company Effectiveness. “Pace was described as a method to help people better understand what it would take to make more productive use of their talents while further enhancing their personal and professional success.” Of Dorothy and Jack Hall’s four children, Diane was the only one who never attended the two-week PACE seminars in San Diego. Why should she? She was conducting her version of it in her bedroom where, as a burgeoning performer, she worked on her personality, and how to express thought and feeling through action.
In junior high school Keaton joined the debating society: “Following my impulses did something wildly exciting; it triggered thought. Fighting for something within the safety of a formal context became my path to personal expression.” Learning to become someone else was a kind of rescue as well. Stealing the show in her high school production of Little Mary Sunshine, Keaton recalls this transformative moment:
When Mom and Dad found me backstage, their faces were beaming. Dad had tears in his eyes. I’d never seen him so excited. More than excited—surprised. That’s what it was. I could tell he was startled by his awkward daughter—the one who’d flunked algebra, smashed into his new Ford station wagon…and spent a half hour in the bathroom using up a whole can of Helene Curtis hairspray. For one thrilling moment…I was his heroine….There were no words. It was all—every timeless second—encapsulated in his piercing blue eyes. The ones Mom fell in love with. There was no going back.
Much has been made of the erotic power of the male gaze, but relatively little about the joy inherent in being claimed. In 2012’s Woody Allen: A Documentary, Keaton’s first auteur—she began working with Allen on Broadway, in the showman’s 1969 comedy Play It Again, Sam, a year after Keaton, the white girl from California, sang “Black boys are delicious, Chocolate flavored love” in the 1968 Broadway hit Hair—there’s an outtake from an earlier documentary about Allen. He’s working with Keaton on a scene for 1973’s Sleeper. In it, she attempts to impersonate his character’s New York Jewish mother, complete with Yiddish accent. But Allen can’t get through the scene; he keeps breaking up. And it’s the shy joy in Allen’s face as he turns away from Keaton, and the anticipation of joy on her face as she makes the male gaze happen again and again, that remind us of her peculiar power to claim our attention through that most elusive of qualities—happiness.
The other, more difficult stuff she kept secret—or revealed through characters like Theresa Dunn in Mr. Goodbar and, later, as the forlorn, romantic, stifled title character in the underrated 1984 film Mrs. Soffel, directed by Gillian Armstrong. As a featured player in Hair, Keaton was told she could have a shot at playing the lead if she dropped ten pounds. That was all it took to develop a passion that would practically consume all others, aside from her ambition: eating and purging. Like most junkies, she didn’t care about the side effects of her addiction—when it comes to bulimia, rotting teeth and irregular periods are not uncommon—as much as she fetishized the mechanics.
Keaton’s descriptions of secreting pounds of ice cream, hamburgers, chocolate, steaks, chicken, and so on in the little bachelor apartment she kept even after she began living with Allen are harrowing to read. Part of the excitement for the artist who longed to be seen and not was living in a world of secrets. If you have secrets you get to pretend you don’t. Allen and others knew nothing of Keaton’s addiction for some time until, after nearly a decade of making herself sick, the ever emerging star, with the help of a therapist, stopped.
Keaton looks back at her addiction, her love affairs—particularly with the here and then gone again star Al Pacino, who is the romantic headliner in Then Again and her new book, Let’s Just Say It Wasn’t Pretty—with the wide eyes of a committed moviegoer: the screen is her home. And so is the art of voice-over narration, especially when it comes to describing the junkie’s pull toward self-destruction while reveling in cheating it. Still, the either/or aspect of her persona has always been there for all the world to see. (Jean-Luc Godard, perhaps our premier director of ambivalence in a philosophical context, was very interested in working with Keaton early in her career.) Her more memorable movie work centers, at times, on the push and pull of her character’s consciousness—and body. In Sleeper, Keaton played a socialite poet who realizes that God spelled backward is dog. Eventually she becomes a revolutionary who’s not above mimicking Brando’s Stanley to Allen’s Blanche.
Two years later Keaton dressed as Sonja, a loose, nineteenth-century Russian moralist with tight little curls framing her face. The movie was Allen’s Love and Death; in it, Allen and Keaton had philosophical discussions about mortality as Keaton cheated on her fishmonger husband, who was not above arguing with a herring. (For these and other roles Penelope Gilliatt described Keaton as “one of the more…brainy actresses in our midst.”) For Warren Beatty’s 1981 film Reds, Keaton impersonated the late journalist Louise Bryant. The shoot was difficult; Beatty, then Keaton’s lover, required many takes. Looking back at the experience in Then Again, Keaton, an astute critic of acting on and off the screen, says that her performance felt more like a reaction to Beatty than anything else. And she’s candid, too, when she admits that she wasn’t so much in love with Beatty as she wanted to be him: the male gaze and muse all in one.
Her mother fostered Keaton’s ambition. And it’s her daughter’s power that gets some of Dorothy Hall’s journals read at last. Then Again alternates between Keaton’s memories and her mother’s dreams and wishes as expressed in her diaries. Keaton the daughter cannot go forward without looking back. But it’s the canny artist who describes her mother’s considerable will as a model of her own. As a teenager, Keaton took singing lessons with Kenny Akin, “Mr. Music of Orange County.” The relationship was not good:
Kenny Akin managed his own voice-and-dramatics studio…. In his eyes I was one thing—WRONG. Thank God he never bought into my brand of appeal. His rejection gave me the will to persist long enough to find a loophole that would force him to give me a chance. As always, my loophole was Mom. Over a cup of coffee at the kitchen counter, I told her how Kenny gave all the big parts to Megan. Mom didn’t say anything; she just shook her head. But I know for a fact she had a little chat with Mr. Akin, because a few days later I saw them through a crack in his study door…. The audience would decide my fate, not Mr. Kenny Akin. I always thought I’d be crushed by people who didn’t buy into me. But I wasn’t. There would be many Kenny Akinses who found themselves stuck with me whether they liked it or not.
And there it is, again and again: grit and ardor as the defining characteristics of the American arrival myth. In both her books, Keaton emerges as a heroine traversing the American West and East and then West again (she moved back to California from New York for good in 1990; there she has been raising her two adopted children) looking to pitch her tent so she can devise her own magic show not so much for the delectation of men—except if they’re as elusive as Keaton herself—but always for her mother’s love and approval.
Let’s Just Say It Wasn’t Pretty is the darker of Keaton’s books, in part because she wrote it on her own—her mother is no longer her light-filled, more experienced collaborator, willing to protect her daughter from her long-standing fascination with change, how time passes, and what the body and mind look like as they grow in depth, and then deteriorate. (Given her fascination with all this, some clever producer should cast Keaton as Mary Tyrone in the quintessential American drama, Long Day’s Journey into Night. Writing over fifty years ago, when Katharine Hepburn took the role on, stunningly, in Sidney Lumet’s 1962 version, Pauline Kael remarked that the Depression era’s greatest comedienne had become its greatest tragedienne. The 1970s had no greater star who was a comedienne than Keaton. Imagine if she played Mary, especially when she would describe her shyness in the face of love, her reverence of her father, or as she’s trying to conceal her addiction. And who better to play her James Tyrone than her old friend and costar Jack Nicholson?)
Still, just as our parents protect us from mortality and that fantasy dies when they do, Keaton longs to shield her children from the self she is even as she can’t help being that self. In her second book, Keaton relates, on a moving poetic scale, a visit to her son’s grade school. The former Hair player is barefoot. She loves the way the ground feels beneath her feet, but her physical expressiveness or, more accurately, openness, is embarrassing to her child, and Keaton wonders, in the silent drive back home, what her son—the male gaze that is, after a fashion, her own—sees when he looks at his mother. The eyes of spacious, indefinable love, or Diane Keaton’s unconquerable, self-aware, white girl’s difference?