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The Lady   18 June 2017

As her millions of film fans  know, Diane Keaton has charm – lots of it. And not just on screen either, as I discover when she suddenly gives me an affectionate bear-hug for braving the online dating scene after widowhood. 

“Great!” she trills into my ear. “Great! Oh my God, that’s fabulous. I’m happy for you, you’re amazing. I would be so terrified of online dating. Hell, no, I’ve never done that! My God, I love you for this. “ Most A-listers wouldn’t dream of embracing anyone sent to interview them, but then the endearingly kooky DK has always been a one-off.

Who wouldn’t warm to such a free spirit and style icon, who brought out the feminine in masculine tailoring  like her heroine Katharine Hepburn and whose giggly insecurities made her seem  almost like one of us?  In her most famous role as Woody Allen’s delightfully ditzy Annie Hall, she just seemed to be playing herself in her usual naturalistic way – and we loved her all the more for it.

I’m meeting her at London’s Soho Hotel to talk about her latest film role as a widow who finds unexpected later-life romance.  Queen Diane’s sense of street chic is as sharp as ever in a navy pin-striped, high-collared shirt, belted black jacket over a tiny waist, cropped blue jeans and black Doc Martens; she likes boots that were made for walking.  Now 71, she looks fabulous with artfully streaked grey-blonde hair and a face as natural as her acting (she refuses to have cosmetic surgery).

For more than four decades now, she has been one of Hollywood’s most distinctive leading ladies – most notably in The Godfather Trilogy,  Looking For Mr Goodbar,  Reds, The First Wives Club and, of course, eight Woody Allen films. Her reign as his favourite Muse began with  1972’s Play It Again, Sam, peaked with 1977’s Annie Hall (for which she won the Best Actress Oscar) and was still going strong nearly two decades  later with 1993’s Manhattan Murder Mystery; she still counts Woody as one of her best friends.  More recently she’s gravitated to the small screen too, especially in Sky Atlantic’s The Young Pope opposite our own Jude Law. As she tells me with a smile, “I’ve been lucky with the men I’ve been in films with recently.”

After a string of relationships with her Godfather leading man Al Pacino, her Reds director and co-star Warren Beatty and Woody himself, the never-married Diane remains one of the most eligible single women in Hollywood.  Although she has defiantly said “that old maid myth is garbage – I don’t think that it’s made my life any less”,  perhaps the roots of her singledom lay in her parents’ difficult marriage (of which more later). By her own admission, Pacino was the lover who really broke her heart, refusing to marry her; perhaps she shouldn’t take it too personally, however, since although he went on to have three children, he never married their mothers either.

But the experience left her wary and bruised, so much so that recently she made the telling admission on the Graham Norton Show that “it doesn’t get better than a screen romance: all these men that you get to kiss - and you don’t have to pay the price.”  We shouldn’t write off any future dates  for Diane, as I discover later in my interview, but currently all her emotional energy seems invested in her beloved children: her daughter Dexter and son Duke, whom she adopted in 1996 and 2001 respectively. After deciding to become a single mother at 55, she later admitted that “motherhood has completely changed me. It’s just about the most completely humbling experience that I’ve ever had. I spent too long worrying about whether a man loved me or not.  [Instead] I found that raising a child was the most humanising of all loves; it is unconditional.”

Nevertheless playing a widow in her latest film, Hampstead, has concentrated Diane’s mind on the vulnerability of some women who are left alone…and how they cope. Inspired by the  real-life story of the Irish recluse Harry Hallowes [correct] who lived on Hampstead Heath until his death last year, the film casts Diane as an American widow called Emily who befriends the Irish actor Brendan Gleeson’s heath-dwelling hermit Donald in a classic example of an odd-couple relationship.

“Oh sure, I identified with Emily to a certain extent, of course,” she tells me. “She’s fiercely independent – and  yet she lied to herself and she owed money and her husband had cheated on her; she was looking at a life that was a mess.  So she needed to take care of herself – yet nothing was going to change until  she picked up those binoculars and looked out of an upstairs window one day. “

That is Emily’s pivotal Rear Window moment, which transforms her life just as a pair of binoculars did for the hero of the Hitchcock movie of the same name. “It was a window into someone else’s world,” says Diane, referring to the scene when Emily first glimpses Donald between the trees of the Heath opposite her North London home. “And that was the beginning of a whole new world for her and discovering her own responsibility to stop the nonsense of the way she was living. So I really enjoyed this. And then she kind of fell in love with this guy, the most unexpected and most unlikely person ever. Yet I thought the relationship between this big Irish guy and this strange American woman was believable, since they are both outsiders, both fishes out of water, in the local community.”

She’s encouraged by the great success of  similar films  for the mature market such as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a trend she thinks is bound to continue because it makes so much sense – including financially. “There’s this huge market out there for intelligent films for the older film-goer, which is really wonderful – and also they don’t cost as much. Therefore you don’t have to reach such a huge audience in order to be successful within your genre. There’s not all that CGI special effects; the actors and the story are at the centre. And life gets more exciting and interesting as you get older anyway,” she adds, “because you really see the end in sight, you know that it has to happen, so when you observe things, it has much more meaning, much more power. It’s kind of almost magical.”

Hampstead was a rare shoot in Britain for Diane, who hasn’t been over here for filming since 1981’s Reds and 1984’s The Little Drummer Girl. Despite being an Anglophile who loves our street style, she has a fear of flying that makes it tricky for her to travel outside the US.   “Yes, I have a problem with flying – it’s really hard for me,” admits Diane, who is based in Beverly Hills.  “So I make stopovers: I made one stop in New York this time, stayed for four days and then got back on the plane. I’m not so happy about boats either, though I do trains… “

Yet she has very happy memories of filming over here in the 1980s and “thinking that this was the fashion centre of the world. Not just because of the great designers here, but the people on the streets in London, way willing to go out there, more individual and unique and with better fabrics – tweeds and thick wool. I remember Ralph Lauren talking about fabric from London because he got so many of his ideas from there; I think he bought the Duke of Windsor’s wardrobe when it was up for auction,” adds Diane, also a talented photographer who loves to post favourite images on Pinterest and Instagram and then tweet about them (@Diane_Keaton).

She revelled in the talents of of her Hampstead co-stars: Brendan Gleeson as the surprisingly hunky hermit who goes skinny-dipping,  Lesley Manville as Emily’s snobbish neighbour, the scene-stealing  Jason Watkins as Emily’s accountant and Grantchester star James Norton as Emily’s son, who frets about  how his mother will survive his father’s death.  “James Norton is wonderful, he’s going places. The next Bond, don’t you think?” she says playfully.  And when I ask if her own children nag her like James’s character did, she says immediately: “Oh, of course! Isn’t that what children do?

“ I do think you need a father figure for children - and I didn’t provide that, sorry; but maybe I’m mother and father as well,” adds Diane, who was so close to her own mother  Dorothy that she published a loving memoir based  around Dorothy’s letters, the 2011 book  Then Again, three years after her mother died.

Her father Jack, by contrast, was a hyper-critical man who bullied Diane and her mother, brother and two sisters, leaving Diane craving approval and suffering from crises of confidence that led to bulimia in her ‘20s. Perhaps it wasn’t altogether surprising that she went into an industry which did exactly the same to its young hopefuls auditioning for ruthless casting directors, a pitiless system comprehensively exposed in the film La La Land. Even the 1950s dating scene was a continuation of the same for young women, who were not expected to make the first move for fear of being thought unladylike. “Growing up in the 1950s, you were waiting to be picked by men, totally,” Diane tells me. “The acting profession is like that too, you’re right, but it has changed…”

Very much a woman’s woman, she believes her own long-term success in showbusiness was all down to one farsighted female: the director Nancy Meyers [correct], who directed her in four movies that included  the 2003 hit Something’s Gotta Give, a comedy about an unexpected autumnal romance between a womanising Jack Nicholson and Diane as his latest girlfriend’s mother. “She’s been great for me – without Nancy, where would I be? Without that, I wouldn’t have had this opportunity to do Hampstead,”  says Diane.

All of which has made her very comfortable in her skin these days. So much so that although she famously refused to strip off in the original Broadway production of the tribal love-rock musical Hair back in 1968, she finally did her first nude scene in Something’s Gotta Give at the age of 56.  “I think it’s okay to make fun of your body, I love it,” she tells me with another giggle.

Her next film will be Book Club with two other cinematic legends: Candice Bergen, Diane’s contemporary, and Jane Fonda, now  a gloriously ageless 79.  Rumours about  a screen reunion with Diane’s First Wives Club co-stars Bette Midler and  Goldie Hawn in a film called Divanation [correct] turn out to be just a gleam in a producer’s eye, however.  “That would be okay with me, I’d love to do it, it would be fun – but it’s the first I’ve heard of it,” she says.

It’s a typically direct reaction from the down-to-earth Diane, self-confident enough last year to admit on the Ellen Degeneres chat show that she felt sexually frustrated at 70. “Well, Ellen was teasing me all the time; it was so much fun,” she says. I mention that most men of my generation, and many younger ones too,  would queue round  the block for a chance to date the divine Diane. Another DK giggle. “They can have me any time – tell them to drop by,” she wisecracks.


 

Diane Keaton