Diane Keaton’s 10 best performances – ranked!

With the Oscar winner’s romcom Love, Weddings & Other Disasters out next month in the UK, we run through her greatest roles

10. Sleeper (1973)

Some of the jokes in Sleeper are as dated as the special effects (and they looked creaky enough nearly 50 years ago). But Keaton is ethereally lovely as Luna, a socialite from the future. As always, there is an intelligence to her performance that lifts her above the weaker material, such as Woody Allen’s character floating around a field in a hydrovac suit.

9. Marvin’s Room (1996)

Diane Keaton and Leonardo DiCaprio in Marvin’s Room
Comedy with clout ... Keaton and Leonardo DiCaprio in Marvin’s Room. Photograph: Tribeca Productions/Allstar

It is strange that Keaton is usually thought of as a comic actor, because she has done a hell of a lot of melodrama, including this, for which she got one of her four Oscar nominations. She plays Bessie, the “good” sister, who has been looking after her father (Hume Cronyn) while her “bad” sister, Lee (Meryl Streep), has been sort-of raising her mentally ill son, Hank (Leonardo DiCaprio). The family reunites when Bessie is diagnosed with leukaemia. Despite the premise, the movie is not slushy, with Keaton giving a performance that balances comedy and emotion.

8. The First Wives Club (1996)

I have so much time for Keaton’s 90s comedies, from Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) to Father of the Bride (1991), and The First Wives Club sums up her strengths in all of them. She is a great team player, leaving the bigger comedy to Goldie Hawn and Bette Midler, but her on-screen charisma is irresistibly empathic. She plays Annie, whose emotional fool of a husband routinely takes her for granted, until she finally finds a way to take revenge. It is the 9 to 5 of the 90s, with Keaton in the Jane Fonda role, but she makes it her own.

7. Something’s Gotta Give (2003)

Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton in Something’s Gotta Give
Extremely endearing ... Jack Nicholson and Keaton in Something’s Gotta Give. Photograph: Warner Bros/Allstar

You would need a doctor’s prescription to find something more comforting than a Nancy Meyers movie; as the US journalist Rachel Handler said recently, Something’s Gotta Give “is like if you turned Meyers herself into a bottle of white wine and chugged it”. Keaton is extremely endearing as Meyers’ alter ego of sorts, a playwright who, through plot machinations best not investigated too closely, ends up being wooed by Keanu Reeves and Jack Nicholson simultaneously. You need to be a fleet-footed performer to be in a Meyers film and not come across as smug/annoying. Keaton is that performer.

6. Shoot the Moon (1982)

Like Kramer vs Kramer, Shoot the Moon is about divorce, but whereas Kramer places all the blame on the selfish mother, here the finger is pointed squarely at the father (Albert Finney). Keaton plays the alternately furious and heartbroken wife. Movies about divorce are rarely subtle, with characters sketched in black and white, but Keaton doesn’t go for the simply downtrodden, even when confronting her husband about his affair. The joy she derives from her own affair is sweetly realised.

5. The Godfather: Part II (1974)

Keaton in The Godfather Part II
Emotional heart ... Keaton in The Godfather: Part II. Photograph: Moviestore/Rex/Shutterstock

The first Godfather film ends with Michael (Al Pacino) shutting out Keaton’s character, Kay, but in the second film she brings herself to the centre of what is otherwise a monument to machismo. Her lovely face is the film’s conscience, while the scene in which she tells Michael that she didn’t miscarry their son, but rather terminated him to save him from “this Sicilian thing”, is the movie’s emotional heart. As much as the killing of Fredo, Kay’s abortion is the definitive proof of Michael’s fatal moral descent.

4. Baby Boom (1987)

Sure, Keaton’s first film with her longterm collaborator Meyers doesn’t have the dramatic clout of, say, Looking for Mr Goodbar (1977), but it has endured a lot better. Keaton is deliciously believable playing against type as a gung-ho Wall Street type whose life comes undone when she unexpectedly inherits a baby. Often dismissed as fluff, Baby Boom is one of the great feminist-lite films and Keaton deftly moves between drama and full-on slapstick.

3. Manhattan (1979)

Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in Manhattan
An ode to New York ... Woody Allen and Keaton in Manhattan. Photograph: United Artists/Allstar

It is almost impossible to talk about Manhattan without descending into arguments about Allen’s morality. But let’s focus for now on Keaton’s performance, as the enjoyably absurd Mary. Only Allen’s greatest collaborators can take his lines and put their personality on them, instead of reciting them in an Allen-esque rhythm, and Keaton does this better than anyone. The scene of Mary and Isaac’s first date – Keaton and Allen clearly enjoying being with one another while New York looks impossibly beautiful around them – is one of the great movie date scenes. Allen and Keaton’s friendship is the warm heart of this movie.

2. Reds (1981)

Like Keaton’s most famous film, Annie Hall, Reds was written and directed by, and stars, one of Keaton’s exes: Warren Beatty, in this case. As in Annie Hall, she dominates what could easily have been the man’s vanity project. Reds is ostensibly a biopic of John Reed (Beatty), the US communist activist, but Keaton’s performance as his partner, Louise Bryant, is the more involving. The scenes in which she stands up to Reed, about his infidelity, and then Eugene O’Neill (Jack Nicholson), for his cruelty, should be required viewing for those who dismiss Keaton as a ditz.

1. Annie Hall (1977)

Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in Annie Hall
Defining role ... Allen and Keaton in Annie Hall. Photograph: United Artists/Allstar

Not just Keaton’s most celebrated performance, but one of the most memorable performances of all time. Allen wrote it for her, using Keaton’s real surname, and only she could have captured Annie’s sweetness and fragility without descending into cloying irritation or, worse, becoming a proto manic pixie dream girl. Allen wanted the movie to be about the inability of his character, Alvy, to feel joy; Alvy is certainly the captain of this film’s ship, narrating it and dominating the action. But Annie’s warmth towers over Alvy’s depressive comedy, like a sunflower bringing light to a dark patch of the garden.

• This article was amended on 11 March 2021 to more accurately describe the final scene of The Godfather and to replace an image from The Godfather with one from The Godfather: Part II. An erroneous reference to Keaton playing a banker in Baby Boom was also removed.

Contributor

Hadley Freeman

The GuardianTramp

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