Call Diane Keaton, the shy, gangly, lost-and-found soul who is Annie in Annie Hall, the funniest woman now working in films. Small praise. Give or take Lily Tomlin, it is hard to think of another woman now being funny in films.
Remember Keaton in the Godfather movies? Not likely. She was invisible in The Godfather and pallid in The Godfather, Part II. She played Al Pacino's wife, and her role amounted to telling Pacino every now and then to stop killing people so often and spend some time with the kids. Says Keaton: "Pacino was great. Robert De Niro was great. I was background music."
That expresses well enough an oddity of the past two decades of moviemaking. Women, with a few notable exceptions, have been background music. The reason is not simply that Paul Newman and Robert Redford make a lovely pair, cuddly though they are. It is a matter of social realities and society's perceptions. A male actor can fly a plane, fight a war, shoot a badman, pull off a sting, impersonate a big cheese in business or politics. Men are presumed to be interesting. A female can play a wife, play a whore, get pregnant, lose her baby, and, um, let's see ... Women are presumed to be dull.
Yes, and yes. Is it possible, however, that films are beginning to see women through a sharper lens? Or at any rate with a more interesting astigmatism? New women novelists have begun writing about women as creatures who can make noises in the forest, even if no man is there to hear, and whose sexuality, in particular, functions without any by-your-leave from old social presumptions. Now a determined trend spotter can point to a handful of new films whose makers think that women can bear the dramatic weight of a production alone, or virtually so.
Among such films scheduled for release in the next weeks: The Turning Point, a study of two dancers, with Shirley MacLaine and Anne Bancroft; a version of Lillian Hellman's short story Julia, with Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave; and One Sings, The Other Doesn't, a French work that will open the New York Film Festival this week.
Then there is Diane Keaton in Looking for Mr. Goodbar. As Theresa Dunn, Keaton dominates this raunchy, risky, violent dramatization of Judith Ressner's 1975 novel about a schoolteacher who cruises singles bars. Watching her is a shock for viewers who associate her shy and awkward manner with Annie Hall. She is on-screen for well over two hours while her character disintegrates in the direction of alienation and death.
Till now Diane Keaton has been able to wander down a Manhattan street with out drawing more than an occasional half-suspicious stare. She lets herself be kept waiting for two hours in a Southern California beach restaurant because the maitre d' cannot imagine that this tall, apologetic young woman in sunglasses and floppy clothes is someone who might merit his attention.