Philanthropist and parent among Diane Keaton's cherished roles

Stray dog Freeway wins the heart of Beth (Diane Keaton) in "Darling Companion."

Photo by WILSON WEBB

Stray dog Freeway wins the heart of Beth (Diane Keaton) in "Darling Companion."

La-di-da, la-di-da. With its memorable if misleading suggestion of carefree ditziness, that signature phrase from “Annie Hall” seems a world away from the happily active and purposeful life of Diane Keaton, who earned a Best Actress Academy Award for her portrayal of the title character in the 1977 Woody Allen classic.

“I just dropped off my son at school,” said Keaton, 66, speaking by phone from her car, somewhere on the road in the San Fernando Valley. Earlier, she had delivered her daughter to high school, she said. The son, Duke, is 11; the daughter, Dexter, is a junior, and “that junior year of high school is rough,” Keaton commented, with sympathy. Later, there will be tennis lessons for the kids, and other scheduled activities.

In other words, Diane Keaton -- four-time Best Actress Oscar nominee, former romantic partner of Woody Allen, Warren Beatty and Al Pacino -- in some ways follows a routine and embraces responsibilities that would be recognized by many so-called typical parents in, say, Memphis, Germantown or Southaven, some of whom will get to meet the actress Nov. 16, when she is the speaker at the annual Methodist Healthcare Foundation Cancer Center Luncheon at The Peabody.

“It’s not dissimilar in some regards,” Keaton said, comparing her life to that of the noncelebrity parent. “I will say it’s not boring. I get up early, I get them ready for school, I drop them off, I pick them up later. So a lot of things in my life are normal. But it’s not normal, of course. I’m not married, I’m an older mother ...” (Keaton never has married, and her children are adopted.)

Also not typical, of course, is the movie and television career that has kept Keaton in the limelight for 40 years, thanks to her breakout roles in “The Godfather” and “Play It Again, Sam,” released within two months of each other in 1972, as if to demonstrate Keaton’s dramatic as well as comic range.

The acting continues (the ensemble comedy “The Big Wedding” with Keaton, Robert De Niro, Katherine Heigl and Robin Williams arrives in April), but, in recent years especially, Keaton has been celebrated for additional artistic pursuits.

Presented as a sort of posthumous collaboration with her late mother, Keaton’s memoir, “Then Again,” was a best-seller that Janet Maslin of The New York Times named one of the 10 best books of 2011. Constructed almost as a cross-generation conversation “with regards to what love is,” Keaton said, the book incorporates passages from the decades of journals written by Keaton’s mother, Dorothy Hall, which Keaton discovered after Hall’s death. “So the book was very meaningful to me,” Keaton said.

Keaton’s new book is “House,” a large, lavishly illustrated collection of Keaton’s photographs of inventively designed contemporary homes, often made from neglected farm buildings, industrial structures, hangars and other repurposed spaces. The text is by D.J. Waldie, who collaborated with Keaton on the actress’ previous architectural photography book, “California Romantica” (2007), a celebration of the fabulous Spanish Colonial and Mission-style residences in Keaton’s home state.

In addition to her love of architecture, “I’m totally in love with my dog,” said Keaton, referring to a 9-year-old golden retriever named Emmie. Keaton is an active supporter of the Helen Woodward Animal Center in San Diego. “I rescue a lot of dogs,” she said. (See Keaton’s recent film “Darling Companion,” for fictionalized evidence of this pursuit.)

When Keaton takes the dais at “the South’s Grand Hotel,” she will be the latest in a series of celebrities who have been the featured speaker at the Cancer Center Luncheon.

The tradition began 11 years ago at relatively small Hardin Hall at the Memphis Botanic Garden. The speaker was Dr. Jerri Nielsen, who discovered and treated and even operated on her own breast cancer while stationed as the lone physician at an isolated Antarctic outpost.

Other speakers since then have included Julie Andrews, Tom Brokaw and Laura Bush, to name a few; speakers who have testified to their own experiences with cancer include Michael Douglas and Memphis-born actress Kathy Bates, who donated $50,000 to the Methodist Hospice Residence on Quince.

As the luncheon grew in popularity, it was relocated to the thousand-plus-capacity of the Grand Ballroom at The Peabody, where it raises about $120,000 each year for the Cancer Center.

The money helps, but “I think we benefit as much from the awareness factor and the support of the community,” said Bob Plunk, director of development for the Methodist Healthcare Foundation, the nonprofit fundraising arm of Methodist Healthcare.

Plunk said the luncheon, which usually sells out by the day of the event, “has grown to be a source of encouragement and a source of hope and inspiration” for cancer patients, survivors and their families, many of whom will attend the event, along with doctors from Methodist and the affiliated West Clinic, which specializes in oncology.

The luncheon will mark Keaton’s second trip to Memphis. She said she stopped here “way back in the ‘80s,” while on a trip to Florida, specifically to see Graceland. She also saw The Peabody, “where the ducks are.” She plans to revisit Graceland this week.

Cancer struck close to home for Keaton when her father, Orange County civil engineer and real-estate broker Jack Newton Hall, died in 1990 from a brain tumor. “It was a horrible experience, he went through so much.” As is often the case with such events for younger family members, Hall now seems especially young to have been stricken with an inoperable cancer, at least in his daughter’s eyes. “He was 68, I’m now 66,” Keaton said. “I think about it all the time.”

Keaton’s mother died in 2008 at 86, after a “slow-growing” decline into Alzheimer’s. So Keaton’s health care story, she said, is “really more related to the caring aspect, the caregiving. It’s just so incredibly expensive and so many people can’t afford to give the care that’s needed, I think any effort that can help with fundraising and research (such as the Methodist luncheon) is worthwhile.”

Afterward, she’ll get back to busy California, where some other actresses her age complain about the lack of quality screen roles for mature women. “Come on, get real,” she said, in response to such bellyaching. “Of course when you’re older, things change. Get over it, it’s reality. Life is really interesting, and there’s a lot to do.”

Diane Keaton at the Methodist Healthcare Foundation Cancer Center Luncheon

11:45 a.m. Friday in the Grand Ballroom at The Peabody. Tickets: $125, $250 or $500 each. Call 901-516-0500 or visit methodisthealth.org/cancerluncheon.

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