Diane Keaton in Reds (1981)

Been pretty busy doing other things so I didn’t get to watch many films. I was travelling in Japan, doing theatre work, reading and playing Fallout 4. As usual, I haven’t caught any of the major Oscar contenders this year (nope, don’t consider Elle or Nocturnal Animals) and I guess I am going to procrastinate till post-awards again LOL.

I finally found time to watch some film performances and I decided to go back to Diane Keaton. Maybe it’s because she’s my favourite actress, but the fact that she is going to be rewarded the AFI Life Achievement next year suddenly made me want to watch her movies again. She is one of those actress whom I cannot dislike, although I totally understand the issues people have with her. Even when her performances are technically not that good (*coughs*Morning Glory*coughs*), I inexplicably get drawn in because of the way she acts from her heart. In all seriousness though, I have always thought of her as a much more versatile performer than most people give her credit for. I actually think she shines in her dramatic roles much better than the comedic performances she is typically known for (other than Annie Hall of course).

Keaton received her second best actress nomination for her role as Louise Bryant in Reds, a 3 hours 15 minutes epic about the lives and works of journalists John Reed and Louise Bryant during the Bolshevik Revolution. I used to hate this movie a couple of years back and I thought of it as nothing more than a vanity project for Warren Beatty. Right now, well, I still think it is but I did manage to appreciate it with a more mature set of eyes. I think back then I tried too hard to understand the political bits (I am terrible at history and politics), but that’s pretty unnecessary considering the film is actually more of a romantic epic. I mean, if you are really interested/knowledgeable then I guess those parts would be of interest to you, but the impression I got was that they are just scratching the surface of what truly happened. Anyway. Jack Nicholson gives an incredible supporting performance as Eugene O’Neill, and watching his performance reminded me of the unfulfilled commitment I made to watch more of his movies. Maureen Stapleton gives a much better performance than I recalled and even though I still don’t think her performance is that amazing, I don’t really mind her Oscar win now.

If you have loved Keaton as Annie Hall as much as I did, Louise Bryant is going to be hard to get used to. She is simply put, not likeable. She is extremely insecure about her writing skills, annoyingly defensive when she’s called out on her bullshit and in my opinion, very hypocritical on her views of “free love”. And yet, the fact that I managed to take away this much from Keaton’s performance is exactly the reason why I think she shines here. The strength of this performance lies in Keaton’s ability to portray the flaws of this character through a complex characterisation. The first half of Reds is where Keaton really got to shine. Although I dislike Louise as a character, I found myself oddly sympathetic towards her. I felt her insecurities about her writing abilities, and I could understand why she is being so annoyingly defensive when criticised. I could see her struggles as a feminist in admitting that she wasn’t as talented or independent as she would have liked to be. I totally felt sorry for Louise thanks to Keaton’s ability in capturing that “fish-out-of-water” feeling when she was dragged to New York by Reed. Keaton is simply captivating in these few parts, and her sarcastic/snappy attitude never bothered me at all because of how real Louise felt.

Some of her best scenes also are also with Jack Nicholson. I actually think that she has much better chemistry with Nicholson than Beatty, although that could also be due to the fact that Nicholson is giving a much superior performance to Beatty. It was fascinating to watch this awakening of Louise – from a pretentious, idealistic feminist who preaches “free love” to what she truly is at heart: a romantic. We could see a much happier Louise, and Keaton beautifully captures how Louise secretly wishes that she could have been with Eugene O’Neill instead.

The second half of the film after the intermission is where Keaton’s performance falters a little. The focus is diverted to Warren Beatty’s John Reed and his quest to bring communism to America. It is, in my opinion, the least interesting portion of the movie and I also have to say now that I really dislike Warren Beatty’s performance. He is playing it ridiculously lightly, and I felt so annoyed by the fact that such a well-written character (he could have outshone Keaton, imo) is played in such a flat manner. Reed’s character journey and arc, from journalist to disillusion activist, is actually a powerful and fascinating one, but Beatty plays it as if his character from Shampoo had decided to join the revolution. I would say that John Reed was idealistic and perhaps a little naive, but there was definitely supposed to be this fire, power and conviction in him that could make people believe in his vision. Beatty just came across as, frankly, a bit idiotic and I daresay whiny. I also feel like he is phoning it in at times. It might have been deliberate to portray him as someone who had no idea what he was doing since there is some truth to that. Still, Beatty’s portrayal made it hard for me to believe that Reed would have had the tenacity to go to Russia all by himself in hopes of endorsing his party.

Unfortunately, during these scenes, Keaton isn’t given much to do other than to stand in the background and sigh at Reed’s bullshit. There is an impressive scene where she calls him out for it, but other than that, she actually disappears for quite a bit. This is also a strong but brief trial scene where she bitches out at her prosecutors, although it felt a bit out of place in the film. She does get a chance to portray Louise as a romantic heroine who goes all out to find Reed when he was stuck in Russia, but you actually don’t get to see much other than Keaton trudging through the snow or throwing up in the ship. Still, this is all salvaged by the final reunion scene at the train station – her brief smile and sigh when she hugs him amazingly captures her strong devotion and love to him. It is dragged down a little by Beatty’s “Don’t leave me” line, which somehow annoys me for no particular reason. Still, I thought that scene is actually one of Keaton’s best acted scene in her career. An amazing lesson at subtlety.

All in all, I am totally biased here, but I have always thought of Keaton as my favourite part of Reds. Her character is actually the least politically involved after Nicholson’s O’Neill, and it does feel like she is in her own movie at times because of this. Still, I was engaged mostly when she was around, which really shows how little I actually cared about the main story. A great performance by a favourite of mine. 4.5/5.

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