FANS OF FINE ACTING need look no further than Diane Keaton. The 57-year-old actress, who made her name as a hard-pressed wife in The Godfather and then shot to fame in a series of Woody Allen comedies, always delivers a spontaneous, perfectly nuanced performance. Today's crop of young female actresses could learn a lot from studying her work. As Nancy Meyers, the director of the new romantic comedy Something's Gotta Give, says, Keaton is nothing less than 'the real deal'. Something's Gotta Give marks a return to the limelight for Keaton. Few roles are written for actresses over 40, so she's been absent from the big screen for some time. Although this movie wasn't written for her, Keaton quickly makes it her own. Her character has to make a romantic choice that would be the envy of many women - between the caddish Jack Nicholson, a former boyfriend of her daughter Amanda Peet, and a sweet-natured Keanu Reeves. The ensuing dramas allow Keaton to display a full range of emotions, from passion to despair and anger to anguish. Of course, that's something she is used to. Since her debut in the marital comedy Lovers And Other Strangers in 1970, she's taken on a number of emotionally challenging roles. As the mob wife in Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather, she acted as the moral core of the film, a beacon of crushed humanity amid the cycle of violence. She played kooky and eccentric in Woody Allen's Annie Hall and Manhattan - characters that Allen created from his real-life romantic relationship with her - but she was no flake, giving her performances intellectual depth. Her most challenging role, in 1977's Looking For Mr Goodbar, saw her explore the emotional outer limits as a woman who pushes her liberal lifestyle to extremes. Although she's associated with New York, Keaton was actually born in Los Angeles, where she now lives (her off-screen accent has a softer west coast lilt than in her early films). Her mother was a photographer - Keaton herself has published two books of photography - and her father a civil engineer. She moved to New York at 19, and studied acting at the Neighbourhood Theatre, achieving her first success when she went from understudy to star of the Broadway production of Hair. She met Allen when she played opposite him in the Broadway production of Play It Again Sam. They became a couple and her film career took off. In reality, Keaton seems far less eccentric than her characters, although she does laugh a lot. A sense of humour, she says, is the quality she finds most attractive in people and she certainly seems to have one. Keaton finds it impossible to sit still and that's why she moves so much when she's acting, but it's her mental energy that's most noticeable today. She approaches each question as if it's a fresh subject worthy of exploration, even though she's probably been asked it a hundred times before. She looks smart and fashionable, and never takes off her trim leather gloves - possibly because she likes to shake each journalist's hand. When asked if she agrees with Meyer's statement that she's 'the real deal' she thinks for a minute before answering. 'Does the 'real deal' mean that I'm 'authentic'?' she asks. 'That I'm not hiding my real self away? Well, in that case, it's my father who was the real deal. He was a strange Irish eccentric - a complete individual, a dangerously honest man and a maverick. My mother was an artist, and an unknown artist at that. She had so much to express, but didn't have the opportunity to express it. I grew up with these two and they certainly made me come out this way. 'I think it's the intensity of my family experiences that has kept me an oddball. That's what's kept me 'authentic', if that's what you mean.' Allen may have helped, too. He picked up on some of Keaton's scatterbrained, intelligent charm and used it as the basis for the characters he created for her. Her public image has reflected the parts she played in her most famous Allen films - eccentric, a bit crazy, but intellectual. Keaton doesn't deny that she has these qualities, but says that it would be a mistake to think that she is Annie Hall. 'I think that Woody found an essential quality in me, and used that, rather than depicting me as I am,' she says. 'I'm very glad that he did, as it worked really well in the movie. But I don't think I'm really like Annie Hall. I wouldn't have deserted him the way Annie did in the film.' Allen and Keaton remain friends, even though their romantic association ended long ago. 'Like in Annie Hall, I moved to Los Angeles and he stayed in New York,' she says. 'That separates a friendship. But we remain friends, of course. He'll always be a friend of mine, and I do miss him.' Allen may have made her laugh, but he wasn't as funny as her Something's Gotta Give co-star Nicholson, it seems. 'Jack is the most entertaining man I have ever been around in my life. He's a storyteller,' she says. 'It would be great to record what he says and play it back. Jack is the Discovery Channel of living, and I could be his audience for ever. It's like a roller-coaster ride, listening to him manoeuvre his way in and out of conversation, because he's the most brilliant conversationalist I have ever heard. But you have to be prepared to follow the journey that he's taking, as it's a stream-of-consciousness thing. You have to sit there and figure out which way he's taking you.' Something's Gotta Give provided Keaton with plenty of time to do just that, during the downtime while they were shooting their passionate love scene. 'Having the bedroom scene with him in the film was great,' she says. 'It took three weeks to shoot, and there was a lot of waiting around. There was no place for us to go in our semi-naked state, so we would just stay there and talk. And, oh my god, what a talk it was, a real roller-coaster ride.' All that time spent in close quarters with Nicholson enabled her to see a softer side of the hell-raising superstar, she says. 'He's actually got a very Irish side,' she says. 'This Irishness is an aspect of himself that he hides. It's an enormously sentimental, sloppy side. He's a big sentimental slob and a crier, and that's the part of him I love so much. And he's so damn seductive, too!' At the other end of the scale, Keaton says she also enjoyed her on-screen romance with Reeves who plays a caring young doctor trying to win her heart. 'Jack is the bulk of the movie and Keanu is this fantastic little sidebar experience, you know what I mean?' she laughs. 'The meat and the danger lies in the relationship with Jack, while Keanu is kinda hit and run.' But she still found Reeves charming, saying: 'When it came to my kiss scene with him, I got a little nervous. After all, he's very good looking. I worried that he wouldn't like my kiss. Then I realised that, hey, it was a movie and he had to like it - because that's what it said in the script! I was OK after that.' One of the nice things about the film is that it gives an older woman the chance to have a guilt-free relationship with a younger man for a change. But Keaton says she doesn't really think people should judge any kind of relationship on the ages of those involved. 'Look, I sort of feel that men get a bad rap about this,' she says. 'We generalise about men too much. Some of these older guy/younger girl relationships are ludicrous, but some of them work. Some older guys do find their partner in a younger woman. I think if their relationships are based on affection, why not?' So women don't just do it for the money, then? 'Oh, all right, money is a big ingredient in it, too, I admit. But that could hold true for older women, as well - 'Hi, I got some money and I wanna buy a man!'' she laughs. Men aren't the only thing that can be bought in Hollywood. New bodies can be, too. The division in Hollywood used to be based simply on age. But now, there's a new division - between women who have surgically 'enhanced' their bodies, and women who have not. These are the new 'haves and have nots' of Hollywood, and there's now a worry that unless an actress has moulded her body to the fashionable look, she won't be offered a part. Keaton, who doesn't think plastic surgery is a good thing, has a lot to say about the subject. 'The thing that's amazing about enhancement is that there are so many things you can get done now. I just can't keep up with all the things that you can do to your head and to your body. I'm shocked,' she says. 'So with that in mind, who are these people who are setting the aesthetic standard of what is attractive? There is some kind of morbid fascination with turning ourselves into a fantasy version of ourselves. The problem is that it seems we all want to return to the womb, to give ourselves baby features. The surgeons give everyone those little baby features. There are a lot of little baby heads running around, nowadays.' Keaton seems just as annoyed by the lack of creativity involved in the process of plastic surgery as by its philosophical ramifications. 'What happens is that these people strip men and women of their uniqueness,' she continues. 'Everybody seems to want to look the same. You could make yourself look interesting by giving yourself a beautiful long nose, like Anna Magnani [the Italian star who shot to fame in Roberto Rossellini's Open City], who had the most stunning nose that a woman has ever had. But they just give you those little baby noses. 'We all would like to change our face. I would, because I hate mine. I like to do as much as I can to make it look as good as I can. Sometimes I frame it, sometimes I hide it. It's a big narcissistic problem that we all have. But I don't think that having someone give you a baby head is the best solution to that problem.' Mercifully, Keaton spends most of her time debating more important topics. The actress, who has also directed, recently co-produced Gus Van Sant's brilliantly disturbing film about the Columbine high school shootings, Elephant. The film begins by detailing the mundane goings-on of a group of schoolchildren. Then two young boys, for no apparent reason, turn up at the school and start picking off their classmates, one by one, with rifles. The films's brilliance lies in the way it doesn't try to explain why they did it. Viewers have to figure that out for themselves. Elephant was Keaton's idea. 'Everyone was talking about Columbine, so I wanted to do something about it,' she says. 'I just a had a big, broad idea. A long chain of events led to Gus Van Sant becoming involved as director, and we made it. I am very proud of it.' Typically, the film has been all but buried in celebrity-obsessed America - perhaps because it contains no stars. 'It's a very harsh look at Columbine,' says Keaton, who was disappointed that Elephant wasn't given more publicity. 'It's different to Michael Moore's Bowling For Columbine, which was bitingly funny and done for a mainstream audience. Ours was frightening and scary, and Americans today aren't accustomed to sitting through something like that.' Keaton hasn't got a new project lined up. She says that she doesn't get sent many scripts these days - a problem of being an actress over 40. But waiting around isn't something that bothers her. She says she's never really thought of herself as anything but ordinary, anyway. 'I'm certainly not one of these actresses who is overwhelmed by their own success,' she says. 'I have had so many huge failures - it's not just been one huge ride. I just feel like an ordinary person who has just had some extraordinary events happen in their life.' That's Keaton - the real deal.