It was quite a night at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood as Diane Keaton became the 45th recipient of the AFI Life Achievement Award.

It was also the most star-studded of these evenings I have witnessed in a long time, maybe since Mike Nichols in 2010. Keaton knows how to bring them in and just about everyone came to show their love for her. Former Keaton companions on — and off — the screen like Warren Beatty and Al Pacino showed up with heartfelt tributes, in addition to Steve Martin and Martin Short (who hilariously opened the show), Meryl Streep, Reese Witherspoon, Jane Fonda, Morgan Freeman, and many more. But for the big finale and presentation, who else could have lured Woody Allen, frequent co-star and former boyfriend, to the stage at an industry event like this.

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The four-time Oscar winner and 24-time nominee never set foot on this stage or any other at the Academy Awards — except 2002, in order to honor New York after 9/11. And he would never dream of accepting one of these AFI awards for himself (though you know they would love to give it to him). But for his Annie Hall he was there in a tightly held surprise only a few people knew about.

I got wind of it from a board member during the dinner, and later at the after-party I asked Keaton herself whether she was aware. She said she did know, but everyone was instructed to stay tight-lipped. One Allen confidante told me it was Keaton herself who finally convinced him to make the rare trip to L.A. and appear in person, hidden away backstage until just about 10 PM when he came out to a roaring standing ovation. Keaton told me she was thrilled, “and he was so funny,” she said as well-wishers continued to congratulate her.

Funny, he was. Allen turned the Dolby into his own nightclub stage for a few minutes as he told stories of this very famous coupling, cinematically and otherwise. “We go back a long way, Diane and I. You are probably familiar with the fictional movie character Eve Harrington. This is not to suggest that Diane, when I met her, was ruthlessly ambitious. But she did make an interesting Freudian slip. When we started going out she meant to refer to me as a talented young director. Instead she called me the ‘stepping stone’,” he told the crowd.

Woody Allen
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“She came from the most right wing part of Orange County. Where Keaton lived, if you helped a blind person across the street they accused you of socialism. Keaton’s beauty was never conventional, and by conventional I mean pleasing to the eye,” he said to big laughs, as his tribute to his frequent muse turned into what sounded like a roast.

“She dresses, as you know, to hide her sexuality, and she’s done a great job because it has never emerged over the years. She’s a beautiful girl and she’s never succumbed to any face work or anything. She’s very uncompromising. She prefers to look old. I always used to say that Keaton dressed like the woman in Streetcar Named Desire who comes to take Blanche to the institution,” he said as he described the lifelong friendship. Of her famous lovers (a few who were in the room), Allen said: “She has been involved romantically with a half dozen of the most gifted, charismatic, attractive men in Hollywood. It’s very interesting because every one of them has dumped her.”

He also mentioned that as often as they have talked, there were many things he didn’t know about her until he read her books. “She’s a wonderful writer. I didn’t know she loved me as much as she loved me. I didn’t know she was bulimic. These things came out in the book. We would be having dinner, she told me that she loved me and then she throws up. And we’re at these high-end restaurants, I mean $400 for dinners. If I’d known she would throw them up I would have taken her to Pizza Hut and saved a fortune.”

Allen’s best line involved what he called Keaton’s mortal fear of death. “I tell her that there’s nothing to worry about. If you’ve ever had a colonoscopy they give you an injection and you’re out. And it’s black and peaceful, and nice. And so death is like a colonoscopy. The problem is life is like the prep day,” he said, before getting serious to tell the audience that much of what he has accomplished he owes to her.

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Keaton, who was dressed to the nines as usual and even inspired table-mate Streep to wear a hat, had a speech prepared that was rolling on the teleprompter — she completely ignored it. “I just want to say that tonight was just astonishing. I don’t know what to say that would express my gratitude so I am not going to give a speech. So I thought I could sing a song that Woody once gave me to sing.” She finished the evening by singing a sweet a cappella version of “Seems Like Old Times.” And that certainly was the perfect way to describe this warm evening for Keaton among friends and family.

Beatty (not using a teleprompter), who gave Keaton one of her best roles in his Oscar-winning Reds, had a list of things he said she is. “Brilliant, beautiful, passionate, authentic, political, dramatic, hilarious, honest, generous, spontaneous, ethical, independent, feminist, actor, director, writer, producer, singer, photographer, designer, real estate developer, and mother of two kids,” he said. “And what Diane brings to a movie, if you are lucky enough to cast Diane, you realize very quickly the truth in that old axiom that character is plot. Well, casting is character. Diane Keaton is a plot. She is an unpredictable, mysterious, suspenseful, constantly surprising, sometime comedic, sometimes tragic always engaging plot. The woman is a story,” he added as he paid specific tribute to her performance in Reds, saying she made the movie work.

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Her Godfather co-star Pacino also described the allure of the star, saying, “I feel as if I have known you my whole life.” That certainly was a way to talk about Keaton after seeing the massive number of film clips that really showed her remarkable range, from Annie Hall to Reds to Shoot The Moon to the Godfather films, to so many comedies including a great musical sequence from The First Wives Club, and some wonderful scenes opposite Jack Nicholson in Something’s Gotta Give. All of this makes you want to see these movies and performances again because, as AFI’s criteria states, they have “stood the test of time.”

In fact, there were so many highlights from the heartfelt, funny and knowing tributes spread throughout the 90-minute show that you just hope TNT and TCM, which will be airing an edited version, gets it all in somehow. Lisa Kudrow, for instance, was hilarious in describing what it was like to be “directed” by Keaton in Hanging Up, while her 5 Flights Up co-star Morgan Freeman read a quote from Keaton describing in vivid detail the joy she got from their kissing scene in the film.

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“I didn’t know she would talk about it but she did. I am not making this up,” Morgan told the crowd. “This is what she said: ‘What I liked about Morgan Freeman’s kissing is that his lips were just so luscious. You know like big pillows that you just fall into, you just put your lips up against him and you just get squeezed in, and it felt gooey and good.’ Diane, darling, you’re welcome.”

As AFI president and CEO Bob Gazzale noted in his opening remarks, the event marked the 50th anniversary of the founding of the American Film Institute in 1967, and he welcomed two of its pioneering founders George Stevens Jr. and Sidney Poitier to the stage to make that point. It turned out to be the perfect party to celebrate not only AFI’s first 50 years, but also the remarkable Keaton, who has been making movies to remember for just about that same period of time.