The net effect, though, depends on her subject. Vladimir Nabokov is at once insistent and peripatetic, another mood that Gilliatt conveys with ease. When she spends time with Nabokov, the resulting piece is unsettled, a rattling chain of details that complement the author’s cranky, somewhat florid, personality. The on-set moments with Buñuel capture both the director’s meditative air and the flurry of activity around the shoot. She is more neutral when profiling Henri Langlois, the director of the Cinémathèque Française, a figure she admires but whose life’s work—obsessively collecting, preserving, and archiving film—depends on a kind of forthright wonder that Gilliatt can observe but never quite muster herself. Gilliatt worked best with characters whom she might have created on her own; characters who came from the world she inhabited, and thus could sufficiently understand. These are the limits of a journalism based on the author’s imagination.
The 30-some pages devoted to Woody Allen and Diane Keaton show what happens when Gilliatt is miles out of her comfort zone. Gilliatt just doesn’t get Allen. She certainly tries; you can practically feel her working. She lunges, stabs, and, on the whole, ends up with a far more concrete portrait than usual. In “Guilty, with an Explanation: Woody Allen,” the deductive powers that served her so well with Godard yield claptrap, the sort of thing Allen would have spoofed in Love and Death—which, incidentally, she loves for its engagement with Big Questions, rather than realizing the movie is about making a mockery of these questions to begin with. Allen struggles with pigeons, complains about kitchen gadgets, and keeps up his French lessons even though he doesn’t have time for them. Somehow, Gilliatt fails to make these details comes across as true to Allen’s character. Most notably, despite Allen’s quip that he sees himself “as a Jewish uncle at some event,” Gilliatt fails to pick up on this most essential quality of a man who, until fairly recently, based his entire career on reclaiming and subverting Jewish stereotypes. Maybe Gilliatt is just being decorous, but it’s hard not to feel embarrassed for her when she remarks that, “The nose strikes him as a particularly doubtful feature, hovering always on the edge of farce, and possibly more acceptable when flattened out by a steamroller into a large piece of leather, as it is in ‘Sleeper,’” and fails to follow it up with anything about Allen’s self-hating-Jew shtick. A Woody Allen who hates his nose without yielding a punchline is unrecognizable.
What makes the Woody Allen blind spot so remarkable is that “Her Own Best Disputant: Diane Keaton” is perhaps the sharpest read of all. Keaton, along with Jeanne Moreau and Lina Wertmuller, is one of only three women addressed in the collection. Gilliatt’s appreciation for Keaton is genuine and unaffected in a way that little else in Three-Quarter Face is. And even if Gilliatt doesn’t go out of her way to spotlight women, she seems to realize that Keaton, unlike the others, needs her help to be taken seriously: “Her prodigious comic gifts are sometimes hidden. She tends to hoard these gifts, as if she were an impostor guest at a banquet tucking away food for friends under the challenging eyes of a portly butler, or as if her talent might run out in some world energy crisis.” Gilliatt also lets Keaton speak for herself more than almost any other subject in Three-Quarter Face, as if to counteract the Annie Hall-derived idea of her as a ditz. It’s the lone piece in Three-Quarter Face that resembles advocacy, and one wonders if Gilliatt’s foray in American popular cinema is intended as some sort of rescue mission.