As a young girl with a literary bent, I was much aware of the talents of Blythe Danner. In the 1970s, on TV’s Great Performances, she glowed as Nina in Chekhov’s The Seagull and moved me deeply as Alma Winemuller in Tennessee Williams’ The Eccentricities of a Nightingale (a revision of the playwright’s Summer and Smoke). She also played the complicated Zelda Fitzgerald in a TV movie called F. Scott Fitzgerald and ‘The Last of the Belles.’ Some of her many ‘loving wife’ roles were in TV dramas about Lou Gehrig and George Armstrong Custer. And for one year she took on the part of Amanda Bonner (opposite Ken Howard) in a TV series based on the classic Hepburn/Tracy comedy of clashing lawyers, Adam’s Rib.
Despite all this prestigious television work, Blythe Danner never quite made it as a movie star. Her big break seemed to come in 1974, when Sidney Lumet cast her in the leading role of a beautiful and headstrong Texan who’s romanced over the decades by two rival farmers (Anthony Perkins and Beau Bridges) in Lovin’ Molly. Though the film was based on a novel by the great Larry McMurtry, it made nary a splash. Nor did most of Danner’s other movies. She had supporting parts in everything from The Great Santini to Future World to Sylvia, the somber Sylvia Plath biopic in which she played the mother of her real-life daughter, Gwyneth Paltrow. But she was little noticed by the movie-going public until she became Ben Stiller’s patrician mother-in-law (opposite a maniacal Robert De Niro) in the madcap Meet the Parents and its sequels.
Now at long last, Danner (a classy and still beautiful 72) is having her moment. The film is I’ll See You in My Dreams, a gentle romantic drama about Carol Petersen, a longtime widow who has finally decided to re-connect romantically with the opposite sex. Speed-dating proves a disaster, but she forms a warm relationship with a young pool cleaner and a hot one with Sam Elliott as an emphatically foxy white-haired free spirit. This is hardly a flick for the teen set, but greying Baby Boomers will surely be able to identify with retirement-age characters who are portrayed as intelligent, lively, and worthy of respect. One tiny moment in the film caught my eye: a photo on Carol’s mantelpiece shows her long-ago self with her curly-haired husband and blonde teenage daughter. I’d swear that’s an actual picture of Danner, her late spouse Bruce Paltrow (who died of cancer in 2002), and the young Gwyneth. (Yes, there’s a loving adult daughter who shows up briefly in the movie, but she’s played by the very blonde Malin Akerman.)
I interviewed Blythe Danner in 2004, when she was being honored—along with Gwyneth—with Women in Film’s Crystal Award. Our phone chat was a chance to tell her that I’d admired her on stage years earlier in the title role of George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara. As journalists know, it never hurts to start off by praising your interview subjects for their more obscure accomplishments. But I was being sincere: for me she was the complete embodiment of Shaw’s fascinating character. I also mentioned that I’d once rubbed shoulders with her when we were both shopping for baby gifts at an L.A. department store. I said I’d been tempted to speak to her then, but as a good Angeleno I didn’t want to intrude on the privacy of a celebrity. She quickly set me straight: she would have welcomed my attention.