Friday, June 12, 2015

I’ll See You in My Dreams: Blythe Danner Finally Finds Stardom

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.

May lovely things come to this lovely lady now.     


  1. Lovely indeed. To her early television work I would add Too Far to Go, an outstanding TV movie based on John Updike stories chronicling the disintegration of a twenty-year marriage. And just last year Danner appeared at the Geffen Playhouse (and later at the Manhattan Theatre Club) as the matriarch of an acting family in The Country House. I too enjoyed I'll See You in my Dreams, tho I did sort of wish that possible Mrs. Robinson moment had occurred!

  2. Good to hear from you, Marlene. Yes, a Mrs. Robinson moment would have made a very interesting twist in this film!

  3. I've enjoyed her work - especially in The Great Santini - an overlooked drama that should be better remembered. I'm pleased she was so gracious in your telephone chat. I worked for Mr. Paltrow for about three days on a short lived CBS series called The Road Home. I moved on to a George Lucas production halfway through the first week - because scuttlebutt on set had it they had too many production assistants hired - and I was the only one whose last name didn't match someone else on the call sheet. So I jumped ship. But in that brief run (around 1993 or 1994) he seemed a very nice guy. I now mostly see Gwyneth in her appearances as Robert Downey Jr's galpal Pepper in the Marvel superhero movies. I'm intrigued by I'll See You in My Dreams - so I'll be keeping an eye out for it.

  4. I confess I never saw The Great Santini, which truly sounds like a worthy film. Let me know what you think of I'll See You in My Dreams. And do give me your thoughts as to why so many people loathe daughter Gwyneth!