Seeing Blythe Danner across generations

Thursday July 19, 2012

The last time I saw Blythe Danner, I didn't see Blythe Danner. Instead, I saw Bruce and Gwyneth Paltrow, husband and daughter of Blythe.

One of the enjoyable pleasures of being a theater reviewer for many years is that you encounter talented young actors and have the opportunity to watch them master their craft, to develop into solid professionals. Blythe Danner was one of my very fav orites. To watch her bloom into maturity over the course of the years as she went from stage to movies and back again to theater was a joyful experience.

Blythe had one major problem. She had been burned early in her career in an interview with one of The New York Times' female cutthroats and that had made her nervous about being interviewed. She sat down with me a couple of times for articles but confessed that the thought alone terrified her in advance, dur ing and afterward.

She had agreed to try it one more time, but when I arrived at the meeting place in Williams town, there was Bruce with a tall blonde wearing jeans with various rips and tears and a pasty com plexion in the strong sunlight. Bruce apologized for Blythe not being there but said something had come up and she had sent husband and daughter to substitute for her.

I had known Bruce for many years, a husky, confident man who gave tennis lessons while Blythe was appearing in a play. I had seen Gwyneth years be fore when she and her little bro ther, Jake, had appeared in Nikos Psacharopoulos's production of a magnum opus titled "The Greeks."

Williamstown Theatre Festival artistic director Psacharopoulos loved pageantry that called for a cast of thousands. In this production, there had to be as many actors on the stage as there were Greeks at the battle for Troy. Williamstown citizens were lured to play "the crowd," "the army," "the peasants," in all these Cecil B. DeMille extravaganzas. And the children of Williamstown Theatre personnel were drafted to be the ragamuffins. Among these children were Gwyneth and Jake Paltrow, who ran back and forth across the stage.

I remember writing years later about how sorry I was that I had not mentioned Gwyneth in my review, exclaiming that "here was an actress with amazing potential, one who would some day scale the heights of stardom." But I didn't.

Bruce by this time had made a name for himself in television, di recting and producing, so he was always good for an interview. He always spoke a bit too candidly, so some of the things he told me were left out of the column.

Gwyneth was a problem for me. It turned out that she had acted in a couple of movies that weren't out yet. Sitting there looking at her, I wondered who would cast her in a movie and how she would appear no matter how much makeup was applied.

It turned out I was the fool, that I would never have made a talent scout. Gwyneth appeared in supporting roles in several films before her breakthrough in 1998, when she played the aristocratic lover of the Bard of Avon. For this she won an Oscar and Golden Globe and many other awards. The reviewers were ec static. Entertainment Weekly wrote, "Best of all is Gwyneth Paltrow, who, at long last, has a movie to star in that's as radiant as she is." And The New York Times wrote, "Gwyneth Paltrow makes a heroine so breathtaking that she seems utterly plausible as the playwright's guiding light."

Since then, I have followed her career and life with admiration for all that she does and the causes for which she fights. The pastiness has been replaced by a glow that makes you blink.

As for Blythe, well there she was back on the Williamstown stage recently for a few weeks play ing a 65-year-old art gallery owner. But to me she'll always be that slip of a girl with that fragile blonde beauty and the unique voice that can make you laugh or cry, surrounded by a glade of Chekhov-Psacharopoulos birch trees.


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