“I got my Equity card 50 years ago this summer,” said Blythe Danner over lunch at, where else, Le Cirque Monday afternoon. An actress who’s made a career playing frosty, upper-crust matriarchs, and who is herself an Upper East Side mainstay, Danner was at that favorite spot of Ladies Who Lunch for a little get-together for her new movie.
“I’ll See You in My Dreams” is one of those meaty swan songs a respected actress gets in the twilight of her career to much acclaim, like Joanne Woodward in “Mr. and Mrs. Bridge” or Geraldine Page in “The Trip to the Bountiful.” When the film played at the Sundance Film Festival in January, Danner was the unexpected toast of Park City.
At Le Cirque, Danner, now 72, was again basking in the embrace of some of her peers, professionally and in the society circuit — the longtime Woody Allen producer Jean Doumanian, Ali Wentworth, the columnist Liz Smith, the book publisher Joni Evans and the writer Joan Juliet Buck. “Blythe and I barely know each other,” said Candice Bergen, one of the hosts of the lunch. “But if you’re an actor, she’s in the pantheon and attention must be paid.”
“She said I can call her Candy now, so we’re much more intimate,” Danner said.
After several decades in the business, it was actually a very young filmmaker, 31-year-old Brett Haley, who gave Danner her most complicated starring role in years. “So oftentimes I play these one-dimensional ladies, and this was just a gift,” she had said back in January of the role of Carol, a Los Angeles widow learning to start her life anew. “This would never happen on a studio film,” the actress continued, perhaps referring to the WASPy moms she’s played in “Will and Grace” and the “Meet the Parents” trilogy.
Danner has been taken by surprised by the positive reaction to a little film that, after receiving a standing ovation at Sundance, finally opens wide on Friday. “I think the young people really have responded because I think they really do see what’s ahead. And the longer you live, the more grief you have to deal with, the more loss you have to deal with,” she said.
The actress has experience with loss herself — Bruce Paltrow, her husband of 13 years, died a little over a decade ago. “This young man sent me the script a couple years ago. And I couldn’t get over his perception,” she continued, referring to Haley. “His insight into what older people, sort of the path toward the last chapter. I met him and I knew how old he was, but I was just amazed by the perception and the simplicity and he cut it to the bone, there’s no fat. It’s not extreme. Nothing is too much.”
Danner’s children, Gwyneth and Jake Paltrow, unsurprisingly, have become their mother’s loudest cheerleaders in the run-up to the film’s release. Gwyneth hosted a screening in West Hollywood last week that attracted some of Danner’s costars, including Martin Starr and June Squibb, herself the recipient of a late-career meaty role in the indie “Nebraska.” And Jake, himself a filmmaker, was on hand for mom at Le Cirque.
Danner has not exactly been out of the spotlight in recent years — she’s starred in back-to-back plays, Amanda Peet’s off-Broadway production of “The Commons of Pensacola” with Sarah Jessica Parker, and “The Country House” on Broadway. She’s also appeared in a few small films, like “Tumblewoods,” which debuted at the TriBeCa Film Festival earlier this year. “You just have to sort of fly by the seat of your pants, and you just hope that it’s going to be a good experience,” she said of independent film.
In any case, she seems energized by her most recent experience. “I love the enthusiasm of the young people. They’re always leaning forward. The crew is not like sitting back like the crews that have been around for years and years,” she said, sounding pleasantly surprised. “I’ve always loved that, it’s like having a great audience. Nobody’s blasé, nobody’s cynical.”