09 January 2008

Blythe Danner

At any given moment, each culture, each generation, has its idea of the Actress, usually centered on one woman who for a broad slice of the public imagination represents the art as a whole. Sarah Bernhardt, Eleonora Duse, Anna Magnani, and Simone Signoret were such, in Europe; nowadays, America looks to Meryl Streep. But when I studied theater, for me and for many of my friends, the Actress was Blythe Danner.

That may be surprising to people outside the Northeast, or to those who know her primarily as Will’s mother on Will & Grace, because Danner did so little film and television work in her prime. She focused on Broadway and Williamstown, the better to bring up her children. When her daughter, Gwyneth Paltrow, tearfully thanked her mom on Oscar night in 1999, it was only right: Blythe Danner might have received such a prize, or several, if she hadn’t made career choices that — as she surely understood at the time — would rule out the possibility.

“Acting is choices,” Jim Barnhill used to tell his students at Brown, and we understood him to mean the kind of moment-to-moment choices in a performance: how do I inflect my voice? How do I pick up a glass of water? Once I’ve picked it up, do I drink or not? But acting is other kinds of choices, too. Blythe Danner taught me that.

She’s tall, still slender, with a husky voice that no longer projects very well from the stage, but she possesses a tremendous range. She’s equally skilled at comedy and tragedy, and she even sings a bit: no Barbra Streisand, mind you, and sometimes uncertain of pitch, but she’s expressive and fearless, and she does her homework. I’ve seen her rehearsing the music of Kurt Weill (she briefly took over from the late Martha Schlamme in collaborating with Alvin Epstein), and I can testify to her seriousness and industry.

After the rehearsal, I told her that I wasn’t surprised to hear her sing well, that I remembered fondly her account of “He Plays the Violin,” Martha Jefferson’s number in the film of 1776. She scoffed. “Oh, that old thing, it was only one song, and I had a soundstage and lots of retakes — this is a challenge.” And she changed the subject, wanting to know how well I spoke German, and whether I could help her with some of the lyrics that her own studies of German couldn’t unlock. (She spent a semester in Germany, when she was a student at Bard, she told me, but mostly what she could remember of the language was “Du bist duff” — “You’re an idiot.”)

It wasn’t merely a socially acceptable modesty, I think, that prompted her reaction. In between 1776 and Alvin Epstein’s cabaret, she’d had severe vocal difficulties, and it was for a while uncertain whether she could continue to act onstage, much less sing again. The Epstein cabaret was more than a challenge, it was a test, the outcome of which was far from certain, and it required considerable courage from her to attempt it. In recalling the earlier performance, I may have provided a painful reminder of a time before she worried about her voice.

I’ve met her now a few times, usually in the company of Madeline Gilford, who knows everybody. But my first meeting with her set the pattern for all the rest: Blythe Danner is grace personified onstage, and the grace keeps going when she gets offstage, too.

Following a performance of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, Kevin Pask and I went backstage to get her autograph. By this time, the early 1980s, she knew how to handle college-boy stage-door johnnies. She signed our programs and made sure that one of her costars, Roy Scheider, signed them, too, and she chatted with us for several minutes as if we were deeply fascinating, while her husband, the late producer Bruce Paltrow, stood by indulgently.

She made me feel as if I were a theater icon myself, an archetypal Ivy Leaguer infatuated with an actress, like some character out of a Fitzgerald short story, taller and handsomer and worthier than I was. Nobody else ever made me feel that way.

Most of what I know of her, I know not from shaking her hand but from watching her performances. Because Broadway is so far from the suburbs of Dallas, I missed much of her best work; some of her least distinguished stuff turned up at the movies (Futureworld) and television (a sitcom based on Adam’s Rib — which, dear reader, I didn’t know at the time to be a classic film starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy). Yet her charm remained intact no matter what her surroundings, and there was almost always some bit of business that revealed her art. And a couple of her television projects — an episode of M*A*S*H; F. Scott Fitzgerald and ‘The Last of the Belles’, in which she played Zelda Fitzgerald; A Guilty Conscience, a murder mystery opposite Anthony Hopkins — were trifles, yet among the best things anybody did in the 1970s and 1980s.

Sometimes her better projects for the stage made it to television, too. I have vivid memories of her Nina in Chekhov’s The Seagull (pictured above), wild-eyed and heartbroken in her final scene. I now realize she was, technically, too old to play the part, but every time I’ve seen or read the play since, hers is the standard I go by, hers the face I picture.

When I got to New York, I made it a point to see her onstage whenever I could. Seldom did I walk away feeling she’d done everything she could with a part, whether it was perfect for her (her Beatrice in Much Ado about Nothing proved too arch) or not (Follies really requires an actress with more musicianship). Each time, I felt I was watching an interpretation that was still evolving — and that seemed right to me, because acting is a living art. Danner’s work grows and develops; it doesn’t sit still.

Because she has specialized in classic repertory (much as an opera singer does), she’s been at a disadvantage: we already know these plays, we have a preconception of the role and a preconception of what she’ll do with it. And (again like an opera singer) her interpretation is dependent on a number of factors, many of them outside her control; sometimes you see a performance and want to see it again, in other circumstances, because you know it will change, usually for the better. The difference between Susan Graham’s work in Iphigénie en Tauride in Paris and in San Francisco was the difference between night and noon. How much poorer I’d be if I’d seen one but not the other.

As Phyllis, in Sondheim’s Follies

From the minute I read A Streetcar Named Desire, I thought of Blythe Danner as Blanche DuBois. Her fragile beauty, her natural nobility, her intelligence, her suggestions of a startlingly earthy sexuality beneath a surface of serenity: all these things promised a magnificent, possibly definitive portrayal of one of theater’s most complex heroines. When at last it was announced that she’d perform the play in New York, at Circle in the Square, I was ecstatic, and in performance she lived up to almost all my expectations.

But Streetcar isn’t a one-woman show, and a great Blanche requires a great Stanley to play off of. Somebody had the idea that Aidan Quinn, then at the height of his popularity, would be ideally cast in the part. But Quinn is best at brooding, inarticulately poetic types, and physically he’s fit yet far from imposing. Danner’s vital, nuanced, witty Blanche mopped up the floor with him. Not a lot of drama there — or anyway, not the drama that Williams wrote. It was an historic opportunity missed, and because Danner didn’t return to the part, the way Susan Graham returned to Iphigénie, I’ll always wonder what might have been.

This experience is illustrative, I think, of what I mean when I say “Actress.” You follow her career. You look forward to her interpretation of challenging roles. You study the choices she makes. You learn something each time you see her: about the role, about the play, about theater, about art, about her and about yourself.