When Blythe Danner says she’s been busy of late entertaining “a house full of family,” you might remember that her family includes an A-list movie actress, an internationally famous rock star, and a toddler with perhaps the most widely ridiculed name in the Western world. And then, of course, there’s Danner herself: Last year, she became only the second actor ever to be Emmy-nominated for three different performances in one year. She won one Emmy, her first ever, for her role on Huff, Showtime’s dysfunctional-family dramedy that starts its second season on Sunday, April 2. The show, which might be better described as a dysfunctional! family! dramedy!, is a cacophony of soap operatics that’s saved by a virtuosic cast: Hank Azaria as the psychiatrist title character; Swoosie Kurtz as his ailing mother-in-law; and Danner as Huff’s frosty, loopy mother, who finds comfort first in a chilled glass of vodka, then in the bed of Huff’s best friend. Then back to the vodka.
But what about that other family—the real one, which is, frankly, a lot more compelling: Danner’s daughter, Gwyneth Paltrow; her son-in-law, Chris Martin; and their daughter, Apple? What’s their dinner-table conversation like? Does she ever give Gwyneth career advice? Danner demurs. “What we do is so different,” she says, speaking from her house in California. “My daughter is a huge movie star, married to a rock star, and their lives are just—I don’t have that frame of reference. I can’t quite imagine what their lives are like. I see them all the time, but I see them as my children. I don’t see them functioning as big stars.”
Danner herself seems different, the product of another age, when acting and celebrity weren’t so inextricably intertwined. It’s a sepia-toned, pre-Entourage world, in which young thespians grew up on Chekhov and Strindberg, and made their bones by treading the boards, and still said things like “treading the boards.” “In my generation, we all worked in theatrical repertory companies,” she says. “We had the opportunity to watch really wonderful actors like Bob Duvall and Dustin Hoffman play Eugene O’Neill or Ionesco. Now most of the kids want to get into film or television right away, as though they’re striving for fame.” Not her daughter, though; Gwyneth spent her childhood at the Williamstown Theater Festival, watching Christopher Walken and Dianne Wiest from the wings—Williamstown being where Danner has spent most summers of her adult life. She started in theater, winning a Tony in 1970 for Butterflies Are Free, and acted in movies and TV when the opportunities came—most memorably in The Great Santini and Brighton Beach Memoirs—but when you look back over her early career, you can see the gaps, the years spent raising her kids while her husband, the director Bruce Paltrow, worked.
Now she’s enjoying a late-life career flowering. She’s had success to rival her daughter’s in the past few years, what with Huff and the Emmy and a recurring role on Will & Grace, not to mention her part as the prim mom in the insanely lucrative Meet the Parents franchise. And yet it’s come during a period defined for her by absence: the death of Bruce near the end of 2002. Gwyneth has since made noises about leaving movies altogether, retreating into motherhood and a kind of celebrity semi-retirement. But Danner is happy for the distraction of the work. “It’s been my salvation,” she says. She also found solace in Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. “It really struck major chords. Not to get too heavy, but after Bruce died … Joan Didion writes so eloquently of that meaninglessness, having been with someone who was your rock and your center for 33 years, to have that void that you never, ever can fill.” But her house full of family, as the tabloids have told us, is about to get bigger: Gwyneth is pregnant, so Danner can look forward to a moment of addition, rather than subtraction. “When this new life comes into the world, then it makes sense again somehow,” she says. “That’s the only way I can really describe it.”