When Blythe Danner turned 70, her daughter threw her a surprise party. Gwyneth Paltrow even decorated a cake for her mother: The icing read, "A Streetcar Named Retired."
"I said, 'Beg your pardon?'" Danner recalled. "She thought that was hilarious, and I said, 'Well, I'm going to show her!'"
Just a couple of years later, Danner has surpassed even her own expectations for herself, starring in her first major feature film, "I'll See You in My Dreams," at the age of 72.
Of course, it was perfectly reasonable for Paltrow to expect her mom to slow down as she became a septuagenarian. Danner has been a working actress for nearly five decades, winning her first Tony Award in her 20s for her Broadway debut in 1969's "Butterflies Are Free." A repertory theater veteran, she's earned most acclaim on stage, but there have been Emmys too — two for her role as a psychiatrist's mother on Showtime's "Huff."
Film, however, has been a different story. On the big screen, notes her daughter, "she's always playing the grandma or the funny neighbor" — a well-to-do woman who wears cable-knit sweaters, always off to the side ready to offer some support or sage wisdom.
"I was even a great-grandmother in 'The Lucky One,'" Danner said, referring to a Nicholas Sparks adaptation. She has a working actress' attitude about these parts. "It's been a positive thing for me: They'll always need a grandmother!"
But not in "I'll See You in My Dreams," which opened in Los Angeles last weekend and has been generating some of the strongest reviews of Danner's career. She stars as Carol, a widow whose life is upended following the death of her beloved golden retriever. Unlike her posse of bridge-playing friends, Carol refuses to move into the local retirement home.
Instead she relishes her alone time — gardening, cooking, drinking wine — but after her dog dies, the emptiness starts to creep in on her. So she befriends her young pool guy (Martin Starr), who takes her out to sing karaoke, and she agrees to go out with a mustachioed gentleman (Sam Elliott) who is all the rage at the old folks home. As Carol, Danner shows off a cool elegance — she's casually beautiful and at ease with herself, never giving in to sentimentality.
When she first got the script, Danner said, she thought, "Oh, which bridge player am I?" She wasn't used to being offered such "meaty parts" and feared she might not have the stamina to complete the 18-day shoot for the low-budget independent production.
"She was extremely concerned about her stamina," said Brett Haley, who directed and co-wrote the movie. "She's never been in every scene of a movie. She is full of life and energy, but she doesn't want to work a 12-hour day. She needs a nap during the day."
"I find women dealing with age in such curious ways," she said. "I have a senior citizen card for the subway in New York, and I know several women who won't use it. They would rather pay full price. Some women just don't want to grow old."
Hollywood too has long seemed to have little use for women of a certain age — though things have recently begun to shift a bit. This month, a sitcom starring Jane Fonda, 77, and Lily Tomlin, 75, "Grace and Frankie," premiered on Netflix — and Tomlin is in a film that will open the Los Angeles Film Festival next month. The indie flick "Woman in Gold," starring Helen Mirren, 69, as a woman trying to reclaim art stolen by the Nazis, has quietly taken in about $30 million at the box office this spring. And Meryl Streep, 65, continues to score juicy roles, with two wildly different films ("Ricki and the Flash" and "Suffragette") set for release by year's end.
"But those are A-list actors who get a bite at the apple," said Danner, who recently completed another run on Broadway in "The Country House," which premiered at the Geffen Playhouse. "There's no way I can get a film on. I'm a veteran and I've been around a long time, but that doesn't mean you're going to have the pick of the litter."
Her costar, 70-year-old Elliott, agrees. He's married to Katharine Ross, 75 — "The Graduate" star whom he refers to as "the 'it girl' of her day" — and says she hasn't been offered a substantial part in years.
"It's very hard," he said. "There's no question that there's a preconception about age in Hollywood. We're all so focused on youth in this culture we live in. Although as baby boomers get older, I think Hollywood is starting to recognize that the young male audience isn't the only audience they should be catering to."
Still, the opportunity for Danner to play a love interest felt, she said, like "one in a million." Danner still lives deeply with the memories of her late spouse, Bruce Paltrow, who died in 2002. She almost always wears a pin from the Oral Cancer Foundation to honor him and said she has not been with any other men since his death.
"I'm terrible — I will be invited to things, and I just won't accept," said Danner, who splits her time between apartments in New York and Santa Monica. "I just don't know what it is. I think it's missing Bruce. He was so great and so hilarious. I really like my own company, luckily. I could be a hermit if I weren't careful. And I think that happens to a lot of older people too. It's so much easier just to crawl into yourself and not get out. I'm very happy that work has come along. A lot of good roles in the last couple of years have not allowed me to do that."
Still, Paltrow worries about her mom and would "love her to find love" again.
"She should get out of the mental framework of making a comparison to my dad," said the actress, 42. "No one is ever going to be Dad, but there might be someone who has something he didn't have, which will surprise her."
Danner is close to Paltrow, one of her two kids. (Her son, Jake, is a filmmaker.) Danner says they do a lot of texting: "Usually questions like, 'Where can I get this thing I saw on Goop? I'll give you my credit card." She's quick to defend Paltrow over Goop — the actress' often-mocked lifestyle site — and "conscious uncoupling," the term her daughter used to describe her divorce from Coldplay's Chris Martin last year.
"I wish people could see what goes on," said Danner. "You have to be very conscious and pull together for the children's sake. Think of how many divorced parents are at each other. It's a dreadful precedent. I think they're doing a wonderful job. When I go over there, I want to take notes. I wasn't always solidly on the ground. I was a bit flighty. I wasn't the best mother I could have been."
For all the ways she admires Paltrow, Danner doesn't envy her daughter's fame. She likes being "under the wire," as she says — in that zone where people think, "I've gone to school with them or shop at the same market." Her daughter believes her mother's desire to hide from the spotlight finds its roots in her Pennsylvania upbringing, where home "was not a place they heaped praise on each other."
"If she has to admit she's getting all of this attention because she was great in something," Paltrow added, "it's very challenging for the broader picture she has of herself."
Indeed, Danner has struggled to embrace the positive reception for her performance in "Dreams." After the movie premiered to standing ovations at the Sundance Film Festival in January, some critics suggested Danner deserved an Oscar nomination for her turn.
"Which is really ridiculous," said Danner, scoffing. "I remember the night after I won the Tony Award for 'Butterflies,' I came on stage and was kind of [upset] because the audience gave me this huge, resounding applause and it threw my timing off. Now that's really being ridiculous, I guess. But I want to do the work."