A Tinseltown Family Business

By Max Gross

Published November 04, 2005, issue of November 04, 2005.
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The name “Gyllenhaal” crops up in a lot of movies these days.

There’s actress Maggie Gyllenhaal, America’s sexiest secretary. There’s her younger brother, Jake, who has performed in everything from Gulf War epics to gay cowboy flicks. There’s Stephen, their father, a longtime television and film director. And then there’s the family’s mom, Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal, who wrote the screenplay for the mystical-Judaism-cum-spelling-bee drama, “Bee Season,” which will be arriving in theaters next week.

Foner Gyllenhaal definitely can hold her own with her high-wattage kin; “Bee Season,” based on a 2000 novel by Myla Goldberg, stars such heavies as Juliette Binoche and Richard Gere. (Gere plays, of all things, a mystical Jewish professor: He took instruction for the part from left-wing San Francisco rabbi Michael Lerner.) “I started writing when I was 31,” said the screenwriter, a sleek, slender 59-year-old who bears a striking resemblance to her daughter.

But even before she began using her husband’s last name — as a 25th anniversary present to him, she told the New York Times — Foner Gyllenhaal was accustomed to bearing a famous name. Her first husband was Columbia University historian Eric Foner, the nephew of legendary union organizers Moe and Henry Foner.

She attended Barnard College, where she was introduced to radical politics. After college she worked for Head Start and then began producing such children’s public television programs as “Sesame Street” and “The Electric Company.” It was while working for public television that she met Stephen Gyllenhaal.

Foner Gyllenhaal didn’t start writing until after daughter Maggie’s birth in 1977, when she was invited to write a television special about the New York blackout. “It was very autobiographical,” she said of the project.

She has been writing ever since. Her first Hollywood film credit, the 1988 “Running on Empty,” was a tale of 1960s radicals raising their child while on the run from the FBI.

When the novel “Bee Season” came out, it was an unusual best seller; it told the story of a seemingly ordinary child named Eliza Naumann who has a knack for spelling. Eliza’s father, a cantor, becomes obsessed with what he sees as a link between his daughter’s gift and the kabbalistic teachings of medieval mystic Abraham Abulafia.

“I was always culturally Jewish — and to some extent spiritually — but that wasn’t what interested me [in the movie],” Foner Gyllenhaal said.

She shifted a lot of the movie away from the book’s kabbalistic strand, focusing instead on the story of the eventual dissolution of Eliza’s family.

“Families can be really dangerous and incredibly destructive,” Foner Gyllenhaal said.

Family strain has been one of her constant themes. Her second solo film credit after the radical family drama “Running on Empty” was the 1995 film “Losing Isaiah” (directed by her husband), about a family’s struggle to hold on to an adopted child.

This is not to say that the Gyllenhaal family is some sort of dysfunctional mess; on the contrary, mother Naomi describes the Gyllenhaals as a happy theatrical troupe.

“It’s in their blood,” Foner Gyllenhaal told the Forward about her children and their acting careers. “They do it for the right reasons. They know how much of a slog it is, because they watched [it] their whole lives.”

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