October 14, 1896 – Lillian Gish:
”I’m so glad I didn’t ruin a man’s life by marrying him.”
According to director Lindsay Anderson, while filming The Whales Of August (1987) he said to Lillian Gish: “Miss Gish, you have just given me a perfect close-up“. Costar Bette Davis remarked: “She should. She invented ’em.”
She was THE face of silent films, especially when enshrined in the oval portraiture of the iris shot that was so cherished by her mentor, D.W. Griffith.
In Griffith’s early films, on the one hand, they established once and for all the technical parameters of an artform peculiar to the 20th century; on the other, they were rooted in the codes and conventions of Victorian melodrama. Gish assumed and embodied that contradiction. The almost unparalleled intensity with which she invested every single role she played for Griffith was unmarred by the overacting and other tics and tropes of her rivals. In each of her performances, Gish brought an emotional simplicity and truth which enabled her to continue acting into extreme old age without ever revising her style. Her face, demure but never insipid, pale but never spectral, beautiful but without a trace of Hollywood glamour, became the face of early filmmaking.
Griffith’s melodramas, unlike their stage models, gave pleasure that audiences derived less from gloating over the seduction of a virginal young thing than of thrilling to her capacity for struggling back, for defending herself, and for surviving. The Griffith heroine, with Gish as the prototype, could also be feisty and funny when occasion demanded; and, if there ever existed a star whose legend did not require her, like Carole Lombard, Marilyn Monroe or James Dean, to suffer a tragically premature death, it was Lillian Gish. She grew from ingénue to middle-aged, then elderly, then frankly old, exactly as the characters who she had played in the teens and 1920s of the 20th century might have grown old. Her face remained noble and dignified: it appeared neither a haggard wreck of its former self nor did it acquire the masklike waxiness of Hollywood’s many leading ladies.
She was born in 1896, the daughter of a woman driven into the then shameful profession of acting by the frequent absences of her fecklessly drifter husband. While still a baby, Gish began touring with a series of seedy, second-rate theatre troupes, often with her mother and sister Dorothy Gish but just as often alone.
She was billed as ”Baby Lillian”, and they were years marked by hunger and loneliness, although she did once land a role in a Broadway production starring the greatest actor of the era, Sarah Bernhardt.
In 1912, in the New York offices of the American Biograph Company, she and her sister ran into another child performer whose acquaintance they had made on their time on the Vaudeville circuit. They had known her when she was Gladys Smith, but the ringlet-haired little trouper now called herself Mary Pickford. That very same day Pickford presented the two Gish girls to D.W. Griffith; and, only hours later, the entire Gish sisters and their mother, made their first film appearance in Griffith’s two-reeler An Unseen Enemy.
Gish’s name became definitively attached to Griffith’s, the silent era’s foremost filmmaker and a man of whom she wrote, with hyperbole, was ”…fifty or a hundred years ahead of his time” The importance of Gish in the director’s vision: her soft, un-fleshy, pre-Raphaelite features came to seem indelibly ”Griffithian”.
Out of that professional anxiety was born the prim, serious young woman at the center of the romantically overblown films in which Griffith regularly cast her.
Of the many films on which they collaborated, the best remembered is, of course, the now reviled The Birth Of A Nation (1915); plus Intolerance (1916), a stupendous overstuffed epic, possibly still the most expensive film ever produced, where she makes a cameo appearance as the mother who links each of the film’s four episodes.; There is also Hearts Of The World (1918) a World War I drama that marks the film debut of a diminutive Noel Coward); Broken Blossoms (1919); Way Down East (1920), where she is famously rescued from a swirling ice-flow; and Orphans Of The Storm (1922), with its two title roles played, naturally, by the Gish sisters.
1922 was also the year she and Griffith, parted ways over a contractual dispute. Her prestige was such that she continued to be granted the virtually unique privilege of selecting her own scripts and directors, something she exercised with notable taste and discrimination.
For King Vidor she portrayed an unforgettably poignant Mimi in La Boheme (1924), dragging her frail, consumptive body around Paris to expire in her lover’s embrace. For Victor Sjöström, she gave two of her most glowingly exquisite performances: Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter (1926) and as the embattled waif in The Wind (1928), a perfect conclusion to her silent film career.
Most silent stars careers fizzled out with the advent of sound, but it was not Gish’s voice but, again, that face that continued to make her bankable. Her persona defied casting in the earthier, jazzier comedies and melodramas ushered in by the talking pictures. But, before being relegated to an occasional supporting performer, she found herself subjected to the indignity of a suggestion by Irving Thalberg, MGM’s young head of production, that a mythical scandal be fabricated to spice up her image. But Gish didn’t want to act both onscreen and off, and she returned to her first love, the theatre. She acted on the stage for the most part in the 1930s and early 1940s, appearing in a landmark 1936 production of Hamlet with John Gielgud, she said, with pride:
“I played a lewd Ophelia!”
Returning to films, Gish was nominated for the Academy Award for Duel In The Sun (1946), not just a sound picture, but in stunning Technicolor, starring Jennifer Jones, Joseph Cotten, Gregory Peck, and Lionel Barrymore.
Aptly enough, the only sound role worthy of comparison with her silent work was in Charles Laughton‘s haunting masterpiece, The Night Of The Hunter (1955), with Robert Mitchum and Shelley Winters, made in an unabashedly Griffithian tradition.
Her presence added luster to films as disparate as Robert Altman‘s A Wedding (1978) and Anderson’s The Whales Of August, her final film, made when she was 93 years old. Gish’s performance in Whales Of August won her the National Board of Review Award for Best Actress. At the Cannes festival, Gish won a 10-minute standing ovation from the audience. Many in showbiz were angry that Gish did not receive an Oscar nomination for her role. Gish remarked that it saved her the trouble of “losing to Cher“.
Gish never married. She remained close to her sister and Mary Pickford.
Lillian Gish was just one year younger than the medium to which she devoted her life: in Paris, just 10 months before her birth, the brothers Auguste and Louis Lumiere held the first public screening of images imprinted on celluloid.