Gish, Lillian (1893-1993)

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Gish, Lillian (1893-1993)

Both frail and tough, innocent and powerful, charming and serious, actress Lillian Gish has defied both categorization and convention. Best known for her work with director D. W. Griffith, in her younger years Gish portrayed pale, waiflike heroines who used emotional strength, hard work, and persistence to protect their chastity—and spirit—from destruction at the hands of lustful men. To many filmgoers, Gish served as a bridge between nineteenth-and twentieth-century values, uniting Griffith's Victorian views on sexual purity with the strong-willed independence of the "modern" girl. Even after Gish left Griffith's studio in 1923, she continued to shy away from overtly sexual roles, and for the rest of her career, Gish remained an icon of propriety—and a firm believer in the dignity of acting. Gish, who pioneered many of the acting techniques of silent film, worked tirelessly to elevate the cinema from the status of mere entertainment to serious art.

For an actress who championed the respectability of film, Gish's introduction to the world of drama was less than highbrow. At the age of five, Gish debuted in a vaudeville melodrama called "In Convict's Stripes," and a few years later, Gish, her mother, and her sister Dorothy had joined vaudeville touring companies and were traveling around the country with a child actress named Gladys Smith. In New York in 1912, Lillian and Dorothy went to visit Smith, who had been renamed Mary Pickford and was working at D. W. Griffith's Biograph studio. Pickford urged Griffith to hire the Gish sisters, and in the next three years Lillian and Dorothy appeared in over 35 short films. In 1914, Gish starred in her first feature-length film, Judith of Bethulia, and in 1915 played heroine Elsie Stoneman in The Birth of a Nation. During the next seven years, Gish developed and refined her on-screen persona: in Hearts of the World (1918), Broken Blossoms (1919), and Orphans of the Storm (1922), Gish played downtrodden characters who survived poverty, abandonment, and abuse through tenacity, sacrifice, and luck. In the most famous of these roles, in Way Down East (1921), Gish's character Anna Moore floated down a river on an ice floe, hand and hair dragging in the frigid water, until saved by her lover. Prevented by the silent film medium from using spoken words, Gish perfected the art of facial expression, and Griffith, the pioneer of the close-up shot, used Gish's wide eyes and cautious smile to create a depth and intensity unparalleled in early film.

In 1923, a dispute with Griffith over her salary drove Gish to Inspiration Pictures, where she appeared in Romola (1924) with William Powell; in 1926, she moved to MGM and starred in La Bohéme (1926), The Scarlet Letter (1926), and The Wind (1928). Gish's films at MGM, though, were largely box-office failures, and production head Irving Thalberg suggested that the studio invent a scandal for Gish to boost her popularity. Gish refused, leaving MGM and signing with rival United Artists in 1930. Soon afterwards, when One Romantic Night (1930) proved a commercial disappointment, Gish asked to be released from her contract, thus concluding her most productive and creative years in film. As actress Louise Brooks lamented, "Stigmatized as a grasping, silly, sexless antique… the great Lillian Gish left Hollywood forever, without a head turned to mark her departure." Brooks, however, turned out to be wrong. Although Gish devoted most of the next five decades to the stage, she returned to Hollywood for a few notable films. In 1947, Gish received an Academy Award nomination for her role in Duel in the Sun and, in 1955 she gave a powerful performance as an old woman protecting a group of children from a maniacal killer in The Night of the Hunter. No longer the gamine, Gish increasingly portrayed mature, if not spinsterish characters. In 1960, Gish played Burt Lancaster's mother in The Unforgiven, and in 1969 she appeared in a television version of "Arsenic and Old Lace," playing one of the spinster sisters with Helen Hayes. In real life, Gish did not marry, although she was admired by many suitors. When asked in the 1920s why he was so fascinated with Gish, co-star John Gilbert, one of her more ardent followers, replied, "Because she is unattainable."

By the 1970s, Gish was widely celebrated as "the first lady of film," and in 1971 she received an honorary Academy Award for her contribution to motion pictures. "This beautiful woman so frail and pink and so overwhelmingly feminine has endured as a working artist from the birth of the movies to its transfiguration," Melvyn Douglas read at the ceremony, "for underneath this wisp of a creature there is hard steel." Gish's iron constitution served her well: in her eighties, Gish continued to act in television, theater, and film, giving her final performance in The Whales of August in 1987. She died in 1993, leaving a legacy of hard work, creativity, and versatility. While Hollywood vamps, goddesses, and bombshells came and went, Gish remained a testament to the timelessness of the fine art of acting.

—Samantha Barbas

Further Reading:

Affron, Charles. Star Acting: Gish, Garbo, Davis. New York, Dutton, 1977.

Gish, Lillian. Dorothy and Lillian Gish. New York, Scribner's, 1973.

——. The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, Prentice Hall, 1969.

Shipman, David. The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years. New York, Crown, 1970.