Lillian Gish: The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me
By Lillian Gish, Prentice Hall, 1969
It Is Impossible to Overstate Her Excellence
I have loved Lillian Gish from the very first moment I saw her photograph in our family's aged coffee table book about "the movies." We're talking pre-school, so that makes her, hands down, the longest crush of my life.
The first full-length picture I saw her in that was not a clip in an anthology, or montage in a tribute was The Birth of a Nation (1915), that famous discomfiting picture, which everyone seems to want to show and discuss, but which isn't nearly as good as Broken Blossoms (1919), a film that is just as racist and disturbing.
Miss Gish has always been the transcendent figure in these early troubling narratives.
Lillian Gish was born in Springfield, Ohio, to a drunken philanderer and an actress, Mary Robinson McConnell. Lillian and her sister, Dorothy, performed on the stage with their mother, who had only turned to acting in order to support her family after her husband abandoned them. Mrs. Gish also ran a candy store next to the Majestic Theater in East St. Louis, Illinois, where they had relocated to be near Lillian's aunt and uncle. After the theater burned down in 1912, the family moved to New York and there befriended a young actress named Gladys Smith, who worked with some guy called D.W. Griffith at the Biograph Studios. Gladys (better known as Mary Pickford) introduced the girls to Mr. Griffith, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Lillian and Dorothy Gish spent their early years at Biograph as extras and in short films. By 1915, Lillian's talent and (comparative) naturalness on screen made her a star; Dorothy would eventually become one of the screen's best-loved comediennes. Throughout the Teens and for most of the Twenties, Lillian Gish became known as "The First Lady of the Silent Screen," but wasn't much interested in working in film once sound was introduced: "I never approved of talkies. Silent movies were well on their way to developing an entirely new art form. It was not just pantomine, but something wonderfully expressive." And back to the stage she went for the next couple of decades.
But she did return to film every so often, and when she did, Lillian Gish made a huge impression. For her role as the mother of two crazy mixed up cowboys in the dopey Western soap opera, Duel in the Sun (1946), Gish got (and lost) her only Academy Award nomination. She should have got and won one for The Wind, but who am I?
For a slight, angelic-looking person, Lillian Gish has always conveyed a determination and strength that belied her deceptively frail physique. In real life she was a workhorse: conservative, very private, and not a little anti-Semitic. She never married, believing marriage was a business, like acting, and she had no intention of having two jobs. The job she picked netted her millions, which she bequeathed at her death to establish The Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize, for “a man or woman who has made an outstanding contribution to the beauty of the world and to mankind’s enjoyment and understanding of life.” Spike Lee won it last year.
Lillian Gish died in her sleep at her home in Manhattan on February 27, 1993. She was 99 years old.
I will love her until the day I die.