Lillian Gish
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Lillian Diana Gish (October 14, 1893February 27, 1993) was an American actress, director and screenwriter. Her film acting career spanned 75 years, from 1912, in
silent film A silent film is a film A film, also called a movie, motion picture or moving picture, is a work of visual art The visual arts are art forms such as painting Painting is the practice of applying paint, pigment, color or oth ...

silent film
shorts Shorts are a garment A kanga, worn throughout the African Great Lakes region Clothing (also known as clothes, apparel and attire) are items worn on the body. Clothing is typically made of fabrics or textile A textile is a flex ...
, to 1987. Gish was called "The First Lady of American Cinema", and is credited with pioneering fundamental film performance techniques. Gish was a prominent film star from 1912 into the 1920s, being particularly associated with the films of director
D. W. Griffith David Wark Griffith (January 22, 1875 – July 23, 1948) was an American film director. Widely considered as the most important filmmaker of his generation, he pioneered financing of the feature-length movie. His film ''The Birth of a Nation ...
. This included her leading role in the highest-grossing film of the silent era, Griffith's ''
The Birth of a Nation ''The Birth of a Nation'', originally called ''The Clansman'', is a 1915 American silent Silent may mean any of the following: People with the name * Silent George, George Stone (outfielder) (1876–1945), American Major League Baseball outf ...
'' (1915). At the dawn of the sound era, she returned to the stage and appeared in film infrequently, including well-known roles in the western '' Duel in the Sun'' (1946) and the thriller '' The Night of the Hunter'' (1955). She also did considerable television work from the early 1950s into the 1980s, and closed her career playing opposite
Bette Davis Ruth Elizabeth "Bette" Davis (; April 5, 1908 – October 6, 1989) was an American actress with a career spanning more than 50 years and 100 acting credits. She was noted for playing unsympathetic, sardonic characters, and was famous for her pe ...

Bette Davis
in the 1987 film ''
The Whales of August ''The Whales of August'' is a 1987 American drama (film and television), drama film directed by Lindsay Anderson and starring Bette Davis and Lillian Gish as elderly sisters. Also in the cast were Ann Sothern as one of their friends, and Vincent ...
''. During her later years, Gish became a dedicated advocate for the appreciation and film preservation, preservation of silent film. Despite being better known for her film work, she was also accomplished on stage, and was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame in 1972.


Early life

Gish was born in Springfield, Ohio, the first child of actress Mary Gish, Mary Robinson McConnell, and James Leigh Gish. Lillian had a younger sister, Dorothy Gish, Dorothy, who also became a popular movie star. Her mother was a Scottish Episcopal Church in the United States of America, Episcopalian and her father was of German Lutheranism, Lutheran descent. The first several generations of Gishes were Dunkard Brethren, Dunkard ministers. Gish's father was an alcoholic and left the family; her mother took up acting to support them. The family moved to East St. Louis, Illinois, where they lived for several years with Lillian's aunt and uncle, Henry and Rose McConnell. Their mother opened the Majestic Candy Kitchen, and the girls helped sell popcorn and candy to patrons of the Majestic Theatre (East St. Louis, Illinois), old Majestic Theater, located next door. The girls attended St. Henry's School, where they acted in school plays. In 1910, the girls were living with their aunt Emily in Massillon, Ohio, when they were notified that their father, James, was gravely ill in Oklahoma. The seventeen-year-old Lillian traveled to Shawnee, Oklahoma, where James's brother Alfred Grant Gish and his wife, Maude, lived. Her father, who by then was institutionalized in the Oklahoma Hospital for the Insane in Norman, was able to travel the 35 miles to Shawnee and the two got reacquainted. She stayed with her aunt and uncle, and attended Shawnee High School there. Her father died in Norman, Oklahoma, in 1912, but she had returned to Ohio a few months before this. When the theater next to the candy store burned down, the family moved to New York, where the girls became good friends with a next-door neighbor, Gladys Smith. Gladys was a child actress who did some work for director
D. W. Griffith David Wark Griffith (January 22, 1875 – July 23, 1948) was an American film director. Widely considered as the most important filmmaker of his generation, he pioneered financing of the feature-length movie. His film ''The Birth of a Nation ...
, and later took the stage name Mary Pickford. When Lillian and Dorothy were old enough they joined the theatre, often traveling separately in different productions. They also took modeling jobs, with Lillian posing for artist Victor Maurel in exchange for voice lessons. In 1912, their friend Mary Pickford introduced the sisters to Griffith and helped get them contracts with American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, Biograph Studios. Lillian Gish soon became one of America's best-loved actresses; she was 19 years old at the time, but told casting directors she was 16.


Career


Early career

Gish made her stage debut in 1902, at The Little Red School House in Risingsun, Ohio. From 1903 to 1904, she toured in ''Her First False Step'', with her mother and Dorothy. In the following year she danced with a Sarah Bernhardt production in New York City.


Film stardom at Biograph Studios (1912–1925)

After 10 years of acting on the stage, she made her film debut opposite Dorothy in Griffith's short film ''An Unseen Enemy'' (1912). At the time established thespians considered "the flickers" a rather base form of entertainment, but she was assured of its merits. Gish continued to perform on the stage, and in 1913, during a run of ''A Good Little Devil'', she collapsed from anemia. Lillian took suffering for her art to the extreme in a film career which became her obsession. One of the enduring images of Gish's
silent film A silent film is a film A film, also called a movie, motion picture or moving picture, is a work of visual art The visual arts are art forms such as painting Painting is the practice of applying paint, pigment, color or oth ...

silent film
years is the climax of the melodramatic ''Way Down East'', in which Gish's character floats unconscious on an ice floe towards a raging waterfall, her long hair and hand trailing in the water. Her performance in these frigid conditions gave her lasting nerve damage in several fingers. Similarly, when preparing for her death scene in ''La Bohème (1926 film), La Bohème'' over a decade later, Gish reportedly did not eat and drink for three days beforehand, causing the director to fear he would be filming the death of his star as well as of the character. Lillian starred in many of Griffith's most acclaimed films, including ''
The Birth of a Nation ''The Birth of a Nation'', originally called ''The Clansman'', is a 1915 American silent Silent may mean any of the following: People with the name * Silent George, George Stone (outfielder) (1876–1945), American Major League Baseball outf ...
'' (1915), ''Intolerance (film), Intolerance'' (1916), ''Broken Blossoms'' (1919), ''Way Down East'' (1920), and ''Orphans of the Storm'' (1921). He utilized her expressive talents to the fullest, developing her into a suffering yet strong heroine. Having appeared in over 25 short films and features in her first two years as a movie actress, Lillian became a major star, becoming known as "The First Lady of American Cinema" and appearing in lavish productions, frequently of literary works such as ''Way Down East''. She became the most esteemed actress of budding Hollywood cinema. She directed her sister Dorothy in one film, ''Remodeling Her Husband'' (1920), when D. W. Griffith took his unit on location. He told Gish that he thought the crew would work harder for a girl. Gish never directed again, telling reporters at the time that directing was a man's job. The film is now thought to be Lost film, lost.


Work with MGM (1925–1928)

Gish reluctantly ended her work with Griffith in 1925 in order to take an offer from the recently formed MGM, which gave her more creative control. MGM offered her a contract in 1926 for six films, for which she was offered 1 million dollars (equivalent to $ million in ). She turned down the money, requesting a more modest wage and a percentage so that the studio could use the funds to increase the quality of her films — hiring the best actors, screenwriters, etc. By the late silent era Greta Garbo had usurped her as MGM's leading lady, and Gish's contract with MGM ended in 1928. Three films with MGM gave her near-total creative control: ''La Bohème'', ''The Scarlet Letter (1926 film), The Scarlet Letter'' (both 1926), and ''The Wind (1928 film), The Wind'' (1928). ''The Wind'', Gish's favorite film of her MGM career, was a commercial failure with the rise of talkies, but is now recognized as one of the most distinguished works of the silent period. Though not a box-office hit as before, her work was respected artistically more than ever, and MGM pressed her with offers to appear in the new medium of sound pictures.


Sound debut, return to the stage, and television and radio

Her debut in sound film, talkies was only moderately successful, largely due to the public's changing attitudes. Many of the silent era's leading ladies, such as Gish and Pickford, had been wholesome and innocent, but by the early 1930s (after the full adoption of sound and before the Motion Picture Production Code was enforced) these roles were perceived as outdated. The ''Ingenue (stock character), ingenue''s diametric opposite, the Femme fatale, vamp, was at the height of its popularity. Gish was increasingly seen as a "silly, sexless antique" (to quote fellow actress Louise Brooks's sarcastic summary of those who criticized Gish). Louis Mayer wanted to stage a scandal ("knock her off her pedestal") to garner public sympathy for Gish, but Lillian didn't want to act both on screen and off, and returned to her first love, the theater. She acted on the stage for the most part in the 1930s and early 1940s, appearing in roles as varied as Ophelia (character), Ophelia in Guthrie McClintic's landmark 1936 production of ''Hamlet'' (with John Gielgud and Judith Anderson) and Marguerite in a limited run of ''The Lady of the Camellias#Stage performances, La Dame aux Camélias''. Of the former, she said, with pride, "I played a ''lewd'' Ophelia!" Returning to movies, Gish was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 1946 for '' Duel in the Sun''. The scenes of her character's illness and death late in that film seemed intended to evoke the memory of some of her silent film performances. She appeared in films from time to time for the rest of her life, notably in '' The Night of the Hunter'' (1955) as a rural guardian angel protecting her charges from a murderous preacher played by Robert Mitchum. She was considered for various roles in ''Gone with the Wind (film), Gone with the Wind'' ranging from Ellen O'Hara, Scarlett O'Hara, Scarlett's mother (which went to Barbara O'Neil), to prostitute Belle Watling (which went to Ona Munson). Gish made numerous television appearances from the early 1950s into the late 1980s. Her most acclaimed television work was starring in the original production of ''The Trip to Bountiful (play), The Trip to Bountiful'' in 1953. She appeared as Maria Feodorovna (Dagmar of Denmark), Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna in the short-lived 1965 Broadway musical ''Anya (musical), Anya''. In addition to her later acting appearances, Gish became one of the leading advocates of the lost art of the silent film, often giving speeches and touring to screenings of classic works. In 1975, she hosted ''The Silent Years'', a PBS film program of silent films. She was interviewed in the television documentary series ''Hollywood (1980 TV series), Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film'' (1980). Gish received a Academy Awards#Special Awards, Special Academy Award in 1971, "For superlative artistry and for distinguished contribution to the progress of motion pictures". In 1979, she was awarded the Women in Film Crystal + Lucy Awards#THE CRYSTAL AWARD, Women in film Crystal Award in Los Angeles In 1984, she received an American Film Institute AFI Life Achievement Award, Lifetime Achievement Award, becoming only the second female recipient (preceded by
Bette Davis Ruth Elizabeth "Bette" Davis (; April 5, 1908 – October 6, 1989) was an American actress with a career spanning more than 50 years and 100 acting credits. She was noted for playing unsympathetic, sardonic characters, and was famous for her pe ...

Bette Davis
in 1977) and the only recipient who was a major figure in the silent era. She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1720 Vine Street. Her last film role was appearing in ''
The Whales of August ''The Whales of August'' is a 1987 American drama (film and television), drama film directed by Lindsay Anderson and starring Bette Davis and Lillian Gish as elderly sisters. Also in the cast were Ann Sothern as one of their friends, and Vincent ...
'' in 1987 at the age of 93, with Vincent Price, Bette Davis, and Ann Sothern, in which Gish and Davis starred as elderly sisters in Maine. Gish's performance was received glowingly, winning her the National Board of Review Award for Best Actress. At the Cannes festival, Gish won a 10-minute standing ovation from the audience. Some in the entertainment industry were angry that Gish did not receive an Oscar nomination for her role in ''The Whales of August''. Gish herself was more complacent, only remarking, "Well, now I won't have to go and lose to Cher". Her final professional appearance was a cameo on the 1988 studio recording of Jerome Kern's ''Show Boat'', starring Frederica von Stade and Jerry Hadley, in which she affectingly spoke the few lines of ''The Old Lady on the Levee'' in the final scene. The last words of her long career were: "Good night".


Radio

Gish starred in an episode of the popular CBS Radio series ''Suspense (radio drama), Suspense''. The episode "Marry for Murder" was broadcast on September 9, 1943. In 1944, Gish starred in an episode of ''I Was There'', broadcast on CBS. The episode dramatized the making of the film ''The Birth of a Nation''. On May 31, 1951, she starred in an adaptation of ''Black Chiffon'' on ''Playhouse on Broadway''.


Honors

The American Film Institute named Gish 17th among the AFI's 100 Years...100 Stars, greatest female stars of Classic American cinema. In 1955, she was awarded the George Eastman Award, for distinguished contribution to the art of film, at the George Eastman Museum's (then George Eastman House's) inaugural Festival of Film Artists. She was awarded an Academy Honorary Award in 1971, and in 1984 she received an AFI Life Achievement Award. Gish was also awarded Kennedy Center Honors in 1982. In 1979, she introduced ''The Wind'' at a screening at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles. She was a special guest at the Telluride Film Festival in 1983.


Bowling Green State University

The Gish Film Theatre and Gallery of Bowling Green State University's Department of Theatre and Film was named for Lillian and Dorothy Gish. Gish was in attendance at the dedication on June 11, 1976; she accepted the honor for herself and her sister, who had died several years earlier. The University awarded Gish the honorary degree of Doctor of Performing Arts the next day. In 1982, the University accepted a collection of Gish films and photographs that had previously been displayed at the Museum of Modern Art. It solicited donations from Gish friends and associates to renovate the Gish Theatre and create an endowment in the 1990s. Following Gish's 1993 death, the University raised funds to enlarge its gallery to display memorabilia received from Gish's estate. In February 2019, the University's Black Student Union called for the renaming of the Gish Theatre due to Gish's involvement with the controversial ''The Birth of a Nation''. In April 2019, a task force recommended removing the Gish name; the trustees unanimously voted to remove the name on May 3, 2019. Mike Kaplan, co-producer ''
The Whales of August ''The Whales of August'' is a 1987 American drama (film and television), drama film directed by Lindsay Anderson and starring Bette Davis and Lillian Gish as elderly sisters. Also in the cast were Ann Sothern as one of their friends, and Vincent ...
'' (1987), Lillian Gish's final film, circulated a petition urging Bowling Green State University to restore the names of actresses Dorothy and Lillian Gish to the film theater. The protest was signed by over 50 film industry figures, including actors Helen Mirren and James Earl Jones and directors Bertrand Tavernier and Martin Scorsese.


Personal life

Gish never married nor had children. The association between herself and
D. W. Griffith David Wark Griffith (January 22, 1875 – July 23, 1948) was an American film director. Widely considered as the most important filmmaker of his generation, he pioneered financing of the feature-length movie. His film ''The Birth of a Nation ...
was so close that some suspected a romantic connection, an issue never acknowledged by Gish, although several of their associates were certain they were at least briefly involved. For the remainder of her life, she always referred to him as "Mr. Griffith". She was also involved with producer Charles Duell, and drama critic and editor George Jean Nathan. In the 1920s, Gish's association with Duell became something of a tabloid scandal when he sued her and made the details of their relationship public. Gish was a survivor of the Spanish flu, 1918 flu pandemic, having contracted the illness during the filming of ''Broken Blossoms''. Gish learned French, German, and Italian during 15 years in Europe, which she first visited in 1917. George Jean Nathan praised Gish's acting glowingly—comparing her to Eleonora Duse. She maintained a close relationship with her sister Dorothy Gish, Dorothy and with Mary Pickford for her entire life. Another of her closest friends was actress Helen Hayes, the "First Lady of the American Theatre". Gish was the godmother of Hayes's son James MacArthur, and designated Hayes (who survived her by less than a month) as a beneficiary of her estate. Gish was a devout Episcopalian.


Political views

Gish was a staunch Republican Party (United States), Republican, and was a strong supporter of Ronald Reagan in the 1970s. During the period of political turmoil in the US that lasted from the outbreak of World War II in Europe until the attack on Pearl Harbor, she maintained an outspoken United States non-interventionism, non-interventionist stance. She was an active member of the America First Committee, an anti-intervention organization founded by a group of law students led by R. Douglas Stuart Jr., with aviation pioneer Charles Lindbergh as its leading spokesman. She said she was blacklisted by the film and theater industries until she signed a contract in which she promised to cease her anti-interventionist activities and never disclose the fact that she had agreed to do so.


Death

Lillian Gish died of heart failure on February 27, 1993, aged 99. She was 8 months away from becoming a centenarian. Her ashes were interred beside that of her sister Dorothy at St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church, New York, Saint Bartholomew's Episcopal Church in New York City. Her estate was valued at several million dollars, the bulk of which went toward the creation of the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize Trust.


Legacy

A retrospective of Gish's life and achievements was showcased in an episode of the Emmy award-winning PBS series, ''American Masters''. The AllMovie Guide wrote on her legacy: Turner Classic Movies wrote, * The Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize * A street in Massillon, Ohio is named after Gish, who had lived there during an early period of her life and fondly referred to it as her hometown throughout her career. * François Truffaut's movie ''Day for Night (film), Day for Night'' (1973) is dedicated to Dorothy and Lillian Gish. * Gish's photo is mentioned as an inspiration for a troubled soldier in the 1933 novel ''Company K''. * The luxury boutique hotel Maison 140, in Beverly Hills, began its historic life as the home of Hollywood actresses Lillian and Dorothy Gish. The sisters originally converted the mansion into a home for young actresses coming out to find their way in Hollywood. Having hailed from Ohio, they understood the comforts that would be missed from home while exploring one's dreams.


In popular culture

The American rock band The Smashing Pumpkins named their 1991 debut album ''Gish'' after her. Singer Billy Corgan explained in an interview, "My grandmother used to tell me that one of the biggest things that ever happened was when Lillian Gish rode through town on a train, my grandmother lived in the middle of nowhere, so that was a big deal..."Caro, Mark (December 28, 1990). "Smashing Pumpkins Finds a New Home at Caroline Records". ''Chicago Tribune''.


Filmography


Discography

* Jerome Kern: Show Boat (1988 cast album), ''Show Boat'', conducted by John McGlinn, EMI, 1988


Books

; Autobiographical * ''The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me'' (with Ann Pinchot) (Prentice-Hall, 1969) * ''Dorothy and Lillian Gish'' (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1973) * ''An Actor's Life for Me'' (with Selma G. Lanes) (Viking Penguin, 1987) ; Biographical and topical * Abel, Richard, et al. ''Flickers of Desire: Movie Stars of the 1910s'' (Rutgers University Press, 2011) * Affron, Charles. ''Star Acting: Gish, Garbo, Davis'' (E.P. Dutton, 1977) * Affron, Charles. ''Lillian Gish: Her Legend, Her Life'' (University of California Press, 2002) * Berke, Annie, Never Let the Camera Catch Me Acting': Lillian Gish as Actress, Star, and Theorist", ''Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and Television'' 36 (June 2016), 175–89. * Peter Bogdanovich, Bogdanovich, Peter. ''A Moment with Miss Gish'' (Santa Teresa Press, 1995) * Oderman, Stuart. ''Lillian Gish: A Life on Stage and Screen'' (McFarland, 2000)


Documentaries

* Jeanne Moreau's 1983 television documentary ''Lillian Gish'' * Terry Sanders' 1988 documentary ''Lillian Gish: An Actor's Life for Me''


See also

* List of actors with Academy Award nominations * Women's cinema


References and notes


External links

* * *
Lillian Gish
at Women Film Pioneers Project
Lillian Gish papers, 1909–1992
held by the Billy Rose Theatre Division, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts * * {{DEFAULTSORT:Gish, Lillian Lillian Gish, 1893 births 1993 deaths 20th-century American actresses 20th-century American Episcopalians 20th-century American non-fiction writers 20th-century American women writers Actresses from New Rochelle, New York Actresses from New York City Actresses from Ohio Academy Honorary Award recipients AFI Life Achievement Award recipients American anti-war activists American autobiographers American child actresses American film actresses American people of German descent American people of Scottish descent American silent film actresses American stage actresses American radio actresses American television actresses American television hosts American women non-fiction writers Film directors from Ohio Kennedy Center honorees Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer contract players New York (state) Republicans Non-interventionism Old Right (United States) People from Springfield, Ohio Silent film directors Women autobiographers Women film pioneers Writers from Ohio American women television presenters