What Happened To Lillian Gish ?

Lillian Gish

Lillian Diana Gish (October 14, 1893 – February 27, 1993) was an American actress, director and screenwriter. Her film acting career spanned 75 years, from 1912, in silent film shorts, to 1987. Gish was called “The First Lady of American Cinema”, and is credited with pioneering fundamental film performance.

Gish was a prominent film star from 1912 into the 1920s, being particularly associated with the films of director D. W. Griffith. This included her leading role in the highest-grossing film of the silent era, Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (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 in the 1987 film The Whales of August. During her later years Gish became a dedicated advocate for the appreciation and 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 Robinson McConnell, and James Leigh Gish. Lillian had a younger sister, Dorothy, who also became a popular movie star.

Her mother was a Scottish Episcopalian and her father was of German Lutheran descent. The first several generations of Gishes were 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 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 reactquainted. 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, 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 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 debuted 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 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 over a decade later, Gish reported did not eat and drink for three days ago, 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 (1915), 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 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.

Working 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 $14.6 million in 2020). 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 (both 1926), and 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 reputableally 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 talkies was only 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’s diametric opposite, the vamp, was at the height of its popularity. Gish was recently seen as a “silly, sexless antique” (to quote actress Louise Brooks’s sarcastic summary of those who 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 on the stage for the most part in the 1930s and early 1940s, appeared in roles as varied as Ophelia in Guthrie McClintic’s landmark 1936 production of Hamlet (with John Gielgud and Judith Anderson) and Marguerite in a limited run of 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 ranging from Ellen O’Hara, Scarlett’s mother (which went to Barbara O’Neil),[12] to prostitute Belle Watling (which went to Ona Munson).

Audio

Gish starred in an episode of the popular CBS Radio series 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 greatest female stars of Classic American cinema.[19] 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.[21] Gish was also awarded Kennedy Center Honors in 1982.

In 1979, she introduced The Wind at a screening at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles. She was a special guest at the Telluride Film Festival in 1983.

Bowling Green State University

The Gish Film Theater and Gallery of Bowling Green State University’s Department of Theater 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 Theater 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 Theater 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 (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 any children. The association between herself and D. W. Griffith was so close that some suspect 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 1918 flu pandemic, having 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 boasted Gish’s acting glowingly—comparing her to Eleonora Duse.

She maintained a close relationship with her sister Dorothy and with Mary Pickford for her entire life. Another of her closest friends was actress Helen Hayes, the “First Lady of the American Theater”. Gish was the godmother of Hayes’ 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, 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 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.[33] She was 8 months away from becoming a centenarian. Her ashes were interred beside that of her sister Dorothy at Saint Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in New York City.[34] Her estate was valued at several million dollars, the bulk of which went towards 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

Lillian Gish is considered the movie industry’s first true actress. A pioneer of fundamental film performing techniques, she was the first star to recognize the many crucial differences between acting for the stage and acting for the screen, and while her contemporaries painted their performances in broad, dramatic strokes, Gish delivered finely etched, nuanced turns carrying a stunning emotional impact. While by no means the biggest or most popular actress of the silent era, she was the most gifted, her seeming waiflike frailty masking unparalleled reserves of physical and spiritual strength. More than any other early star, she fought to earn film recognition as a true art form, and her achievements remained the standard against which those of all other actors are measured.

Turner Classic Movies wrote,

Having pioneered screen acting from vaudeville entertainment into a form of artistic expression, actress Lillian Gish forged a new creative path at a time when more serious thespians regards motion pictures as a rather base form of employment. Gish brought to her roles a sense of craft significantly different from that practiced by her theatrical colleagues. In time, her sensitive performances elevated not only her stature as an actress, but also the reputation of movies themselves.

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 (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 …

Filmography

Main article: Lillian Gish filmography

Discography

Jerome Kern: Show Boat, conducted by John McGlinn, EMI, 1988

Books

Autobiographical

The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me (with Ann Pinchot) (Prentice-Hall, 1969) ISBN 9780135366493

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)

Afron, Charles. Star Acting: Gish, Garbo, Davis (E.P. Dutton, 1977)

Afron, 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.

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