The New York Times
By PETER B. FLINT MAY 11, 1986
Lillian Gish’s fame is rooted in drama and tragedy, but, for her 104th film, the legendary actress has chosen a comedy.
In ”Sweet Liberty,” Alan Alda’s genial spoof of movie making, she portrays, all too briefly, the hero’s cantankerous but beguiling mother, who has slept in her living room for 11 years ”because the devil is in the bedroom.” The hero (Mr. Alda), asked how long his mother has been crazy, replies, ”All my life.”
Miss Gish said she was at first reluctant to portray such a quirky character but agreed to do so during a talk with Mr. Alda because he is such ”a beautiful, charming man.” Your face, she said, mirrors your soul.
”Sweet Liberty,” which Mr. Alda also wrote and directed, centers on a professor who is plunged into a summer of madness when a film company comes to his campus to make a movie of his book about the American Revolution. The comedy, co-starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Michael Caine and Lise Hilboldt, opens Wednesday.
Miss Gish, who is 86, said her uneasiness over making a comedy faded quickly because of Mr. Alda’s ”thoughtful, gracious direction.” ”My scenes were all amusing, and I had great fun playing the off-center woman,” she remarked. ”The film was easier to make than most because it was shot in beautiful summer weather and nearby, around Sag Harbor, Long Island.”
”Making the movie reminded me of D. W. Griffith back in 1912,” she recalled. ”There was no place we could go that was as happy as when we were shooting, and this film was just like that.”
Prior to ”Sweet Liberty,” Miss Gish’s most recent movie was a 1978 black comedy, Robert Altman’s ”Wedding,” in which she played a spirited matriarch.
In an interview in her elegant, book-lined apartment off Sutton Place, the actress said she saw few new movies because of their pervasive violence and sex, adding, ”The love scenes I did years ago were sensitive and romantic, but in today’s lovemaking, couples are trying to swallow each other’s tonsils.”
Turning pensive, Miss Gish said softly, ”Honey, mankind can now destroy itself.” She said her chief concerns, besides nuclear annihilation, are ”trillon-dollar budget deficits” and the preservation of films. Since she can do little about nuclear dangers and budget deficits, she concentrates on rescuing films by such pre-eminent directors as Griffith, who, she said, ”gave films their form and grammar.”
The petite actress, with her fragile beauty and spiritual vibrance, was the quintessential Victorian heroine in such Griffith classics as ”The Birth of a Nation” (1915), ”Broken Blossoms” (1919), ”Way Down East” (1920) and ”Orphans of the Storm” (1922). When the director released her from her contract in 1922 after a nine-year collaboration, explaining he could no longer afford her, Miss Gish went to M-G-M, where, over five years, she starred in such successes as ”The White Sister,” ”La Boheme,” ”The Scarlet Letter” and ”The Wind.”
”I left Hollywood in 1929,” she said, ”because Louis B. Mayer wanted to ‘take me off my pedestal and arrange a scandal’ for me.” Since then, she has appeared in scores of plays and 16 films.
For career achievement, the actress has won a special Academy Award and tributes from the American Film Institute and the Kennedy Center. Other countries, she said, have given her even more awards. Asked to total them, she waved toward a cluster of plaques and replied, ”I’m terrible with numbers, but they’re all around here.”
In recent weeks, Miss Gish has worked to raise funds for film preservation at the George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y., and helped the Lincoln Center Film Society pay tribute to Elizabeth Taylor. In coming weeks, she will be honored at a reception given by the Smithsonian Institution and toasted by the Museum of the City of New York at a luncheon at the Hotel Pierre. She will also travel to Vancouver, B.C., to attend Expo 86 and a film festival at which Jeanne Moreau will screen her new film about Miss Gish’s life and career.
In a chat the other day, conducted between sips of lemonade, Miss Gish was wearing a long velour gown -blue, like her eyes – and an opal pendant. Her long, frost-blonde hair – tied in a crownlike bun – is now white, and her skin is still very white, with only a trace of makeup. When not working on a movie or play, she said proudly, ”I never go to beauticians or hairdressers.”
Her apartment is outfitted with 18th-century French-style furniture, mostly gold and green. Some 30 small photographs and daguerreotypes of relatives adorn a small, brocade-covered table in the living room. Lining the back hall are large photos of relatives, friends and idols such as Eleonora Duse and Sarah Bernhardt, before whom Miss Gish danced at the age of 6. There are several photographs of a longtime friend, Helen Hayes, her husband, Charles MacArthur and their son James, who is Miss Gish’s godson.
Above the living room fireplace hangs a portrait of Miss Gish that appeared on the jacket of ”The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me,” a 1969 memoir she wrote with Ann Pinchot. Miss Gish has lived in the Sutton Place area since 1929.
The actress has worked 81 of her 86 years. When she was 5, her father deserted the family, and she, her mother and later her younger sister Dorothy became actresses in road companies. They were often hungry and sometimes had to live in filthy, leaking hovels. She had only five months of formal education, at the age of 11.
Miss Gish never married despite many proposals. ”A good wife,” she explained, ”has a 24-hour-a-day job, while acting has required me to work up to 12 or 14 hours a day. I didn’t ruin any dear man’s life, and I’m grateful for that.”
When she is not involved in a project, she spends her afternoons responding to about 40 letters a day from around the world. She dictates to Jim Frasher, a former stage manager who has been her ”right hand” for 18 years. He telephones her at 10 A.M., arrives at noon and prepares her 5 P.M. supper. Her main exercise is lying for 30 minutes each day on a tilt board with her head lowered and her feet raised and pressed against a chair.
When a photographer arrives, Miss Gish advises him gently about flattering lighting and conceals the first two fingers on her right hand. They became disfigured after being dragged in a freezing river for three hours before she was rescued from an ice floe by Richard Barthelmess in the melodrama ”Way Down East.”
After the interview, she graciously escorts a visitor to the elevator, presses the button and shakes hands warmly. As the elevator door closes, she waves and her face radiates the ethereal woman-child smile she gave Mr. Barthelmess in 1920 for rescuing her. Sixty-six years vanish – instantly.