A White Star
Shining in light, Lillian Gish represented the apotheosis of whiteness, femininity and virtue in films such as “The Birth of a Nation” and “Broken Blossoms”
By Richard Dyer
Sight and Sound – Aug. 1993 BFI – GB
Stars are things that shine brightly in the darkness. The word “star” has become so taken for granted as meaning anyone who’s a little bit famous in a little bit of the world that we’re apt to forget just how appropriate the term was for people who did seem to be aglow on stages and screens in darkened halls. And no star shone more brightly in that firmament than did Lillian Gish.
We may well mistake Lillian Gish’s importance in film history. In the silent period, other women stars were bigger – Mary Pickford especially, but also Theda Bara and names still less familiar now such as Blanche Sweet, Norma Talmadge, Clara Kimball Young and Anita Stewart, all of whom often eclipsed Gish’s place in the public imagination. It is partly because she was a star for so long that we now accord her such importance: she was still making it impossible for you to take your eyes off her in the 40s (Duel in the Sun. 1946), 50’s (The Night of the Hunter. 1955), 60’s The Unforgiven, 1959), 70’s (A Wedding, 1978) and 80’s The Whales of August, 1987) and she was always a wonderful interviewee who could bring early cinema to life. Our enthusiasm may also have to do with the face that her acting seems so minimalist compared to that of many of her contemporaries, closer to a later aesthetic of screen performance where nor betraying the fact that one is acting is deemed such a virtue.
And it is certainly because of her association with D. W. Griffith and the heroic place in the development of film that even the most revisionist histories accord him. Yet perhaps none of that would carry much weight if when you see her in the Griffith films or La Boheme (1926). The Scarlet Letter (1926) or The Wind (1928) she did not radiate the screen. She is the apotheosis of the metaphor of stardom, a light shining in the darkness.
There is a scene in True Heart Susie (1919) which encapsulates the relationship between stardom and light, a relationship at once technical, aesthetic and ethical. The film tells of a country girl, Susie (Gish), who puts ber true love William (Robert Harron) through college, only to have him marry a city girl, Bettina. Susie has to go to the party at which William announces his marriage: she knows that Bettina is also carrying on with a city boy, Sporty Malone. The establishing shot of the sequence has the party in full swing and Susie/Gish entering and sitting on a chair down screen right, where she remains throughout the sequence, looking at the party, at William and Bettina. The sequence cuts to other characters, to reactions to the wedding announcement, but keeps coming back to Susie/Gish, in close-up or in the original establishing set-up. This is lit from the front, with some extra fill and back light on Gish: she is more in the light. The light is firstly an adjunct to storytelling: it emphasises Gish’s narrative importance as the star and main character of the film: it enables us to see her better. The fill and back light create depth by making Gish stand out a little from the party further back in the image, while also placing her clearly in relation to what is unfolding. Fill and back light also beautify her, creating a subtle halo effect and bringing out the fairness of her hair: the use of make-up too gives her face a seamless white glow. This beauty is in turn a moral value, the aura of her true heart. There is in other words, a special relationship between light and Gish: she is more visible, she is aesthetically and morally superior, she looks on from a position of knowledge, of enlightenment – in short, if she is so much lit, she also appears to be the source of light.
Such treatment is the culmination of a history of light that has many strands. The association of whiteness and light – of white light – with moral values goes far back. In classical Greek art. female figures are paler than male, as befits those whose proper place is in the home, a notion taken to angelic extremes in Victorian domestic ideology and imagery. Christian art has long emphasised the radiance of the pure white bodies of Christ, the Virgin, the saints and angels. Enlightenment and post- Enlightenment philosophy stressed the intrinsic transcendent superiority of the colour white, notions that were grafted on to nineteenth century biological accounts of racial difference. The celebration of women in painting during the same period etherealised the body, drawing upon the translucent imagery of Madonnas, angels, nymphs and sprites.
Photography brought a special quality to such imagery – as images printed on white paper, photographs always show people as part transparent, as ghost-like, a characteristic readily capitalised upon in nineteenth-century portraiture and fairy set-pieces. Some of this imagery was found in the theatre too, in the romantic ballet, the feerie and pantomime. Here the star metaphor really begins to take hold. With the introduction of gas lighting, the difference between the auditorium and stage was emphasised, with all light in the latter. Developments in make-up, costume (notably the tutu) and directional lighting made it possible to make the female performer the focus of light, to be suffused with light or to reflect and thus apparently emanate it. Film took all of this and intensified it: the halls could be darker and the images on the screen were always of people with light shining through them. Provided they were white people.
Film developed its own codes of lighting, with the female star as centre piece and Lillian Gish as a supreme yet typical example. By the 20’s the norm for correct lighting in Hollywood was what was known as ‘North’ lighting, light from the land of white people. The tendency for fair hair to look dark (too dark) in black-and-white photography was overcome by using back lighting, three-point lighting, soft light, gauzes and focus could all be employed co create the halos and glows of feminine portraiture.
Even in contemporary cinema, if you look for it, and quite noticeably in silent cinema, there is often a change of lighting between a general shot of a scene and a close-up or two-shot within it. It is here particularly that the specialness of stardom, or of the experience of romance, is signalled. There is a scene in Way Down East (1920), for instance, where Anna (Gish) comes to the Bartlett family farm: she has been wandering the country, having been abandoned by the man who married her in a false ceremony and having lost her child at birth. She enters at the back of the set, which in the establishing shot is, in even, outdoor light. But when the film cuts to a dose-up of her, a gauze over the camera, side lighting and an iris all create the beauty of pathos. There is cross cutting between her and the Bartlett’s son (Richard Barthelmess), whom she will eventually marry. Both are gorgeous and treated to special, glamourising lighting – but he is shot against a dark background with a close black iris, leaving little light around him, whereas she is fully in the light against a light background and wearing a hat that suggests a halo. When she speaks to father Bartlett, who is suspicious of this waif, both stand in the full sunlight and wear hats of much the same size – but his casts his face in shadow, whereas her face, with some extra fill light no doubt, remains radiantly white, with the hat still a halo, not a shade.
Many lighting set-ups were developed for the depiction of the heterosexual couple, frozen to perfection in production stills (a neglected factor in the construction of film-historical memory). There is the soft haze that envelops the couple, with often a subtle fill radiating the woman’s face so that the man appears to be wrapped up in her glow. Or there is the head-and-shoulders close-up, with the man darkly dressed, only his shirt collar and face white and light, and the woman lightly dressed, but even lighter around the face. He rears up out of the darkness, but she is already in the light. That light comes from behind his head, magically catching the top of his hair but falling full on her face, itself an unblemished surface of white make-up which sends the light back on to his face. Barthelmess and Gish in Way Down East, Harron and Gish in True Heart Susie, Lars Hanson and Gish in The Scarlet Letter: she is the angel of light who can redeem his more carnal yearning.
Lillian Gish could be considered the supreme instance of the confluence of the aesthetic-moral equation of light, virtue and femininity with Hollywood’s development of glamour and spectacle. She may also be its turning point. Very soon the radiance of femininity came to be seen as a trap for men, not a source of redemption, – Louise Brooks in Pandora’s Box, Rita Hayworth in Gilda, Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. Even when it wasn’t that, its artifice, its materiality, its lack of spirituality have become more and more evident, taken to a post-modern apogee by the so artfully named Madonna. Lillian Gish, however, simply was a Madonna, as indeed Monte Blue observed: “She is the madonna woman, and greater praise no man can give.”
Steeliness and simplicity
Gish’s place in this history of light is not, of course, mere chance. The weight of association and the careful assemblage oflight have to ‘take’ on the figure to which they are applied. One could throw all the light one wanted on any number of attractive and talented young white women and not come up with Lillian Gish. This does not mean that no one else could have held an equivalent place in the history, but that nonetheless there had to be qualities which could carry these light values.
Gish’s face and body have characteristics that suggest both the steeliness and the simplicity of virtue, which is to say that she embodies tbe values of feminine white light. Because having eyes larger than one’s mouth was a touchstone of female beauty, and because this was not the case with Gish, she purses her mouth, keeps it dosed, not intensely (which would suggest anxiety or neurosis) but poisedly, eliminating the lasciviousness of the opened mouth and suggesting primness or purity, according to taste (people found her both). Her carriage is erect, worthy of a ballet dancer, recalling the dictum of turn-of-the-century deportment (stand up straight, shoulders back) – to me a very New England look suggesting Quaker piety. Puritan simplicity. If it didn’t seem ungracious, I would compare her aesthetically to a Shaker chair.
Thus her appearance has a sinewy and unfrilly quality that has its own particular historical and cultural resonances. These ane carried equally by her performance style. She is thin and small, and sometimes that also means painfully frail, not least in Broken Blossoms (1919) as she cringes away from her abusive father or from the moment of lust that passes over the face of the Yellow Man before his own goodness reasserts itself. Yet her toughness is at least as legendary, braving the ice flows without a double in Way Down East, facing up to the remorseless sand blows of The Wind, facing down Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter. Her body and face are mobile and flexible when necessary, an astonishing range of nuances may play over her face in a single shot, she can if need be let herself go to heights of joy, abjection or dementia – yet the formal means used remain small and uncomplicated. I want to put her alongside Willa Carther, Margot Fonteyn or Ella Fitzgerald, artists able to imply depths of feeling through spare, limpid means. With Gish, this toughness and limpidity, this steeliness and simplicity, is of a piece with the prevalent conceptions of light, virtue and femininity. Her body and performance can seem to emanate the same qualities the light is moulding. This is why all that white light took so breathtakingly, why she shines so compellingly in the dark.
There is one film that acts like a hiccup in accounts of Lillian Gish’s career. It cannot be avoided – it makes a loud noise – but it is quickly passed over. This is The Birth of a Nation (1915). It certainly is not her finest hour – True Heart Susie, Broken Blossoms, Orphans of the Storm (1921), The Scarlet Letter or The Wind among her silent features may vie for that honour – but it does make explicit the concatenation of gender, race and light that is a key part of her stardom.
The ideal of his dreams
The Birth of a Nation recounts the history of the Civil War and the Reconstruction period through the intertwined stories of two families, the Southern Camerons and the Northern Stonemans. Gish plays Elsie Stoneman, who becomes the sweetheart of Ben Cameron (Henry B Walthall). It is tempting to create the relation between the history and the love story in terms of the former disrupting the latter, lovers torn apart by ideology and reunited by the triumph of right (in this case, white supremacy). In part this is undoubtedly correct. Elsie and Ben do not meet until after the war, but her father is a Northern congressman committed to civil liberties in the South; when she discovers Ben’s involvement with the Ku Klux Klan, she has to break off the relationship; it is only when the black population have been revealed to Elsie and her father in their true colours (as it were), and Ben and the KKK have routed the population, that the couple can be reconciled. Yet there is more to it than this. Gish as Elsie represents the white womanhood that must be won for the South, she incarnates the ideal that the South is presented as fighting to defend.
What is most evidently at stake in The Birth of a Nation is not an economy based on slave labour or even hatred of black people, but an ideal of purity as embodied in the white woman.
Ben first sees Elsie in a miniature her brother Phil shows him. As an inter-title puts it, she is “the ideal of his dreams”; before she is a real person, she is an essence. When he meets her, she is in an iris shot which echoes the oval of the miniature. He shows her this, saying that he has carried her about with him “for a long, long time”. She figures for Ben, the representative of the South, as the embodiment of an ideal.
Her goodness is established for us before this, from the first shot of her in the film. She is with her father and is the very model of a dutiful daughter, tending to his needs, making him the centre of her attention. Stoneman represents white liberalism; in this most biological of films, he is therefore bald and lame and has a ‘weakness’ for a woman of mixed race. In the first shot of Elsie and him, most of her energy is put into fussing with his toupee, endlessly drawing attention to his lack of hair (and, by contemporary implication, of virility). There is something both comic and perverse about this image of filial devotion, this ministering to what the film constructs as crippled. When Elsie rides with Ben in the KKK parade at the end and in the final lovers’ tableau, she has passed from her father’s helpmeet to being her husband’s, which in part signifies that Ben (the South) has rescued her (purity) from the sickness of the North.
But he has also rescued her from something else, a fate worse than death: marriage to a man of mixed race (Silas Lynch). This itself can be seen as a producer of her father’s weakness, for he has promoted Lynch politically and even looks pleased when Lynch tells him he wants to marry a white woman – until he realises that the woman is his own daughter. He has created the conditions which put her in jeopardy and too late learns the error of his ideas. In the famous and thrilling climax, three elements are intercut: Lynch menacing Elsie into a forced marriage; the Cameron family besieged in a small log cabin by rebellious blacks; the gathering and riding of the Klan to the rescue. Elsie and the Camerons clearly symbolise the Southern ideals the Klan is about to redeem. The focus on Elsie, on the sexualisation of her plight in the race war, not only intensifies the drama – giving Ben, the leader, a personal investment in the situation – but also makes it dear that what the Klan stands for is the protection of white femininity.
The manipulation of light is less elaborated than in some of Gish’s later films, but she and Ben do get the enveloping romantic treatment and she is picked out in scenes and has altered lighting for close-ups. What is at first sight surprising is that it is she, a Northerner, who is so glorified and not either of the Cameron daughters. Margaret (Miriam Cooper), the elder of these, is dark and oddly (indeed interestingly) sour looking. The younger, Flora (Mae Marsh), is excitable and nervy. Neither has Elsie/Gish’s stillness and sureness, something brought out amusingly by her startled reaction to Flora’s excessively affectionate greeting when they meet for the first time. It is these qualities – Gish’s Northern steely simplicity of purity- that the film lauds, not the more debilitating forms of Southern femininity.
Yet this is, in fact, crucial to the film’s project, which is, as we tend curiously to forget, to depict the birth, the coming into being, of a new entity, a nation. The fact that Elsie is a Northerner, quite apart from the association of the North with white light, is important in achieving a healing of the breach opened up by the Civil War. When she rides in the KKK parade, the nation is finally born, its unity assured under the banner of Southern values. She is the prize exhibit in the new white nation.
Gish’s demeanour and style catch and reflect a way of seeing light that has deep roots in western tradition, roots distinguishable but not extricable from ways of seeing racial (and gender) difference. She is a great white star from a period when you had to be white to be a mass market star. Paul Robeson or Lena Horne, Whoopi Goldberg or Wesley Snipes are routinely referred to as black stars, yet I still feel I am going to be thought out of order when I start talking about Lillian Gish as a white star. What it suggests is that a white star’s magic is no less socially particular than a black star’s. Yes, indeed, and the sooner white people accept the particularity of their image ideals the better – but that doesn’t mean there’s no magic, white or black. It takes nothing away from Gish – not her talent and intelligence, not the spell of her shining up there in the dark – to say that her special glow is nonetheless a specifically white one.