One Critic’s Defiant Choices for Best Picture, Actor, and Actress—From 1927 to the Present
A Delta Book Published by Dell Publishing a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. 1540 Broadway New York, New York 10036
THE BEST CHOICE: Lillian Gish (The Wind)
Award-Worthy Runners-Up: Betty Compson (The Docks of New York), Marion Davies (Show People), Bessie Love (Broadway Melody)
Mary Pickford was happy to vote for Janet Gaynor as Best Actress for 1927-28, and didn’t even mind that her own terrific performance in My Best Girl went unnominated. But, as the story goes, she began to feel jealous that she didn’t have a statue herself. So when she was nominated in the second year of the Academy Awards for her performance in Coquette, her first talkie and first film without her famous curls, she got serious. No longer on the voting committee, she invited the current judges to Pickfair for tea, thereby qualifying as the first star to campaign for an Academy Award. And she defeated several respected, veteran actresses, including the late Jeanne Eagels, who had died of a drug overdose after making The Letter. It was hard for the Academy to justify her victory because the film was one of the worst received of her career; it was generally recognized that she had been miscast as the Southern flirt who ruins men’s lives, a part played by Helen Hayes on Broadway.
Surely, Lillian Gish was more deserving for her riveting performance in The Wind. And even if, as many contended, the award was given to Pickford as a tribute to a great career, Gish was still the better choice. Pickford may have been the most popular actress of the silent era, but Gish was the most talented. If Academy Awards had been given out in the silent era, Lillian Gish would have won a few, having given beautifully conceived performances in such features as The Birth of a Nation, Broken Blossoms, True Heart Susie, Way Down East, and Orphans of the Storm for D. W. Griffith, and The White Sister, La Boheme, and The Scarlet Letter (MGM).
Gish made her reputation as an innocent, passive heroine who undergoes much suffering. As critic Arthur Lenning wrote of Broken Blossoms’ Lucy Burrows, Lillian represented “the innocent waif sacrificed in the moral and emotional slaughterhouse of the world.” Her parts were more adult after she left Griffith, but she still sought roles that were consistent with those she played for him.
Having played Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter, Gish again played a heroine who is an outcast in her community’ in The Wind. As in her other films Gish is initially virtuous, but learns the ways of the hard, cruel world. She endures much pain, suffering, and humiliation. Unlike her roles in the Griffith films, however, her character does waver from the path of righteousness; she does not survive with honor intact. But when, in The Wind, she is attacked by a scoundrel and ravaged by nature, her part recalls the Griffith films. The scene in which she feels trapped in the small cabin while a storm rages outside reminds one of the harrowing scene in Broken Blossoms when the terrified Lucy Burrows is locked in a closet while her brutal father stalks outside. Her hysteria in the Griffith scene was so convincing that during the filming, several people on the set became ill watching her; she is just as believable in The Wind.
Gish is dynamic in a role that lets her run the gamut of emotions. At first she is carefree, later apprehensive, finally tormented; she tries to suppress her paranoia, but ultimately allows madness to replace her terrible fears. As Gish was well aware, it is through her incredible eyes that we perceive the changes her character goes through.
We sense her paranoia the first time she watches the sand swirling toward the train windows (she realizes she isn’t strong); later we see absolute fear in those eyes; finally they are blurred and unfocused and we realize she has lost her senses. As it is with her hands and her body, Gish moves her eyes (usually preceding the movement of her head) only at those moments when she wants to convey a thought. No one was more aware of the camera than this shrewd actress.
Gish said working on The Wind was the most difficult experience of her career because of the blowing sand, which cut into her skin and shredded her garments, and the intense heat. It was even harder than doing twenty-two takes on an ice floe with her hand in the freezing water in Griffith’s Way Down East. So the lack of studio support for the film was a great disappointment. Because it failed at the box office, Louis B. Mayer told Gish that her career needed a boost. He said he was going to invent a scandal to soil her pristine image. When she refused to go along with his scheme, he suspended her. Undaunted, she went to New York to do theater. The Wind was Lillian Gish’s last silent picture.***
No one has ever been better at playing traumatic scenes than Lillian Gish, but she outdid herself as the lonely bride driven crazy by The Wind.
*** The Wind was MGM’s last silent production as well.