The New York Times – TV REVIEWS – 1984
TV REVIEWS; FILM INSTITUTE SALUTES LILLIAN GISH
By John J. O’Connor
April 17, 1984
FOR those still squirming from the way movie veterans Hal Roach and Frank Capra were poorly handled during the Academy Award ceremonies last week, tonight’s ”American Salute to Lillian Gish,” on CBS-TV at 9 o’clock, shows how these things can be done with thoughtfulness and a measure of grace.
As a rule, veterans of any sort tend to be getting on in years, which may make it difficult for them to keep up with the standard razzle-dazzle of manufactured entertainment. Paying no attention to this simple fact of life, the Oscar ceremonies confronted Hal Roach, whose producing credits include the ”Our Gang” comedies, with Spanky McFarland, who completely discombobulated his old boss with a question about what Hollywood was really like in 1912. Later, Mr. Capra, whose eyesight is obviously not as sharp as it once was, fell victim to faulty technology as his recorded announcements for best-picture nominees suddenly went silent, leaving him fumbling at the podium with cue cards.
The American Film Institute affairs, having reached their 12th annual presentation, are planned more carefully. As the ”salutes” are bestowed for a lifelong career in film making, the recipients are automatically veterans, and the list includes such performers as Bette Davis and Fred Astaire and such directors as Alfred Hitchcock and John Huston. A couple of years ago, the Life Achievement Award went to Mr. Capra.
The occasion – this year’s was taped on March 1 – takes place at a black-tie dinner in a Los Angeles hotel ballroom. While the guests, a great many of them instantly recognizable, sit at large dining tables, a small stage is set up with a podium and a large screen for sampling clips from the recipient’s work. With an appropriate fanfare and standing ovation, the guest of honor enters the room and sits at a special table to listen to friends and colleagues speak warmly of past accomplishments. The recipient offers a few words of appreciation at the end of the evening. Far from being just another silly orgy of star gazing, the event turns out to be a gathering of professionals taking justifiable pride in their work.
Lillian Gish, now somewhere vaguely around age 90, is a thoroughly deserving and delightful recipient. One of the biggest stars of silent films, she has always projected a certain physical fragility, but as this salute progresses it is clear that the lady is anything but fragile. She exudes a feisty spirit that clearly explains how she was one of the first film performers to command a hefty salary plus a percentage of profits, and to exercise creative control over her films. Lily Tomlin laughingly recalls how, after the premiere of ”9 to 5,” an enthusiastic Miss Gish ran up to her saying, ”Tell me you have a piece of it.”
The audience is reminded that Miss Gish’s career was hardly limited to silent movies. John Huston notes that she appeared with his father, Walter, in a 1902 stage production of ”In Convict’s Stripes.” She also did ”talking” movies, most notably, as Robert Mitchum points out, ”The Night of the Hunter.” And she has been active in television, appearing within the last year in ”Hobson’s Choice.” Her co-star, Richard Thomas, relates Miss Gish’s dissatisfaction with a low camera angle. ”Young man,” she told the cameraman, ”if God had wanted you to see me that way, he would have put your eyes in your bellybutton.”
But the silents, especially those associated with the legendary director D. W. Griffith, were the crown in Miss Gish’s career, and scenes are offered from four of her classics: ”The Birth of a Nation,” ”Orphans of the Storm,” ”The Wind” and ”Way Down East.” Special scoring by Carl Davis, the musical director, is played by an orchestra. The high-quality prints are run through special film projectors, lending urgency to the underlying theme of the evening: that old films must be preserved as artistic endeavors and as artifacts encompassing, in the words of an American Film Institute director, ”our collective memories, our dreams, our myths, our heritage.”
With Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as elegant host, tributes are offered to Miss Gish by, among others, Jeanne Moreau, Sally Field, John Houseman, Mary Martin, Colleen Moore and Richard Widmark. Miss Gish herself, while conceding that there have been some good talkies (” ‘Tootsie’ was wonderful’), praises the power of the silents with their great music and their great themes. She concludes with the simple statement: ”Thank you for my life.” The broadcast was directed by Marty Pasetta who, incidentally, performed the same chore for the Academy Awards. George Stevens Jr., co-chairman, was the producer.