Final Close-Ups (Lillian Gish)
By Charles Affron (2001)
Lillian, who had not abandoned hope of returning to the big screen, was overjoyed at being considered for a role in Alfred Hitchcock’s A Family Plot. “My heart skipped a few beats at receiving such good news I am second to none in my admiration for your work. Nothing could give me more happiness than being a part of a film you are directing.,, Before she wrote the note to Hitchcock she had already lost the part to Cathleen Nesbitt. Two short religious films and four features would complete the Gish filmography. She would close her career in the medium that had first made her a star.
“I’m a believing person. I believe in God, even though I can’t see him. You can’t see the air in this room, right? But take it away and you’re dead. And I believe there’s something for us after we die. The world isn’t wasteful. It keeps going on and I think we do too.” True to her Episcopalian background, Lillian was a longtime parishioner of St. Bartholomew’s Church on Park Avenue. Her schoolgirl fascination with the religious life had resurfaced in her fervent assumption of the leading roles of nuns in The White Sister and The Joyous Season. At one point, she expressed the desire to write a book about religion. When in June 1974, at the request of the Swedenborg Foundation, Lillian recorded Helen Keller’s My Religion for the blind, she was struck by Keller’s writing on Swedenborg.
Lillian agreed to appear as a Swedish matron who, while sitting for her portrait, tells of having witnessed one of Swedenborg’s visions, in a short 16mm film produced for the Swedenborg Foundation, Swedenborg: The Man Who Had to Know (1978). In this cameo role, she never moves from her chair. Johnny Appleseed and the Frontier Within (1981), another thirty-minute film sponsored by the organization, casts Lillian as “a charming woman of pioneer origins in the parlour of her 1871 Cincinnati home with her pompous nephew/’ She provides the frame for the story of Johnny Appleseed and his “reverence for the revelations of Emanuel Swedenborg in what appears to be an under-rehearsed, hastily shot scene, Lillian looks remarkably youthful but sounds like an old lady having difficulty with her lines. In Johnny Appleseed, however, she is not the only actor whose delivery is hesitant.
There is nothing halting about her acting in Robert Altman’s A Wedding (1978). Here was Lillian Gish at age eighty-five, as close as anyone had been, literally and metaphorically, to the creation of movie narrative, engaged by a director who had successfully defied narrative conventions with M*A*S*H (1970), McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), The Long Goodbye (1973), and Nashville (1975). “It’s a new thing for me and I’m a pioneer at heart. I love new ventures and to arrive on the scene and not have a script and not have a word written that I’m supposed to speak is so new to me but like all new things I like it.” In fact, unlike much of the dialogue in Altman’s films, Lillian’s lines were scripted. And some of her habits could not be broken: “No matter how many times Altman said, ‘Call me Bob,’ the dignified leading lady of D. W. Griffith films insisted on calling him ‘Mr. Altman.'”
Lillian plays Nettie Sloan, the family matriarch, who, having orchestrated a complicated wedding, raises her eyes to the heavens, utters, “Thank you, God,” and dies without so much as a sigh or a movement of the head. The image of her peaceful face reappears a number of times during A Wedding.
The characters talk to her, some as if she were alive, others knowing that she is dead. The role’s few lines are spoken in the first ten minutes of the movie. After that, Lillian, her hair spread on the pillow as if she were a young girl, is a still, perfect image in a willfully chaotic narrative. As a contrast to the wayward family at the center of the plot, Lillian is the icon of good breeding. So much of an icon is Lillian that she is called upon to play dead through most of the film. For Altman it is a death specific to Lillian. “Nettie’s death is the death of a silent screen star.”
Would that she had played dead rather than accept the offer of Hambone and Hillie, a movie that gives her top billing and shows her to exceptionally poor advantage. In addition to the lure of financial gain (a guarantee of $20,000) and a starring role, the project may have appealed to Lillian’s love of animals. After Georgie, the wirehaired terrier, a gift from George Jean Nathan, there was a King Charles spaniel named Gwyn, the subject of a lawsuit in 1928. (Valued at $5,000, Gwyn was lost, then recovered by Charles Comora, a tailor. Mr. Comora was arrested for not returning the dog.) In Scotland for the tryout of The Old Maid, Lillian accepted Malcolm, a West Highland white terrier, a present from Sir Ian Malcolm. Passionate on the subject of dogs, Lillian, as usual, spoke up. Her 1952 address to the New York Women’s League for Animals about canine health recommended no more than two baths a year and a pinch of Epsom salts in the drinking water. Lillian also had a pet bird, Johnny Boy. At his death in 1950, she noted the burial of her “dear feathered friend” in the Bird Sanctuary. Lillian established her credentials among cat lovers by writing the foreword to theatre historian and curator George Freedley’s Mr. Cat: “How strange is the accident of birth and the gift of tongues. Speaking several languages, most of them poorly, I do pride myself on speaking cat and dog rather well, probably because of the patient training I have received from many fur friends.” (“Several” and “poorly” were somewhat generous assessments of Lillian’s skills in French and German, despite her many lessons.)
With its Lassie Come Home premise, Hambone and Hillie accidentally separates the beloved dog, Hambone, from his aged mistress, Hillie (Lillian). The action depicts the animal’s cross-continental adventures in search of her. Given the careless direction, which explains Lillian’s hesitant line readings, and her altogether inappropriate costumes (a bright red pants suit is perhaps the most egregious example), it is a blessing that most of her few scenes are brief. She had no trouble evaluating her contribution to Hambone and Hillie: “It’s all about four-legged actors, and I’m sorry to report they’re much better in the movie than the two-legged actors, because we two-legged actors didn’t have much to do. The dogs have all the good parts, and of course Hambone is the best. I’m going to proselyte for an Oscar for him.”
Lillian’s screen time was even shorter in Sweet Liberty (1986), written and directed by its star, Alan Alda. He plays a history professor and author of a best-seller about the Revolutionary War; Lillian is his aged mother. Entirely peripheral to the action, Lillian’s three short scenes are devoted to her portrayal of an adorable, eccentric old lady, a role she had played onstage (The Curious Savage, All the Way Home) and screen (Follow Me Boys!, Warning Shot).
Under the end credits, she is seen in a wheelchair, waving her arms with exaggerated enthusiasm, quite clearly out of control. Lillian was nearly ninety-two at the completion of Sweet Liberty. With that knowledge, viewers would have had every reason to think her as incapacitated and addled as the old woman she was impersonating. But any such notion would be dispelled by her next and final movie.
The Whales of August, conceived at least seven years before it went into production, originated in producer Mike Kaplan’s friendship with Lillian which dated from the late 1960s, when Kaplan worked as a publicist for The Comedians. Kaplan couldn’t understand why Lillian had been “hidden from movie audiences for many years.” He wanted to find a role that would present her as a star, not as a supporting actress. Among the various possibilities, Lillian was enthusiastic about Abraham Polonsky’s novel Xenia’s Way. Her profound political differences with the once blacklisted director-novelist presented no difficulty. In fact, she made known to Kaplan, decades after the fact, of course, her distaste for Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch-hunt, which had destroyed the career of Polonsky and many others. Mary Steenburgen was to play Lillian’s younger self in a story whose episodes were set in Europe during the Holocaust and later in a Palestinian camp in Israel. Kaplan remembers Lillian toasting the project with him and Polonsky in her New York apartment, sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s. The financing did not materialize and Xenia’s Way was shelved.
Kaplan saw David Berry’s play The Whales ofAugust during its world premiere engagement at the Trinity Square Playhouse in Providence, Rhode Island. He thought first of Lillian Gish and Bette Davis for the roles of the two elderly sisters. When Davis refused the offer, Kaplan approached Katharine Hepburn, then Barbara Stanwyck, both of whom declined. In the meantime, Davis suffered a stroke and underwent an operation for cancer. Very much weakened, she returned to work in a made-for-TV movie with Helen Hayes, then recovered some of her strength and changed her mind about The Whales of August, attracted by its setting in her beloved New England. Lucille Ball passed on the third woman’s role, which went to Ann Sothern. Lillian expected to be reunited with John Gielgud, who was under contract for the part of Mr. Maranov, but he had to be replaced by Vincent Price at the last moment when the production for television’s War and Remembrance went over schedule. Price was happy to act something different from the “mad doctors” that had so long been his specialty. Lillian was offered an advance of $75,000, with an equal amount deferred. Her five net points of the producer’s share earned her nothing since, as of June 1988, the film showed a loss of $2.5 million.
The Whales of August is about the relationship between two widowed, aged sisters, Sarah (Gish) and Libby (Davis). The action transpires in and near Sarah’s summer house, on a picturesque island off the coast of Maine. Twenty-four hours test the dynamics of dependence and independence of Sarah, still strong and optimistic, who cares for the blind, embittered, and domineering Libby. The crux of the action is Sarah’s desire to install a picture window so as to enhance the view. Libby, the affluent one, crankily refuses. Their old friend Tisha (Ann Sothern) offers Sarah a haven away from the ill tempered Libby and suggests that she sell the house; Maranov, a courtly Russian emigre, comes to dinner. The next morning, the sisters renew their commitment to each other. Sarah agrees to stay and Libby orders the picture window.
Lindsay Anderson, whose direction of This Sporting Life (1963) and If . . . (1969) had helped define Britain’s “angry young man” cinema, was not the most likely candidate for this nearly plotless, atmospheric piece, but he was a friend of Kaplan’s, had met Lillian, and was eager to work with her. He demanded, however, that David Berry alter the conclusion of The Whales of August. In the play, the sisters decide to separate. Their reconciliation in the movie gives extra dimension to the role of Libby, which must certainly have pleased Bette Davis.
Shot on Cliff Island in Casco Bay off the coast of Portland, Maine, in September and October 1986, the movie’s production conditions were difficult. When it was over, Lillian wrote, “Well, we are back alive from the very rough, tough shoot in Maine of The Whales of August and it was a long, hard haul with weather to and fro and the interior of the house so small that it took forever to move the camera and re-light but that part of the film is done.” Then there was the age and physical condition of the actresses, who had some difficulty negotiating the steep, uneven paths of the location. And for the final shot of the two sisters, standing on a point of land overlooking the ocean, the wind was so strong that Lillian’s manager, Jim Frasher, and an assistant director had to squat out of the camera’s view to anchor the feet of Lillian and Bette to the ground. As a result of a serious stage accident in which she had suffered a broken back, Ann Sothern walked with a heavy limp. Lillian’s medical certificate, signed on July 29, 1986, indicates that she was in fine health, five feet three inches tall (three inches shorter than when she was a young adult), weighing 115 pounds, had blood pressure at 140/90, and a pulse of 70. But even allowing for the birth date of October 14, 1899, which lopped six years off her life, she was still a very old woman whose hips had been replaced. Her costar, partially paralyzed from her stroke and painfully thin, had undergone a mastectomy. And for most of her career, Bette Davis, famous for her temper and sharp tongue, had been a demanding, often unpleasant colleague. Bette’ s enfeebled condition had not brought her to turn over a new leaf.
During the first, unfortunate working encounter between the costars, Lillian was sitting in the only available chair when Bette entered. She addressed her as “Bette”; Bette addressed Lillian as “Miss Gish.” Lillian offered the chair to Bette, fifteen years her junior. Bette was offended. From then on, a palpable tension settled between the two women. Ann Sothern speculated, “I think that she [Bette] felt intimidated by Lillian because Lillian is motion pictures. Who could ever criticize Lillian Gish? It’s like criticizing the Statue of Liberty!”
According to cast member Harry Carey Jr., “Lillian just closed her mind to Bette and went her own merry way; Bette had no effect on her.” Near the end of shooting, Jim Frasher made dinner for the stars, Lindsay Anderson, and Mike Kaplan. Bette made no secret of her displeasure when Kaplan, tending to production problems, arrived somewhat late.
Bette’s temperament and her talent thrived on contention and rivalry; for Lillian, diplomacy was the key to the negotiation of her life and her career. But Lillian would not have survived so long if she had been a pushover. When things were not going smoothly with Bette, diplomacy prompted Lillian to feign difficulty in hearing her costar’s lines, a problem miraculously solved as soon as the atmosphere changed for the better. The conflict between the two stars reflected the contrast between the sisters they were playing and certainly added much needed energy to the final product, for which both Lillian and Bette were thankful. They were, after all, great movie actresses, eager to do their best.
In one scene, Libby wakens from a nightmare and vents her desperation on Sarah. “Although Miss Davis’ dialogue was poignant, her grappling was vigorous. I couldn’t tell if Miss Gish was acting out her agitated reaction or simply responding to the force of Miss Davis’ energy. I only imagined Miss Gish’s upper arms covered with black and blue marks, or worse.” Lillian’s reaction: “I enjoyed playing that scene with Bette today.” Bette was able to overcome her animosity long enough to express her admiration of Lillian’s acting in the quarrel scene, one of the movie’s turning points. “After their last take together, Bette came forward, wincing a little, and there was an incredulous silence on the set as the embattled legends solemnly embraced. With dulcet insincerity, Lillian said, ‘We must do this again.’ And Bette replied: ‘Mm.’ “
The commercial failure of The Whales ofAugust and its brief run in Los Angeles probably robbed Lillian of the Oscar nomination that a combination of her talent and voter sentiment might have earned her. She did manage a tie with Holly Hunter (Broadcast News) for the Best Actress award from the National Board of Review.
Belying her ninety-three years, Lillian, as Sarah, is energetic throughout The Whales of August. If her step is not exactly sprightly, it is certainly firm, and thereby expressive of the core of her character as it is of the actress. Much to the annoyance of the blind and sedentary Libby, she hangs the clothes, sets the table, dusts, prepares meals. For the first half of the movie, Lillian is sweet and compliant in the “old lady” mode she had so often been obliged to adopt for her movie roles. But here there is something more. As protagonist and star, she has the opportunity to develop the character through time, to reveal layers of individuality beneath the conventional surface of the “good” sister.
Sarah’s strength emerges in the scene of the argument, when she defies Libby’s objection to inviting Maranov for dinner. During the rest of the film, Lillian deploys the reserves of emotional depth denied the movie screen for so many years. It had been a long time since The Wind. And while Duel in the Sun, The Comedians, and The Unforgiven, among Lillian’s talkies, had bravura moments, only The Night of the Hunter contained durations sufficiently long to reveal the character’s inner life, to follow the actress within herself. Lillian’s Sarah is particularly moving when she is alone with her memories and the movie camera, drawing us into the past as we plumb the image of the present. It is Sarah’s forty-sixth wedding anniversary.
Wearing a long blue dress, she sets the table with a glass of wine, a white rose “for truth,” a red one “for passion,” and her dead husband’s photograph. With Lillian’s customary directness, Sarah speaks to her absent beloved of the day’s events, then goes to an old Victrola and puts on the record of a tenor sweetly singing the sentimental World War I ballad “Roses of Picardy.” Here, Lillian somehow manages to connect the fullness of the memories with the vibrancy of her life. Perhaps she simply lets the moment speak for itself, the context providing the specific meanings required by the plot, while Lillian Gish, so much a representative of the past in the present, coats the situation with her generous sensibility.
She had not lost her talent for the high degree of disclosure that had always been her special gift. Old Sarah is not old Lillian, yet viewers familiar with the actress’s iconography must have had an eerie reaction to shots that placed Lillian with photographs of her family posing as Sarah’s: Mary Gish and Lillian as a baby, James Leigh Gish, and most unsettling of all, Lillian and Dorothy in the 1930s, the face of Bette Davis superimposed over Dorothy’s. Actors often lend their personal memorabilia in such occasions, a spectacular example being Sunset Boulevard, where photographs and a film clip contrast the young Gloria Swanson and the mature actress who plays Norma Desmond. There is, obviously, no hint of Dorothy’s character in Bette Davis’s portrayal of Libby. Nor is there any way to know that the fictional sibling relationship of a strong and healthy older sister who cares for a weak and ailing younger one had particular resonance for Lillian while she was making The Whales ofAugust. Certainly, few in the audience would have made the connection.
Whatever its source, Lillian drew a performance compelling for an actress of any age, let alone one ninety-three years old. Yet Lillian’s great age does raise some intriguing questions. Has anyone as venerably old ever sustained a leading role in a movie? Edith Evans, who was a mere seventy-eight when The Whisperers was released, went on for another nine years in character parts.
The Whales of August must have lulled filmmakers into thinking Lillian eternal. Claude Lelouch offered her a part in his Cache-Tampon (Hide and Seek), to be shot just outside Paris, starting in May 1989. But Lillian had already fulfilled her last professional commitment—an appearance at the world premiere of The Whales of August, in New York, on October 14, 1987, her ninety-fourth birthday.
In retirement, the once indefatigable traveler did not become a recluse. She was simply more and more homebound. The seven-room apartment, 13A, at 430 East Fifty-seventh Street, which she had occupied since 1948, had ” smallscale traditional furnishings” and the autographed books Lillian treasured. Movie and theatre memorabilia were absent. There were many photographs of family and close friends. Among the pictures in the gallery constituted by one wall were those of John Gielgud (signed “Hamlet John”) and George Jean Nathan; D. W. Griffith claimed the central spot. Lillian, who had paid close attention to her health for so long, was rewarded with relative serenity in her final years. Of course, a woman well on the far side of ninety could not expect every day to be perfect. Elizabeth Ross was saddened at her last visit, about 1990, when she found Lillian unaware of how much she had declined. “It wasn’t Lillian sitting there that day. It was not somebody who could conquer the world, or so she thought. . . . She needed care, and Lillian never needed care.” Eva Marie Saint last saw her in bed, after she had fractured her hip. But, until the end, Lillian was lucid, able to speak, even to read. James Frasher was at her side when she died, peacefully, in her own bed, at 7 p.m. on February 27, 1993. Fifty years previously, Lillian had left instructions that she wished to be cremated. She hoped Ruth Gordon would “say a few words and Paul Robeson recite the ‘Twenty-Third Psalm” She had outlived them both. At the “Celebration for the Life of Lillian Gish” held at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church two weeks after her death, there were tributes from Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and her godson, James MacArthur, the son of Helen Hayes. Irene Worth read a selection from Milton’s A Pilgrim’s Progress. Her ashes were interred at St. Bart’s alongside those of Mary and Dorothy Gish.
Lillian’s considerable estate, largely composed of stocks and bonds, and property in Beverly Hills, was valued at more than $10 million. Her personal effects, paintings, and furniture had been appraised at $232,000 in 1980. Approximately $1 million was distributed among family and friends, with the largest of these bequests going to James Frasher. The bulk of Lillian’s fortune was placed in a trust whose income constitutes the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize for excellence in the arts. Lillian stated the purpose of the prize in her will: “As an actress in films and on the stage and as a writer and lecturer on the subject of films, it has been my desire to contribute, through the performing arts, to the beauty of the world and to mankind’s enjoyment and understanding of life.” (As if to demonstrate that Lillian’s criteria give no particularly priority to the performing arts, the first recipient of the $250,000 award was architect Frank O. Gehry.) In her prescription for the awardee, Lillian might have been describing herself: “The recipient should by excelling in his or her field have served as a model and encouragement to all others who would follow in his or her path.” She, who had served the arts so faithfully throughout her long life, both as performer and proponent, found a way for her fervor to survive her death.
Lillian Gish – Her Legend, Her Life
By Charles Affron – 2001