First great movie star Gish: A woman of taste, talent, tenacity
June 20, 2001 By Jay Carr, The Boston Globe.
The subtitle of Charles Affron’s new biography, “Lillian Gish: Her Legend, Her Life” (Scribner, 445 pages, $35), signals Affron’s awareness that the legend and life were not always identical. Not that there was a lot of scandal in Gish’s life. She was almost as ladylike off-screen as she was when she and producer-director D.W. Griffith in effect invented movies.
Gish, born in 1893, lived for 99 years. A working actress for all but the first few and last few years of her life, she never married, never had children, saw life early on as a choice between career and marriage, and chose career. Her mother and her sister Dorothy, deserted early in life by an alcoholic father, were all the family she needed. She came close, however, to marrying a Manhattan blueblood, Charles Duell, who conned her out of no small amount of money.
A few years later, Gish began a nearly decade-long romance with critic George Jean Nathan.
Affron puts first things first, by recognizing and documenting Gish as America’s first great movie star. She and Mary Pickford were the silent era’s queens of film — Pickford with her plucky heroines in ringlets, Gish with her more serious approach, staking film’s claim to artistic respectability.
Pickford, then known by her real name, Gladys Smith, introduced Lillian and Dorothy to Griffith in 1912.
Gish’s breakthrough role came in “The Birth of a Nation” (1915), the racist but technically trail-blazing blockbuster. Thereafter, she recycled vulnerability, heartbreak and endurance in melodramatic roles transfigured by an artistry of which the ingredients, she later was to say, were taste, talent and tenacity.
Affron avoids the mistake many writers make in assuming silent film to have been primitive. He’s good at describing the process of improvisation during which the performance took shape before the camera, with the actress responding to Griffith’s off-camera prompts and urgings. Eventually, Griffith stopped directing Gish, realizing her grasp of the process.
It can be argued that silent film culminated in “The Wind” (1928), which Gish made with Victor Sjostrom for MGM after leaving Griffith.
Turning to the stage, Gish starred in a successful “Uncle Vanya,” played Ophelia to John Gielgud’s Hamlet, and played the forbearing mother in a protracted tour of “Life With Father.”
She returned to movies, most notably as the steadfast grandmother of two orphans threatened by Robert Mitchum’s psychopathic killer in “Night of the Hunter” (1955). She also embraced television during its early days of live drama.
Though most of Gish’s story is known, we’ve never had it told with such balance and completeness.