HOLLYWOOD HONORS MISS GISH
By Aljean Harmetz
The New York Times – Thursday March 1, 1984
Sitting in a hotel room six floors above the ballroom where she is to be given the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award tonight, Lillian Gish wears pearls and red lipstick. Her long forehead slopes down to amazingly bushy eyebrows, two thick crayon strokes in an unlined face.
The 90-year-old actress has started this day, as she does every day, with an hour of exercise, including sit-ups, although her collapsible slant board has been left behind in her New York apartment. Since 1940, she has fought gravity by lying upside down on the slant board each morning at 7 o’clock.
”Time is your friend; you get wiser,” she says. ”But gravity is your enemy. It sucks you into your grave. Everything important in your body is from here to here.” She puts one hand at her throat and another on the top of her head. ”Eyes, hearing, thought, smell, taste. If the heart were important, it wouldn’t be behind those two little ribs.”
Time has vainly tried to reduce Lillian Gish to mythology – the gilded icon of all that was lovely before movies had a voice: How, for her role in D. W. Griffth’s ”Way Down East” in 1920, she lay for hours on the ice of Long Island Sound with her hair and hand trailing in freezing water. How she denied herself anything to drink for three days before playing her death scene from consumption in King Vidor’s ”Boh eme” in 1926. How she stood under the African sun – 130 degrees and not even a tree for refuge – from dawn until dusk in 1967 for ”The Comedians,” and then, suitably dressed for elegant dining, spent the evening discussing African politics and the religious aspects of Graham Greene’s novels. How her Victorian sense of duty made her choose to nurse her sick mother rather than take the role that Tennessee Williams had written for her, Blanche DuBois, in the play that was to become ”A Streetcar Named Desire.”
Outliving One’s Enemies
If Lillian Gish ever had any enemies, she has outlived them. Longevity has obscured her importance. It is subtly patronizing when one is given credit for simply managing to stay upright after all one’s contemporaries are underground.
One can put Lillian Gish’s career into perspective by observing that if she had stopped working a half-century ago, when she was 40 years old, her contributions to the American cinema would still be astonishing. The man she always called ”Mr. Griffith” used her as his paintbrush when he created the American cinema in films such as ”Birth of a Nation,” ”Intolerance,” ”Broken Blossoms” and ”Orphans of the Storm.” She was the perfect Victorian heroine – fragile, virginal and poignant, alabaster pale with ash-blond hair cascading down her back.
Although the pale blond hair has faded to gray, it still cascades below her waist. ”I’ve never been to a hairdresser,” she says. ”I’ve never had my hair cut, nor have I ever plucked an eyebrow. I don’t wear glasses and I have all my own teeth.”
Her mind skips up and down the decades, stopping to pick up a fragment of memory here, a sprig of her askew Victorian childhood there.
In 1899, when boardinghouses really had signs refusing dogs and actors, her embarrassed aunt warned the 5-year-old actress not to talk about her profession. ”If people knew we were in the theater, their children wouldn’t be allowed to play with us,” Miss Gish recalls. Lillian and her younger sister, Dorothy, were expected to have good manners plus the discipline to go on stage night after night. And ”even when there was not enough money for food, mother embroidered lace on our panties.”
Around 1914, their mother dragged Lillian and Dorothy to see land on the western outskirts of Los Angeles that could be purchased for $300 down. Miss Gish laughs. ”It had been raining. We said, ‘Mother, we worked so hard for our money. Do you want us to spend it on all this mud?’ So we didn’t buy the Sunset Strip.”
Her words return to her beloved silent film. ”There was never such a thing as silent film. There was always music, even if the music was only a tinny, tiny piano. Silent film was the greatest invention of the last 100 years. When films learned to talk, we lost 95 percent of our audience, because only 5 percent of the world speaks English. The Roxy Theater in New York held 6,424 people and it was crowded from 10 in the morning until 2 the next morning. Now, my little meat market on 59th Street has been turned into a theater that holds 200 people. It hurts my pride to go into those tiny theaters.”
Lillian Gish is the 12th recipient of the institute’s award, given annually to someone ”whose work has stood the test of time.” She follows John Ford, James Cagney, Orson Welles, William Wyler, Bette Davis, Henry Fonda, Alfred Hitchcock, James Stewart, Fred Astaire, Frank Capra and John Huston. Tonight’s dinner will be filmed for television.
Miss Gish has acted in 50 plays and more than 100 movies, most of them one- and two-reelers at a time when David Wark Griffith was, in her words, ”giving film its form and grammar.” She made 11 movies in 1912, 20 movies in 1913. But she also made films when the silent era was at its peak, including ”The Wind” for the director Victor Seastrom in 1928.
Kevin Brownlow, the silent-film historian, has pointed out that while stage performances can safely be called great because they survive only in memory, film performances can be subjected to scrutiny. More than 50 years later, her performance as a spunky, resolute Virginia-bred girl in ”The Wind,” who is driven to madness by the raw, incessant Texas winds, still seems extraordinary in the delicacy of its nuances and in something that can best be described as strength shining through frailness.
In real life, her strength is legendary. ”I couldn’t ever be ill,” she says, as though good health were merely a matter of will. In all her years in the theater, she missed only one performance – when she stayed with her sister in the hospital because their mother could not be there.
Miss Gish describes many of the characters she played – including her Ophelia to John Gielgud’s Hamlet on Broadway – as ”ga-ga babies, innocent little virgins who were nice to look at for five minutes but how did you make them interesting for an hour?” She succeeded by giving most of them a spiritual strength that burned through the sentimental silliness of the plots in which they were embedded. The same radiant strength was there, in a more distilled form, in her roles as protector of two children in ”The Night of the Hunter” in 1955 and as a dying matriarch in ”A Wedding” in 1978.
Her newest movie, ”Hambone and Hillie,” will be released in the spring. She plays Hillie; Hambone is a mongrel dog. Brooks Atkinson wrote that, as a performer, she had no vanity. ”How can you have vanity if you look at yourself on the screen?” she asks.
But her lack of vanity stops at the stage door. ”In life, vanity is a virtue,” she says. ”How can you let yourself weigh 300 pounds? The human body is a wonderful thing and it’s the only house you get to live in.”
She reads Jung and William Blake and the morning papers. ”There’s never been a more exciting century,” she says. She is writing one book on religion – ”As I get older, I believe in what I can’t see and understand” – and another, for children, that recreates the Christmases of her childhood: ”How good and kind people in my world were to children who had good manners.”
Looking back at a life dedicated to work, she has no regrets. ”I loved dear men,” she says, ”beautiful men who offered me their names. But I’m so glad I didn’t ruin any of their lives by marrying them.”