- Where are you from? What’s your family like?
I’m originally from Springfield, Ohio. I moved around a lot (Oderman 5). When I was five, just around the time my younger sister was born, my family moved to Dayton. Later we moved to Baltimore so my father could pursue business as a candy store owner. He wasn’t very happy there. He moved to New York, leaving my mother, sister, and I to fend for ourselves in Baltimore (Affron 20).
My mother and I were very close. Whenever I was with her I felt safe and secure. This was not how I felt about my father. He was an alcoholic. He was in and out of the house from the time I was very six (Affron 21). My sister Dorothy, affectionately know as Doatsie, was my best friend. We loved to play together. (Gish/Lanes 2)
What events in your early life made you interested in the arts?
My family and I moved to New York in 1901 and my mother became an actress. My sister and I would stay in Mother’s dressing room on matinee days. She didn’t act because she loved the art, but for the purpose of supporting our little family because my father was not around. Because this was my mothers main source of income, my sister and I spent a lot of time in the theater. Her show ran three times daily at the Proctor Theater (Oderman 11).
Mother was approached by an actress named Dolores Lorne about Doatsie playing a role in the production East Lynne. Dolores boarded with my family. She got my mother into the acting business. I was surrounded by theater! At first my mother did not want Doatsie to be in the show because Mother’s extended family viewed acting as a bad way to make a living. “Respectable” people thought actors were scum, and believed acting was for the poor and unsophisticated. Mother eventually gave in because we needed the extra money. Soon after I was asked to perform too, and I couldn’t resist the opportunity (Oderman 12)
- What role did mentors play in helping you develop the interests and talents you have as an artist?
I always say my first and last acting lesson was while I was in the play Convict Stripes. I was very young at the time. However, I did have the wonderful mentoring of D.W. Griffith. Griffith was a well-respected very smart director at Biograph Studios. He taught me that going out and observing life was the best acting lesson. He was most definitely right (Affron 27)
I became an observer. Griffith told me to view life in all situations (Oderman 26). I would watch the behavior of people at weddings, funerals, or the arrival of a baby. I went to hospitals, insane asylums, death prisons, and the houses of prisoners. I caught humanity off guard. Watching life taught me everything I know about acting (Oderman 27)
What was the world of acting like when you entered the art field?
I was born into the acting world on the stage. A few years after I made my debut, films became all the rage. At first no self-respecting actress or actor would be in a movie, but soon the steady income won us over. My family friend, Gladdis, made us aware of all the perks. She had a studio apartment, a chauffeur, and was getting payed 175 dollars a week! Though, in todays times, this is not much money but in the early 1900s this was an enormous amount.(Oderman 23)
After traveling around the country for several years for stage acting, I came back to New York. I heard from Gladdis about the Biograph, a filming company. Mother wanted us to try out the film life. We had hopes of meeting Mr. Griffith at the company, and we did. He told us that our prepared monologues did not matter, after all it was a silent film audition! He liked how Doatsie and I acted and decided to take a chance on us.
- How did the major cultural, economic, and political situations of the time impact your work?
My family was pressed for money. Father had left us and we were running out of options. My mother moved us to New York and decided to become an actress. Acting was considered a bit vulgar at the time, but we had no other choices. Doatsie and I started acting soon afterward (Wismer, Massilon History)
Politically drama was affected immensely. I was in Birth of a Nation, which is an extremely political and controversial movie about the Civil War. Dramatic entertainment was often an escape from the world problems and issues. But in some cases audiences were thrust into reality with no choice otherwise. I, as an actress, had to study politics in the 1800s for my role (PBS, Lillian Gish).
What were your major accomplishments in acting? What methods did you use while performing?
I believe just being able to make a living in the movie business was an accomplishment. I directed and acted my heart out. I was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award. I received and honorary Academy Award. I was awarded the Kennedy Center Honors and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute. These were all very honorable things to be awarded for, but I believe my whole life was an achievement because I lived it to the fullest ( The Official Website of Lillian Gish).
Acting is life. Do you use a method for life or living? I sure don’t. Acting should seem and become reality. Never get caught acting (BGSU, Gish Sisters)
- What were the key opportunities you had that led you to turning point in your life and acting?
Quite honestly, a really great opportunity arose from my father leaving. My mother, sister, and I had to become independent. We all became so through acting. If my family had not made it in the acting world my mother would have had to become a maid or a nanny for a rich family who wouldn’t pay her even close to enough to support our family. At first acting was just a money source, but it became so much more. It became the love of my life (Extravagant Crowd, Lillian Gish).
I also received many opportunities from D.W. Griffith. He was my discoverer. Mr. Griffith put me in my first movie. I owe so much to him. Although I did eventually have to leave his production company, I still hold him dear in my heart. MGM brought me many new opportunities too. I was in my first talking movie there (Beaver, Lillian Gish).
What roadblocks or hardships did you have to overcome to be an artist?
My mother struggled to support us and often had to leave Doatsie and I with her actress friends. I learned a lot from them but I always missed my mother. At a young age I had to grow up very fast and get a job. I would often travel in a show without a guardian. I put away childish things to help support my family and to find out that I truly loved acting (Gish Film/Theater Collection).
Later in my life, after I’d had success in silent films, I went back to the theater. Talkies had become popular with everyone except me. I believed it would be the end of elegance in the movie world. Many believed I wouldn’t be a good theater actress. They admired my work in silent films but doubted that my on stage talent was quite as good. Boy, did I prove them wrong! (Extravagant Crowd, Lillian Gish).
- Who are the people you admire in the arts and beyond? Why do they inspire you?
I admire my mother more than she ever knew. She is a strong, independent woman who never gave up. She taught me that I didn’t need a man, or anybody for that matter, to succeed. She raised Doatsie and me, and I’m forever grateful. She also brought me into the acting business. I wouldn’t have such a successful career without her. (Golden Silents, Lillian Gish)
My dear sister, Doatsie, has always inspired me. She is strong, funny, and never took no for an answer. I love her dearly. D.W. Griffith inspires me, too. He is an amazing director. He put Doatsie and me in our first movie. He is a good teacher, mentor, and friend. (Golden Silents, Lillian Gish)
What anecdotes best illustrate how you became successful in the arts?
The stage manager in my first show once told me “Speak loud and clear, or they’ll get another little girl.” I did just that, and look how far I’ve come! I am grateful to that stage manager, because he may have helped me jump-start my career. You should always listen to the comments and critiques of stage managers, they really know what they are talking about. (Affron, 27)
My first audition for a film was with D.W. Griffith. My sister and I had prepared monologues, but he told us to forget about them. He told us to sit and talk to each other. He then proceeded to pull out a gun. He chased us around the audition room, and the whole time Doatsie and I were screaming. After a while he put the gun away looking satisfied, and told us we got the parts! (Oderman, 26)
Affron, Charles. Lillian Gish: Her Legend, Her Life. New York: Scribner, 2001. Print.
“Gish Film Theater Collection.” BGSU, 2003. Web. 26 February, 2012.
Gish, Lillian. Lanes, Selma. An Actors Life for Me. New York: Viking Kestrel, 1987. Print.
“Gish Sisters.” BGSU. 2003. Web. 27 February, 2012.
“Lillian Gish: About Lillian Gish.” PBS Online, 2001. Web. 29 February, 2012.
“Lillian Gish: Actress.” Extravagant Crowd, 2007. Web. 27 February, 2012.
“Lillian Gish (1893-1993).” Golden Silents, 2010. Web. 29 February, 2012.
“News.” The Official Website of Lillian Gish, 2006 Web. 28 February, 2012.
Oderman, Stuart. Lillian Gish: A Life on Stage and Screen. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2000. Print.
“Talking About Movies: Lillian Gish.” University of Michigan, 2011. Web. 28 February, 2012.
Wismer, Amanda. “Lillian Gish” Massillon Museum of Art. 2006.Web. 29 February, 2012.