Chicago Tribune – June 23 1977 Thursday, Page 21
Lillian Gish honored by fans she loves best – movie people
By Gene Siskel – movie critic
THE MOVIE is called “A Wedding,” but the scene Wednesday was “an affair,” an affair to celebrate the wonderful career of actress Lillian Gish, the silent film star who at age 80 is completing her 65th year in films.
Miss Gish worked three days this week in Lake Bluff in her role as a grandmother in “A Wedding,” reportedly her 100th film. Producer – director Robert Altman organized the surprise party to let Miss Gish know “it was such a thrill for us to work with you.”
The party was on the back lawn of the fabulous Lester Armour estate in Lake Bluff, where Altman is filming his comic tale of a mixed marriage between old and new money. Seated on folding chairs waiting to surprise Miss Gish were many of her costars in the film, including Carol Burnett, Mia Farrow, Dina Merrill, and Vittorio Gassman.
A few minutes earlier, Miss Gish had been filming her death scene inside the Armour house. Says the family doctor to her daughter after Gish’s character kicks the bucket, “I thought she was waving hello, when she really was waving good-bye.”
Miss Gish was lured outside for a supposed press party for the movie. She quickly realized it was her show, however, when she saw the cake and its inscription, “Lillian Gish – 100th film.”
“I DON’T DESERVE THAT,” she said looking at the cake as a dozen photographers and cameramen scrambled for position. One photographer got down on his knees and aimed his camera up at Miss Gish. Suddenly the surprise party became a photography lesson.
“Not up my nose,” she said. “No low angles. If God wanted people shot from low angles, he would’ve put your eyes at your bellybutton.”
The crowd roared at Miss Gish – ever conscious of how she looks – continued her impromptu lecture.
“Oh, no,” she said, noticing the bright sun, “an overhead light with no reflector!” What she wanted was the light to play on her eyes, because it is with one’s eyes, she said later, that people best reveal their emotions. “If people can’t see your eyes, how can you tell your story?”
The Lillian Gish film story dates to 1912, when she and her late sister, Dorothy, began making short films for D.W. Griffith, the pioneer filmmaker of “Birth of a Nation,” “Intolerance,” “Broken Blossoms,” and “Way Down East,” all of which starred Lillian Gish.
MISS GISH successfully lobbied for the United States postal stamp commemorating Griffith issued this year, the first such honor for a filmmaker. Miss Gish said she owns 500 Griffith stamps, in addition to one gold, 20 silver and 10 bronze medals commemorating Griffith.
For years Lillian Gish has sung the praises of Griffith through lectures. Her autobiography, published in 1969 is titled “The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me,” a title that describes – in order – her life’s priorities.
Predictably, the next project for this remarkable woman also involves the movies. “Most of all I want to finish ‘Silver Story,’ a television special that tells the story of films from their very beginning up until 1928.”
The stars working with Miss Gish each have own stories about her. “When I first saw her on the set,” said Burnett, “she came to me and said, ‘You have so many faces. Which one are you going to use for this film?’ I was surprised she knew who I was,” Burnett said. “I guess I didn’t believe that someone so extraordinary would ever watch TV.”
“I had met her in the ‘40s when I was a little girl,” Merrill recalled, “and I couldn’t believe it, but she remembered. She walked up to me and said, ‘Do you remember when I met you at Mary Pickford’s house? I then asked her if she remembered my mother (the late socialite Marjorie Merrieweather Post).”
“’Of course I remember your mother,’ she said, ‘Who do you think I’m playing in this movie?’
“She is an exquisite, fragile creature,” Merrill said of Miss Gish. “She still has an ethereal beauty.”
After the cake cutting, Lillian Gish talked to reporters for 30 minutes. She answered each question precisely, displaying total recall of her career. When the question-and-answer session was over, the screen veteran said, “Now I’m the slowest eater in the world I must have 45 minutes to eat lunch.”
One suspects that Lillian Gish took exactly 45 minutes to eat lunch. Maybe a few minutes less, but, always a professional, not one minute more.
Yes it’s a cake and, yes, it’s also on the set of “A Wedding” in Lake Bluff, but the occasion is the 100th film of Lillian Gish (cutting cake). Director Robert Altman samples the pastry while actresses Amy Stryker (left) and Dina Merrill look on.