The New York Times – 1988
Review/Television; Lillian Gish Looks Back on a Century
By John J. O’Connor
July 11, 1988
You can’t get off to a better start than Lillian Gish, now in her 90’s and still managing to hit just the right balance between fragility and feistiness. Beginning its second season on public television, tonight at 9 on Channel 13, ”American Masters” is presenting ”Lillian Gish: The Actor’s Life for Me.” Produced and directed by Terry Sanders, the hour-long film offers a profile of Miss Gish as ”told in her own memories, thoughts and words.” The narrator is Eva Marie Saint. The opening moments are worrying as we watch Miss Gish board a jetliner and settle in for what looks suspiciously like a journey into tired devices. But it seems that the point of this elaborate setup is merely to illustrate the length of Miss Gish’s ”journey across the 20th century.”
Miss Saint notes that when 5-year-old Lillian made her stage debut in 1902, ”it was the year before Kitty Hawk, when another debut would take place – Orville and Wilbur Wright flying for the first time with an engine into the trackless skies.” That bit of contrivance out of the way, Miss Gish takes over, sitting for a straightforward interview that is illustrated generously with film clips from her life and career.
Very much the accomplished woman, Miss Gish is capable of being proper, sentimental and tough as nails, often all at the same time. Her early years as a child actor actress would seem to be strained, if not harrowing, yet she insists that she grew up in a ”beautiful, kind, unselfish world,” a world in which her mother was ”the most perfect human being” she would ever know.
And then there is D. W. Griffith, the legendary director she would meet in 1913. Miss Gish would become his perfect heroine, starring in ”The Birth of a Nation” (1915), ”Intolerance” (1916), ”Broken Blossoms” (1919), ”Way Down East” (1920), and ”Orphans of the Storm” (1922).
Her devotion to Griffith remains undiminished. She recalls how the director had ”given films their form and grammar.” He worked with no scripts in the early days. Everything was in his head, Miss Gish says, and ”it was up to you to find the character.” She has no patience with Method actors who insist on the necessity of first-hand experiences. ”If you haven’t the imagination to be that character,” declares Miss Gish, ”go into some other business.”
The woman who triumphed so frequently as a sweet and innocent heroine insists that playing a vamp would have been far easier. ”Those little virgins,” she says, ”after five minutes you got so sick of them – to make them interesting was hard work.” Her career would go on to encompass a broad range of projects, from playing a ”lewd” Ophelia opposite Sir John Gielgud’s Hamlet on the stage in 1937 to last year’s acclaimed performance opposite Bette Davis in the film ”The Whales of August.” Her story is enormously absorbing and she tells it with irresistible vigor.
At 11 this evening, Channel 13 begins an eight-week series of programming from Britain’s Channel 4, the service ordered by an Act of Parliament to, in effect, offer something different and more experimental than what could be found on the BBC or commercial channels.
Over the past few years, Channel 4 has become a beacon internationally for the best in independent and provocative programming. ”Four on Thirteen” begins tonight with ”Born in the R.S.A.,” an adaptation of the South African play that subsequently had considerable success at the Edinburgh International Festival and in London.
‘Born in the R.S.A.,” with its ironic echoes of Bruce Springsteen’s ”Born in the U.S.A.,” comes out of Barney Simon’s extraordinary Market Theater of Johannesburg. The multi-racial South African cast initially spent a month in the streets, homes and institutions of Johannesburg, compiling details for the characters to be portrayed.
The finished play has the impact of a powerful documentary. The camera wanders from person to person, each telling their part of the story to an unseen interviewer. They tell us who they are and where they came from. Mia Steinman, white, is a lawyer, the child of liberal Afrikaners. Zacharia Melani, black, is a saxophone player, up from Cape Town and suddenly finding himself enmeshed in political activism. Glen Donohue, white, is the attractive leading-man type who professes to being only ”simply curious about blacks.”
Off to an awkward start, burdened with the mechanics of exposition, ”Born in the R.S.A.” gradually burrows its ways into the horrors of an apartheid, terrorist society. The lover becomes a Judas. The state is an instrument of oppression even beyond the imagining of George Orwell. Children are arrested as criminals, forced to lie under oath. Inhumanity evolves into a way of life.
”Born in the R.S.A.” has little new to offer in its depiction of life in South Africa but its function is crucial as still another nail is put in the coffin of an intolerable system. The first-rate cast includes Timmy Kwebulana, Neil McCarthy, Gcina Mhlope, Vanessa Cooke, Terry Norton and Thoko Ntshinga. Mary McMurray directed this Tricycle Television Production for Channel 4.