Desert Sun 15 October 1983
Famed star of silent films Lillian Gish still favorite dish
By MARILYN AUGUST Associated Press Writer
PARIS (AP) France’s cultural elite is shining the spotlight this week on American actress Lillian Gish who turned 87 Friday and gained fame on the silent screen when the French were embroiled in World War I. “I really don’t know what I’ve done to warrant all this generosity and goodness,” said Miss Gish, the uncontested grande dame of silent movies who is being honored during week long festivities in Paris.
Miss Gish charmed generations of movie-goers as the heroine in D.W. Griffith’s 1915 Civil War classic “Birth of a Nation,” as the sad mother in “Intolerance,” and the luckless damsel in “Broken Blossoms.” Miss Gish, who Thursday received the prestigious Commander of Arts and Letters Award from French Minister of Culture Jack Lang, made her stage debut at age 4.
She has been working almost non-stop ever since, winning honors for performances in 102 movies and 50 plays that included works of Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams. French film director Francois Truffaut says her career of 83 years “follows cinema history as closely as two parallel tracks of the Union Pacific.”
Miss Gish and her sister, Dorothy, are the subject of a television documentary by Jeanne Moreau to be aired soon, along with a song-and-dance tribute to their careers. Her soft face set off by curls the color of champagne, Miss Gish showed no trace of fatigue after a whirlwind week in the French capital that included newspaper interviews, dinners, receptions and television appearances.
“I suppose silent film did speak to the world in a way you don’t have today,” she said, pressing the arm of a reporter. “You had to write the words so you remember them longer. Nowadays, everything’s done for you so you can just sit there and eat popcorn.” Although she had a major role recently in Robert Altman’s “Marriage,” and believes cinema is the major art of the century, she says going to the movies today “hurts my pride.” “We used to play to packed houses in theaters that held 6,424 people,” she said. “I go to the movies today, and there are only six people in the audience and they don’t react.” Miss Gish’s love affair with France began in 1917 when she, her mother and Dorothy came to film a “movie to make America make up its mind to go to war for France and England.”
“I bet there aren’t many people here who saw Paris for the first time with not one light burning only a full moon,” she said. “We weren’t afraid because we had just come from London where they were having air raids without warning. At 11 o’clock one night a bomb hit a tramway right under our windows at the Savoy and 11 people were killed. We couldn’t stay in our rooms for the screams of the wounded.” Paris was a veritable haven, except that “we got thin and nervous, and mother got shell-shocked at the front.”
Her voice dropped as she recalled the mud, the rats and an epidemic “that came like a reminder that we were all doing something very bad.” But it was “dear Mr. Griffith,” the man who discovered her in 1912 and cast her in a movie with Mary Pickford, who determined the course of her long and brilliant career. Miss Gish never married, and many say Griffith was the unspoken love of her life. “He was older than my real father, so much more serious and fatherly. He was a genius, a poet with a beautiful baritone voice,” she said, smiling. They disagreed only over her name. “What kind of name is Gish for an actress,” she quotes Griffith as saying. “Gish, pish, fish, dish.” “Well, said sister Dorothy, if Gish was good enough for mother, it’s good enough for us.”
MARILYN AUGUST Associated Press Writer – 1983