Lillian Gish’s Face (Opinion – The New York Times – 1993)

Opinion – The New York Times – 1993

Lillian Gish’s Face

March 2, 1993

What one can see at the movies is astonishing. The earth splits, mountains fall, oceans rise up, entire cities disappear. But sometimes the most astonishing sight of all is an actor’s face. That was especially true when films were silent. Sure, there were subtitles but it was the face — the curve of a lip or the lift of an eyebrow or the suggestion of a frown — that really delivered the text.

Lillian Gish at Six

If the face belonged to a Charlie Chaplin or a Lillian Gish, the audience would remember its message forever.

Lillian Gish was born in 1893, a few years after Thomas Alva Edison contrived “moving pictures.” Fifteen years later she was working in D. W. Griffith’s one-reelers: a young woman with thick, flyaway hair, big eyes and a small, pursed mouth. She was pretty and pleasant to look upon, but prettiness can’t hold the eye for very long. Rather, it was what was going on behind the facade that fascinated. Watching Lillian Gish was like reading a book.

In a 1928 film called “The Wind,” for instance, a storm whips the sand off the body of a man she’d shot and buried in the desert. The movie is pinchbeck; Gish’s evocation of horror, pure gold. But then, purity is the hallmark of all Lillian Gish’s work — whether she was using that marvelous face to project fear or love or innocence or vulnerability.

Some of her films are among the most famous ever made, others deserve the oblivion into which they’ve sunk. All, however, were important to her. When she received a special Oscar, she said of herself and her sister, Dorothy, “It was our privilege for a little while to serve that beautiful thing — the film — and we never doubted for a moment that it was the most powerful thing — the mind and heartbeat of our technical century.”

Lillian Gish died last week at 99, after having made brilliant use of herself and her “privilege.”

Lillian Gish in "The Whales of August"
Lillian Gish in “The Whales of August”

And so, at last, the plowman, turning the furrows of life, comes to the boundary that divides the known from the unknown—the wilderness from the sown field. Whatever we may one day find beyond, is already there in every detail—only, I lack the clairvoyant gift, and turn for a brief backward glimpse. It is no vision of artistic triumph that comes to me tonight . . . not the memory of Chekhov’s radiant heroine . . . not the triste picture of that broken flower of the Limehouse . . . something even more real than these: a real child, trouping with wandering players, away from a mother’s care … a slim-legged little girl, who slept on station benches and telegraph tables, who running across a foot-bridge lost her poor possessions in the swift black water, who from a train or hotel window stared silently into the night.

“What are you looking at, Lillian?”

“Nothing, Aunt Alice, just looking.”

(Albert Bigelow Paine – Life and Lillian Gish)

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