Desert Sun, 21 December 1978
Lillian Gish – Marks of age are lost in her glow
By CAROL OLTEN – NEW YORK –
Lillian Gish, 82, sits under a crystal chandelier in the grand ballroom of a hotel on Central Park South. She is dressed all in orange, no, perhaps, more a coral because there seem to be pink tones in the identically colored suit, blouse and hat that lend a slight glow to her powdery paleness. She carries a small, velvet bag, the same color of coral and, one imagines, inside is a handkerchief of the same shade a lace handkerchief with flowers embroidered in a corner. Her skin, despite faint age spots and wrinkles that seem almost lace-like, too, in their delicacy, is near translucent. Mystifyingly, Lillian Gish looks unchanged from the virginal heroine seduced by a mulatto tyrant in “The Birth of the Nation,” 1915, or, the fragile waif rescued from the guillotine in “Orphans of the Storm,” 1922, The marks of age are there on her face, yes, but her eyes fill with childlike wonder as if searching out the room for an old Rolleiflex.
She exudes a strangely luminous quality. Her speech is quick and bright, brilliant in its remembrances. A photographer from 20th Century-Fox hovers around the table and, as he prepares to flash pictures, Ms. Gish invariably halts her conversation, turns toward him and poses for the photo, so inherent is her respect for the camera. The official purpose of the interview is to talk about “A Wedding,” Robert Altman’s new film in which Ms. Gish has the part of a family matriarch dying but dying amusedly in an upstairs bedroom while the bridal reception lakes place. It’s the first film Lillian Gish has done since “The Comedians” with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in 1967.
“I like Altman’s differences,” said Ms. Gish, “his newness to the approach to the human race. They tell me he doesn’t like them very much, but he’s making use of satire to call attention to their weaknesses. I pick people and talent when deciding to do a movie and 1 hope this one works because I’ve put all my money into my own project.” The project is a film about the history of silent movie making called “Infinity in Film.” It traces the era of the silents from the beginning until the talkies in 1928.
“I try to show the power of film,” said Ms. Gish. “The only country that uses the power of the film is Russia. “In July of 1969 I was a guest for 15 days in Russia with my lecture on film. In Russia they give the people classics and history of their country in films. They make Russian factories look like places you’d want to live and who would want to live in Siberia? But Siberia is made to look like poetry in white.” But this is propaganda and indoctrination, is it not? “Well! Before the First World War, we were sent to Europe to make movies that would make up American’s mind about the fighting. Nurses were valuable, then, but actors were a dime a dozen. We started thinking about this Dorothy, my mother and myself and it made us nervous. We were at the Savoy Hotel in London when London was bombed. “In 1917, I was for seven months in England and France with mother and my sister, Dorothy. I remember the first time we saw Paris. It was in the moonlight and Dorothy and I walked all night just to see it and in the morning we had something to eat. at the market. We thought we’d better take a look because, unless God was willing, there may never be another opportunity with the war happening.”
- Photo: Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish and Robert Harron in Griffith’s “Hearts of the World”
Lillian Gish was born Lillian de Guiche in 1896 in Springfield, Ohio. She and her sister, who was born two years later and died in 1968 (never having quite the limelight in her screen career as Lillian), were the daughters of a sturdy German grocer and an actress mother. In her 1969 autobiography, “The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me,” Lillian recalled: “I made my debut when I was 6 in Rising Sun, Ohio. I took my first curtain call on shoulders of the handsome leading man, Walter Huston.” Lillian and Dorothy were on the road playing melodramas with their mother through the South and East until 1912 when they went to New York and saw a one-reeler in a nickelodeon featuring a fellow thespian, Gladys Smith. They went to Biograph Studios where the one-reeler had been made to talk to Gladys and found that she had changed her name to Mary Pickford, soon to become the world’s little sweetheart. Pickford introduced the Gishes to the director, D.W. Griffith. Lillian remembered, “I thought at first his name was Mr. Biograph. He invited us to work as extras and we started the next day. The pay was $5.”
The film was “An Unseen Enemy,” the first of many one-, two- and three-reeler melodramas the Gishes did with the acclaimed Griffith. Later. Lillian became Griffith’s leading silent star in such memorable films as “Birth of the Nation,” “Intolerance,” “Orphans in the Storm,” “Broken Blossoms” and “Way Down East.”
THEN AND NOW – A movie career spanning more than 50 years is depicted in the two photos here. Below, Lillian Gish appears in “Way Down East,” in 1920. Above is her latest film, “A Wedding” now in release.
Carol Olten – New York (Desert Sun, Dec. 1978)