Desert Sun, 7 November 1978
Robert Altman enthusiast – Lillian Gish remains eager and excited
HOLLYWOOD (NEA) – Robert Altman is one of the today generation of movie makers. D.W. Griffith was one of the great pioneers of movie-making. It is hard to imagine much of a link between the two, but there is at least one. Lillian Gish. She made a short for Griffith in 1912, 66 years ago and was one of the stars of “The Birth of a Nation” in 1915. And she is also one of the stars of Altman’s “A Wedding” in 1978, She is 82 years old now, but as eager and excited i about her current film as any of the younger actors in Altman’s brilliant cast.
She talks often about the past, but it is not as though she were living in the past, as so many elderly people do. Hers is a healthy interest in the past, which is coupled with a similar healthy interest in the present. Her feeling about Altman and his particular brand of film is mixed. After she was cast she plays the groom’s grandmother, the matriarch of a wealthy family Altman arranged for her to see one of his earlier works, “Nashville.” “When I saw that picture,” she says, “at first my reaction was that Mr. Altman really didn’t like the human race.
And that bothered me, because I do like the human race. “But when I thought about it some more, and when I did this picture, ‘A Wedding,’ I came to the conclusion that all he is trying to do is show us our faults. Now that I know him, I realize that he does love the human race, because he is a very lovely and very kind person.”
She says that Altman let her do anything she wanted to do with her part, even let her wear whatever she wanted to wear. Miss Gish also said that Altman let her discuss how she wanted her face to be lit. “I told the cameraman what I have learned in my many years acting in films,” she says. “And that is that the most important thing in lighting is to light the eyes. If the eyes are lit, the rest of the face looks all right.” Her career began when she and her late sister, Dorothy, worked with their actress mother in plays throughout the Midwest. They began their film careers as teenagers in New York and they became D.W. Griffith’s favorites. Those were silent films, of course, but the Gish Sisters made the transition to talking pictures with ease, because they had had considerable stage training.
“When movies started to talk,” she says, “I made one ‘The Swan’ but I was unfortunate in the director. After that, I thought, ‘Oh, dear, if I’m going to use my voice. I’ll go back where I came from, instead of putting it in a tin can.’ So I went back to Broadway, and did ‘Uncle Vanya.’” Since then, she has made many movies and appeared in many plays, pretty much dividing her time between the two. Even as late as two years ago, she appeared on Broadway in “A Musical Jubilee” at 80, she sang and danced. That’s a sign of how modern Lillian Gish remains.
She often lectures to audiences now, and goes on cruises where she talks about the early years of films. She says she is generally too busy, at home in New York, to see many movies. And she doesn’t watch television often “it’s just autos chasing each other and planes chasing each other; it’s just mechanics, not people” but she does listen to radio. “You have to sit still to watch TV,” she says, “but you can do other things while you listen to radio. And they speak English very well on radio, especially on WOR in New York.” She is always active, and her manager, James Frasher, says he has been with her for nine years now, “and she’s fine, but I’m pooped.” He says she loves working, and he believes it’s a good thing for her to do.
She is endlessly curious about the world of today, and, in fact, believes curiosity is a great quality. “If I had a child,” she says, “and could give her one gift, it would be the gift of curiosity. And that’s especially true today, because today there is so much to see. I don’t understand how anybody could be bored today.” She has some reservations about today’s world and today’s culture, however. “I turn down a great many scripts offered to me,” she says. “Even though the character they want me to play may be all right, the overall theme of the piece is often something I don’t want to do. “I never heard bad language. I grew up in the theater with ladies and gentlemen, and I’m still offended when I hear bad language.” Her next project is a pet of her own. She has assembled a sort of film history she calls “Infinity In An Hour,” covering the period from the beginning of the industry until 1928 “That is the period when we in America ruled the world of film, when we built the movie cathedrals around the world.” But even though that project deals with the past, she has one eye on the future. She says she enjoyed working with Altman and, apparently, the feeling was mutual.
LILLIAN GISH: “If I had a child, and could give her one gift,
it would be the gift of curiosity.”