Lillian Gish (1893-1993)
Country of birth: USA
The basics: Deserted by their father at a young age, Lillian Gish and her sister Dorothy were supported by their mother’s acting. The girls soon joined their mother’s profession. The family relocated to New York in 1912 and met Mary Pickford who introduced the Gish sisters to director D.W. Griffith. The sisters made their film debut together in The Unseen Enemy and joined Griffith’s acting troupe. Lillian was soon Griffith’s most famous leading lady, starring in his most popular films. Gish left Griffith (or was pushed out, depending on how you want to phrase it) after Orphans of the Storm. She spent the rest of the twenties making tasteful, artistic and often tragic films with the finest directors and co-stars available. A staunch defender of the art of the silent film, Lillian made one talkie before returning to the stage. She divided the rest of her career between stage and screen, making her final film appearance in 1987. She passed away in 1993 at the age of 99.
You probably saw her in: Birth of a Nation, Broken Blossoms, Way Down East, Orphans of the Storm, The Wind
Silent style: Lillian specialized in playing the virginal, romanticized maidens in peril. However, she also brought a steely, resourceful undercurrent to these seemingly fragile characters. Lillian Gish was often called upon to play characters who were abused, abandoned, tormented, driven insane but who managed to survive through a hidden reserve of inner strength… Or they suffer tragic deaths since Gish was a tragedienne to the bone.
Sound transition: Lillian Gish’s stage-trained voice meant that she would be able to conquer sound. However, Gish preferred silent cinema and her artistic autonomy was being threatened by the studio heads who were concerned about her diminishing box office drawing power. Gish returned to film sporadically over the next six decades. Her sound roles included a shotgun wielding foster-mother in Night of the Hunter, a long-suffering matriarch in Duel in the Sun and an elderly caretaker in The Whales of August.
What others said:
“She had steely determination, but was very delicate in appearance. What red-blooded male would not want to rescue her from so many perils?”
Douglas Fairbanks Jr., remarking on Lillian Gish’s appeal.
If you gotta know more:
The Movies, Mr Griffith and Me by Lillian Gish (autobiography)
An Actor’s Life for Me by Lillian Gish (autobiography)
Dorothy and Lillian Gish by Lillian Gish (autobiographical picture book)
Lillian Gish: A Life on Stage and Screen by Stuart Oderman (biography)
Lillian Gish: Her Legend, Her Life by Charles Affron (biography)
Lillian Gish Official Website (curated by her estate)
If you only see her in one thing: A hard call, given the number of silent classics she starred in. However, The Wind is such an iconic performance and it really shows off Lillian at full power.