She is the only living actress whose career in film and television has almost spanned the history of both 20th century mediums.
‘I created heroines that were the essence of virginity, purity and goodness, with nobility of mind, heart, soul and body,’ says Gish, capturing her career in a single sentence. ‘I never go to the beauty shop or the hairdresser,’ she says proudly, touching her hand to a face that displays a fine white complexion. ‘And I never use much makeup when I’m not acting.’
She has sidestepped the horror-movie trap of the ’60s and ’70s that exploited other aging film heroines, including current co-star Bette Davis. Gish got her start on stage, in a 1902 road melodrama in the Midwest, but it was in 1912 that she made her first short film for David Wark (D.W.) Griffith, to whom she was introduced by girlhood friend Gladys Smith, soon to become Mary Pickford. Work in silent and later talking pictures consumed Gish’s energies for nearly 20 years of her early career, and when she returned to film in 1943 from a long stage interlude, she never again abandoned the screen. Gish made her acting debut, as Baby Lillian, with Huston in ‘The Convict’s Stripes’ in a barn-turned-theater in Rising Sun, Ohio. She was 5 at the time and the daughter of a struggling actress. You can safely say that about stage players, for their performances survive only in the memory. But Lillian Gish’s performances exist in films that have been subjected to scrutiny again and again. The verdict is always the same: Lillian Gish is astonishing.
Meeting her is an exhilarating experience,for her enthusiasm is undimmed. She has the ability to convey her memories as though relating them for the first time. To see that face—the most celebrated of the entire silent era. and so little changed—and to hear references to “Mr. Griffith”and “Mary Pickford” is to know you are at the heart of film history. She was discovered, if that is the right word, by D.W. Griffith. She credits him with giving her the finest education in the craft of film that anyone could receive. He created much of that craft himself, making up the rules as he went along. She calls him”the Father of Film.” And the pictures they made together read like a roll call of the classics of the cinema: The Birth of a Nation (1915). Intolerance (1916). Hearts of the World (1918), Broken Blossoms(1919). Way Down East (1920), Orphans of the Storm (1921). The films she made immediately after she left Griffith, when she had her choice of director, story, and cast, include more classics, such as La Boheme (1926), The Scarlet Letter (1926), and The Wind(1928). In a later chapter of her career, she played in Duel in the Sun (1946), The Night of the Hunter (1955), Orders to Kill(1958), and A Wedding (1978).
“We used to laugh about films in the early days,” she says. “We used to call them flickers. Mr. Griffith said, ‘Don’t you ever let me hear you use that word again.The film and its power are predicted in the Bible. There’s to be a universal language making all men understand each other. We are taking the first baby steps in a power that could bring about the millennium.Remember that when you stand in front of the camera.’”
It was this ideal, this integrity, that made compromise so difficult for both of them. The seriousness with which Lillian Gish took her work was undermined at MGM in 1927 when it was suggested that a scandal might improve her performance at the box office. “You are way up there on a pedestal and nobody cares.” said the producers. “If you were knocked off the pedestal, everyone would care.” Lillian Gish realized she would be expected to give a performance off screen as well as on. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I just don’t have that much vitality.” Shortly afterward, she returned to her first love,the theater, and the cinema lost her for the better part of a decade. What the film producers failed to comprehend was how much value for the money she gave them, for she was part of an older tradition. Griffith had imbued his players with the discipline and dedication of the nineteenth-century theater, and Lillian Gish carried these qualities to unprecedented lengths.
Screen legend Lillian Gish was 93 when she co-starred in “The Whales of August”, making her the oldest actress ever to feature in a leading role. In one scene, Lillian Gish and Ann Sothern are seen overlooking the ocean. Sothern’s character remarks that whales have scarcely been seen since the war due to submarines. In real life, Ann Sothern’s paternal grandfather, Simon Lake, was the inventor of the modern submarine. The film received its New York City premiere on October 14, 1987, Lillian Gish’s 94th birthday. It was first released in France nine weeks earlier. The film cast includes two Oscar winners: Bette Davis and Mary Steenburgen; and two Oscar nominees: Lillian Gish and Ann Sothern. The pleasure of ”The Whales of August” comes from watching how Mr. Anderson keeps his two stars working in unison, though each works by totally different methods.