“I was never young, and if you were never young, how can you ever feel old?”
As she recalls her two dead sons and a house that burned to the ground, Gish barely moves her face; all her feelings are expressed in her huge blue eyes. She’s like a singer taking her aria, but she is not at all external. Lillian Gish was the first actor who intuited what the camera needs. In extreme close-up here, she keeps her feelings all inside and draws us in, for her memories are private. She doesn’t fidget, she doesn’t “act,” she doesn’t try to show you her grief. Whether or not she used things from her real life, Lillian Gish is the first Method actress on film. She deals in pure emotion and you never feel her technique. “No one is ever alone who has something good to remember,” says Gish’s Hetty, at the beginning of her big scene. As she says this, her eyes take on the self-satisfied, religious quality that marked so much of Gish’s work.
Gish had a lot to remember. In a career that spanned seventy-five years, she was a girl of 19 who seemed like 90 and at 90 she seemed like a girl of 19. Lillian Gish was eternal. Unfortunately, she often remembered things incorrectly, and this has gotten her into some trouble. Charles Affron, who wrote an eye-opening appreciation of Gish’s acting style in his superb 1978 book Star Acting, evinced far less enthusiasm for her when he came to write her biography, published in 1998. It’s the classic case of a biographer becoming disenchanted with their subject once they learn too much. Gish’s mythmaking included some outright lies, such as her claim that MGM forced her to shoot a happy ending for her best silent film, The Wind (1928); no such ending was shot. That this untruth is neither here nor there in regard to the film itself makes no impression on Affron: his virtuous Griffith heroine is (gasp!) a liar. But acting is lying. And Gish was an actress to her core.
D.W. Griffith is almost a total loss as an artist. So where does this leave Lillian Gish, his constant leading lady and muse? She herself was a powerful, seminal artist, from her first film in 1912 to her last in 1987. But Affron’s book has done damage to her reputation. In Star Acting, he was stimulated by her artistry into flights of poetic prose. In his more recent biography, he has little to say about her performances; he’s too busy decrying her real-life misrepresentations.
Richard Schickel, in a review of Affron’s book for the New York Times, variously called Gish “excessive,” “loopy,” “tiresome,” “hopelessly old-fashioned,” and “a faintly risible antique.” He thought The Wind verged “on the ludicrous” and continued by saying that Gish failed the “basic obligation of stardom, which is to be sexy.” Whereupon, Louise Brooks rolled over in her gin-soaked grave. Affron’s book and Schickel’s review are so negative that they should spur a chivalrous response towards Gish. Once again, she needs to be rescued from the villain’s clutches, and I will do my best (sans KKK hood).
Gish’s childhood was filled with cold, hunger, and material deprivation. Her mother put Lillian and her sister Dorothy on the road as child actresses, but the family was never able to make ends meet for long. Gish thought of becoming a nun (she is in many ways a religious artist, like Dreyer or Bresson, always in a dialogue with God). But when she and Dorothy went over to the Biograph studios in New York to see their friend Mary Pickford, another child actress who was working for Griffith, Lillian fell into the world of filmmaking.
Griffith was the love of her life and she was the love of his life. Whether their relationship was ever sexual is open to debate, but I’d say no. They consummated their love in work, and in an uncomfortable sadomasochistic push and pull on film that left Griffith drained and Gish stronger than ever. They created a Victorian Story of O based on emotional and physical suffering as a replacement for Griffth’s sublimated sexual desire for the holier-than-thou Miss Lillian.
As a frumpy wife in a floppy hat, Gish seems much older than she is (she was 20 at the time, but her face is almost elderly in spirit). Walter Miller, who plays her husband, uses his hands like a theater actor of the time, making clear points, sawing at the air. By contrast, all of the things Gish feels run directly out to her hands. Early on, she throws her arms up in sheer happiness, as if she is so filled with joy that she has to fling some of the surplus out to us (it radiates out of her eyes, too). Her character is a claustrophobic homebody, out of place when her husband takes her to a nightclub. Discovering her husband’s infidelity, Gish gets woozy, as if she’s swimming in her own emotions; she even lets out two desperate little laughs, an unconventional thing to do in such a moment.
Then her baby dies, a Gish specialty. Her eyes go blank (which is especially upsetting since they have been so filled with quicksilver life). A doctor puts a hand on her shoulder, and she tugs it away gently but firmly. Breathing heavily, she walks out into her garden like a zombie. Then, all at once, she grabs an axe and starts hacking apart her rose bushes. In extreme long shot, her explosion seems slightly overdone, but perhaps she was overcompensating because she knew how far away the camera was. Gish was learning what worked and what didn’t on film, and we learned along with her.
Gish then maneuvered herself into the female lead for Griffith’s legendary epic The Birth of a Nation (1915). The film is a historical landmark in the history of the film medium, but it has not survived as a work of art in its own right. And its racism, especially in the hapless second half, is truly hopeless. Gish only disgraces herself in this regard once: when “mulatto” Silas Lynch appears, she reacts as if she’s just smelled something awful and flinches at shaking his hand. Affron says the film is “something of an embarrassment” to Gish, but it’s much more than that; it’s as if Garbo began her career with Triumph of the Will (1934). As a whole, Gish’s performance in Birth is filled with an extremely coy sexuality and an unattractive calculation that Griffith might not have noticed. Her shyness and frailty seem like an elaborate put-on (she’s very campy when petting a portentous white pussycat).
After rocking the cradle for interludes between the stories in Griffith’s best movie, the elephantine but impressive Intolerance (1916), Gish took the lead in his WWI propaganda film, Hearts of the World (1918). Here, the rapacious blacks of Birth are replaced by the rapacious Huns. Griffith preaches pacifism in his title cards, but he belies that by making battle scenes exciting and continually suggesting that certain groups of people need to be put in their place so that insipid white love can reign unchecked. In Hearts, Gish starts out in Mary Pickford territory, her hair in curls, planting a half dozen little kisses on her mother’s face. Griffith always wanted his virgins to express their sexual energy with wearying little squirrel-like jumps. Gish got so tired of doing this that she actually complained to Griffith, but she accepted his half-assed explanation (he said he wanted her to contrast with the older actors).
Thankfully, Griffith then made two smaller, gentler films with Gish. As “Forgetful Jenny” in A Romance of Happy Valley (1919), Gish stares into the camera with homely longing, trying to keep Bobby Harron from leaving their Kentucky home. She seems like the clinging, weird girl you shouldn’t stay home for. Gish refined this character in True Heart Susie (1919), a rural romance. As Susie, a plain girl in love with Bobby Harron, Gish holds herself proudly, primly, stealing furtive glances at her love during a spelling bee. For once, a Gish character actually wants a kiss, but Harron won’t give it. Walking with him down the road, she kicks out her heels like Chaplin, a visual expression of her misfit status. To give Harron a college education, Gish sells her family’s cow. When he sends her a letter, Gish kisses the paper passionately, then plants a bunch of Griffith “girlish” kisses on it. I would guess that the first kiss came from Gish and the girly kisses (a big mistake) were Griffth’s idea. This is a key to their differences and to her superiority to him as an artist.
When Harron returns, he says that a man should marry a plain girl, and when she hears this, Gish touches her face, gives it a little stroke. But the bare ankle of bad girl Bettina (Clarine Seymour) changes Harron’s mind. When Gish sees them together, she keeps shutting her eyes, as if each time she opens them she might see something different. It’s a strange gesture, but Gish makes it work. Her distress after they announce their engagement is painful and acutely real, very much a young girl’s bottomless despair. One night, after staying out too long at a party, Bettina goes to Susie and asks to stay over so that her husband won’t be suspicious. At first, Gish literally tries to blink her away. Then, in bed together, she gives the sleeping Bettina some evil looks and makes a fist, as if she wants to punch her, but her feelings soften and she eventually embraces her. This touching image sweetly expresses the high Christian charity of loving your enemy. True Heart Susie is the best film Gish ever made with Griffith and one of her finest performances. Why it isn’t available on DVD is a mystery.
Gish makes the scene in the closet a sort of cosmic plea for all abused children. From an acting standpoint, it is similar in its size to the outrage over suffering children in the Grand Inquisitor section of The Brothers Karamazov. But Griffith is so obviously getting off on seeing Gish trapped with Crisp in a confined space that the whole thing becomes lurid and distasteful, especially when Crisp lightly taps her face with the whip he will use to kill her. In her chaste love scenes with Richard Barthelmess’ adoring Chinese shopkeeper, Gish looks at her benefactor rather knowingly. During other scenes, when she is alone, a smug expression passes over her face inappropriately, as if she’s losing the character (or playing to her lustful director).
On the surface, and in the titles, Griffith sides with Barthelmess, but, secretly, he identifies with Burrows. (In the thirties, desperate for a comeback, Griffith charged into a producer’s office and he played Burrows with a young girl he found. The producer thought he was nuts, and he was.) Gish’s death scene is outstanding; she does one more fake smile for the road and she really does seem to die. She had a freakishly realistic gift for playing death, but her artistry cannot redeem this well-regarded yet twisted film.
Her last film with Griffith, Orphans of the Storm (1922), throws Gish and her sister Dorothy into the French Revolution; it goes on for well over two-and-a-half hours, rousing and tedious by turns. At this late date, Gish is still the genteel cocktease with suitors, coyly denying kisses. Griffith delights in bringing her sleeping virgin body into a French orgy, and she has her usual rough time. In the famous scene where she thinks she hears her kidnapped sister, Gish’s intensity is Wagnerian in its size. She’s able to build this sequence as high as it can possibly go, and she uses her whole body, practically flinging herself off a balcony to scream to Dorothy. About to be guillotined, she screams to heaven for help, and she is saved in the nick of time, of course. It’s all faintly ridiculous.
For years I have tried to see what early film writers have seen in the work of D. W Griffith. Some of our finest critics, from James Agee to Pauline Kael, have sentimentalized him and praised his movies lavishly. In much of this criticism, there is a constant attempt to avoid what is actually on screen and focus on the idea of Griffith that Gish promulgated. These writers were swept away by his technique and his status as the first independent filmmaker, so they forgave his flaws. Today, his technique is standard, and all that’s left is his point of view. It’s not an edifying sight. He had a trite mind, his pacifism was unworkable with his hatred and fear of the Other, and his depiction of sexuality makes the skin crawl. Gish’s performances saved his films again and again, and her unquestioned integrity still shines reflected glory on his movies. After she left him, she did her best work.
Moving to MGM proved to be a fortuitous decision at first, and she made her three greatest films for them: La Boheme (1925), The Scarlet Letter (1926), and The Wind (1928). Each movie upped the ante for Gish’s artistry, and she had control over all of them. She knew enough to pick talented collaborators, and on La Boheme she chose King Vidor as her director and John Gilbert as her leading man, having been impressed with their work on The Big Parade (1925).
Gish’s otherworldly beauty is at its height in La Boheme; at a pawnshop, her Mimi is proud and fastidious as she says goodbye to treasured belongings in order to survive. When Gilbert and his Bohemian friends help her out, Vidor lingers on her grateful/embarrassed reaction to their kindness. She weighs each of her feelings, jumping from one to the other as if they’re hot potatoes, finally settling on drinking a glass of wine. Gish seems to enjoy dealing with overzealous Gilbert’s romantic attentions, still playing the Griffith tease, but Vidor has the depth and emotional sophistication to meet her halfway and create with her. The result is blissful.
It was Swedish director Victor Sjöström, however, who helped Gish attain the pinnacle of her art as an actress. In The Scarlet Letter, a diminishment of Hawthorne’s novel that has merits of its own, Gish’s mock-shy, infuriating Griffith teasing has been supplanted by a full-blooded, fascinatingly two-faced sexuality. Her Hester Prynne has more than a touch of the coquette about her; to highlight this, Sjöström focuses on one of Gish’s best props, her long, luxurious, waist-length hair. When she looks for her pet bird and her hair tumbles down, it’s a visual clue to her lust for life, something that will not be tolerated in her Puritan village. Gish’s Hester is locked up in the stocks as punishment for her lighthearted behavior on the Sabbath, and the Reverend Dimmesdale (Lars Hanson) gives her water and touches her arms. She looks up at him with sad eyes, and it’s obvious that he’s completely aroused by her. This scene is pure S/M, but it’s erotic S/M, not the child abuse porn of Griffith.
Sjöström and sex held sway for her best film, The Wind, an audacious, intuitive investigation of Gish’s narcissism, female sex fantasies, and the brutal power of Mother Nature as expressed, and reflected, by checked and unchecked male libidos. In the first scene, on a train, traveling through prairie country, Gish’s frail, knowing Letty smiles when she notices she has a man’s carnal attention, and she is instantly hit by sand from her open window. Later, at a barn dance, she looks at herself in a proffered mirror and obviously likes what she sees; this is immediately followed by a cyclone.
The Wind prefigures Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) in its depiction of a pampered woman who is gradually undone by forces larger than herself; the constantly howling wind is a metaphor for Letty’s repressed sexuality. When a jealous wife calls her “Miss Sly Boots,” we completely understand what she means. Sjöström sees and makes use of the nearly smarmy calculatedness in Lillian Gish in a way that Griffith never could. He also calls her on her hypocritical Griffith sexuality and strips her bare of it, thrillingly. To her credit, Gish is more than ready for this revelation of her inner nature.
Forced into a marriage with shy, handsome Lars Hanson, Gish reacts in horror when he tries to consummate their union. He kisses her violently and she pushes him away, wiping her mouth, saying she hates him. Sjöström highlights Hanson’s good-natured blondness, filming him in tight, high pants that outline his butt. Gish is disturbed by his obvious sexual appeal and she puts off his erotic demands indefinitely; she wants the attention of men, but her real love object is herself. Gish needs to be desired, even abused, but she is petrified of desiring a man, which would leave her exposed to real pain. All of her power lies in her control of a man’s gaze. As she starts to feel something for her husband, she begins to come apart.
But does the rape actually happen? When Gish’s Letty shoots Roddy (or penetrates him) the next morning, buries him, freaks out when the sand uncovers his dead face isn’t this just a detailed hallucination from a woman who is working through her issues about sex? If so, the happy ending, which Gish lied about later on, is not a tacked-on conclusion, but a purifying catharsis where she accepts her sexuality and decides to stay with her loyal, sexy husband. It’s as if she’s killed Griffith once and for all. The ending is too abrupt, but it’s the climax to her career in silent cinema. No matter how big her performances were in this vanished, still undervalued medium, they were always emotionally truthful. Silent film demanded size. Lillian Gish realized this and laid the cornerstone for the art of acting in the twentieth century.
Gish returned to the theater with some success, in Chekhov and Shakespeare. Photos of her Camille reveal a juicily sexual middle-aged courtesan, and her Ophelia, with John Gielgud’s definitive Hamlet, was said to be a “lewd” young lady (Sjöström had had his tonic effect). Later on, John Houseman called it “one of the most convincingly lunatic Ophelia’s I’ve ever seen.” Yet the movies could find no place for one of its finest artists. Her only thirties film, His Double Life (1933), has her in a thankless part as Roland Young’s placid wife. Her voice is high and thin and she seems like a more genteel Zasu Pitts (in fact, Griffith fired Pitts from his company because she was too similar to Gish. Arguably, Pitts’ Trina in von Stroheim’s Greed (1924) is the ultimate Gish-style emotional performance). In the late thirties, Gish intimated that she would come back to Hollywood if she could star in a silent movie. Perhaps her exile was partly self-created.
She continued to play on the stage, and entered the era of television wholeheartedly, most famously in Horton Foote’s poignant play The Trip to Bountiful (1953). As Carrie Watts, an unhappy old lady who wants to take one look at her birthplace before she dies, Gish has a breathless flirtatiousness in her first scenes. She goes a bit too fast, stumbles sometimes (this is live TV), but when she mentions her dead children, she gives us all we need to know with her eyes. She doesn’t wallow in her own emotions, as Geraldine Page did in the later movie version; this woman just doesn’t have time. From the moment she hears that an old friend died, and one obstacle after another gets in the way of her trip, Gish is on fire, desolate and joyful by turns, hitting every note in her scale, from the frightened little Griffith girl to the imperious Hester Prynne. This virtuoso performance shows what she could do in a talkie. Luckily, she soon made her last great film, Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955), a mysterious masterpiece that capped her career.
As Rachel Cooper, an elderly woman who takes in two children and protects them from Robert Mitchum’s evil preacher, Gish effortlessly embodies qualities of pure goodness tempered by earthy wisdom. Mitchum’s sexuality is diseased, perverted by hate and repression (he’s Mr. Griffith to a T, especially when he watches a stripper and a stick-knife bursts out of his pants). Gish, whose sexuality was liberated by King Vidor and Victor Sjöström, is his ultimate opponent, and it’s payback time. Laughton admired Griffith and wanted to make a Griffith-style movie. Instead, he made a film that repudiates Griffith, utilizing the latter’s ace-in-the-hole artist, Lillian Gish, to put him in his place. Her eyes glisten as she speaks toughly of her strength. “Women are fools, all,” she says sardonically, when her oldest girl starts having trouble with boys.
Gish never married, and we’re still guessing about her own real-life sexuality. Did she ever sleep with anyone at all? In her autobiography, she quotes Griffith on females and sex: “Women aren’t made for promiscuity,” he said. “If you’re going to be promiscuous, you’ll end up having some disease.” In the mid-twenties, after putting up with the ceaselessly litigious attentions of a dastardly former business manager, Charles Duell, Gish said, “I wish I never had to see another man.” Her only other involvement seems to have been with sharp-tongued drama critic George Jean Nathan, and he was no prize, either. But the evidence of her Sjöström films would suggest that she came to terms with her Griffith-bred fears of sex in one way or another.
Gish’s artistry was ill served by most of her subsequent work, though she was vividly (and quite atypically) bitchy in Vincente Minnelli’s The Cobweb (1955), a lunatic all-star movie set in a sanatorium. As manic spinster administrator Victoria Inch, Gish overplays, but she dominates a movie peopled by Charles Boyer, Gloria Grahame, Lauren Bacall, Richard Widmark, and Oscar Levant, and her caricature is funny, something Gish seldom is allowed to be (her only other comic role on film was a very-late-in-the-day part as Alan Alda’s demanding, bright-eyed little mother in the 1986 Sweet Liberty).
Gish’s big project in the second half of her long life was promoting D. W. Griffith, and she did so continuously, giving interviews and appearing gamely at events honoring their work together. On film she freed herself of him, but in life, alas, she never did; she was devoted to the end. He was her God on earth, but she never asked questions of him, unfortunately. Her autobiography, The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me, does everything it can to convince us that Griffith was a lovable, inspired, if often misguided man, piling on detail after detail of his wisdom, excusing all of his missteps (writing of his death, she compares him to Jesus and Gandhi!). It’s wholly convincing, until you see their movies.
Some of her recollections are disturbing, such as the time Griffith suggested she look at animals to inform her body movements on film, a reasonable, even advanced bit of acting advice, followed by, “Look at that dog, jumping up and down, turning in circles, barking for his master,” he said. “If only my actors could be so expressive.” This says ominous volumes about his work with Gish, as does one revealing mid-forties photo in the book: Gish looks lovingly at Griffith, who is staring flirtatiously into the camera. Wedged between them is Griffith’s child bride, who he met when she was 13. This picture defines their grim relationship.