She was never as popular with audiences as her friend Mary Pickford, but Lilllian Gish was the darling of New York intellectuals who otherwise disdained the crude sentimentalism of early silent pictures. Her stature as “a great screen tragedienne” was no accident, writes film historian Charles Affron, whose clear-eyed biography shows Gish carefully cultivating her image with the fan magazines, which always depicted “exquisitely fragile, ethereal” Lillian reading Shakespeare and thinking of higher things, while “pert, saucy” sister Dorothy had all the fun.
“The dainty Dresden statue would outwork and outlive them all,” notes Affron, who unearths the less edifying facts airbrushed out of his subject’s memories yet retains his respect for her pioneering artistry. Gish emerges here as a stronger, savvier woman than we have met in previous accounts.
The author’s fact-checking begins with Gish’s birth date, Oct. 14, 1893, which she began altering to 1896 virtually from the moment she joined the touring company of “In Convict Stripes” in 1902. She was only 8 years old, but she needed the work after her alcoholic father abandoned the family, and melodrama audiences liked their victims to be practically babies: “the younger the tot … the greater the thrill and pathos,” writes Affron with characteristic acuity. A later birth date also helped when Pickford introduced her in 1912 to D.W. Griffith, obsessed in classic Victorian fashion with barely pubescent heroines.
Gish was a seasoned theater veteran who had realistically concluded that acting offered one of the few paths to financial security for a single woman, yet she could convey the innocent vulnerability Griffith wanted. The actress herself was no shrinking violet: Not yet Griffith’s clear favorite when “Birth of a Nation” was cast, she stood in for rival Blanche Sweet during a rehearsal and devised a sexy bit of business (unloosing her waist-length blond hair during the inevitable near-rape scene) that got her the starring role.
Affron sardonically depicts Gish’s much-romanticized collaboration with Griffith as “an ongoing psychodrama, with the director getting his kicks out of sublimating his sexual aggression in the fiction at hand and the actress eagerly submitting to the punishment.”This is a pretty fair assessment of the physical and emotional rigors endured on films like “Way Down East” (Gish crawled across real ice floes during an actual blizzard for the climax) and “Broken Blossoms” (Griffith needled her into such hysteria for a scene filmed inside a tiny closet that she fainted when they stopped shooting at 2 a.m.). The author’s relentless emphasis on creative peoples’ neuroses can get a little tiresome, but it’s a useful corrective to the reverential tone Gish assumed in her memoirs.
Chapters on Gish’s post-Griffith career also give a more full-bodied sense of her personality. Producer Charles Duell certainly abused Gish’s financial trust, but Affron shows the actress bolstering her case against Duell during a scandalous lawsuit by pressuring friends to deny that they had ever been lovers. (They probably were, the author concludes; Gish and Griffith probably weren’t.) Telegrams to her lawyers as her status at MGM deteriorated reveal an unapologetic businesswoman: “IF METRO FINDS ME TOO EXPENSIVE AT NEARLY TWO HUNDRED A PICTURE WHY DON’T THEY RELEASE ME WHEN WE FINISH THE WIND … FOR WHICH I EXPECT COMPENSATION,” she cabled in 1927.
This was no blushing ingenue but a working professional who, when times changed and her screen persona was deemed old-fashioned, took herself to New York and fashioned a perfectly satisfactory second-tier career. She had a long affair with critic George Jean Nathan, enjoyed a few theatrical triumphs in the ensemble casts of Jed Harris’ 1930 production of “Uncle Vanya” and John Gielgud’s 1936 “Hamlet,” then uncomplainingly settled down to national tours and supporting roles.
You have to admire someone who does her first Broadway musical at age 82 and grabs the best reviews in an Robert Altman film at 84. Affron obviously prefers the tough old trouper to the tireless standard-bearer for Griffith and silent films. This can lead him to be unfair, as in comments like “her illusory subservience to strong men [was] a posture that usually furthered her own ambitions.”But Affron’s idiosyncratic stance has the great virtue of making his narrative of the 65 years following Gish’s last great picture (“The Wind”) as interesting as the legendary decade with Griffith. Indeed, he makes persuasive links between them. The book is filled with lovely descriptions of Gish’s acting, emphasizing “the refinement of her gestures, the candor, the rapt stillness” of her movie work. Yet the most touching is the last, of her silent cameo at a 1984 Metropolitan Opera gala, reminding us that whatever the vicissitudes of her career, the essence of this 90-year-old actor’s “generous art” had never changed: Lillian Gish “taught audiences to hear the words she never spoke and, even more miraculously, to read her mind and heart.”