Obituary: Lillian Gish (CORRECTED)

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Lillian Diana Gish, actress, born Springfield Ohio 14 October 1896, died New York City 27 February 1993.

LILLIAN GISH was, first of all, a face, the emblematic face of silent cinema - especially when its spiritual radiance and near-perfect symmetry of form were enshrined in the oval portraiture of the iris shot that was so cherished by her mentor, DW Griffith.

In Griffith's early masterpieces the irredeemably dated contrived to co-exist in paradoxical harmony with the uncompromisingly up-to- date. On the one hand, these films established once and for all the technical parameters of an art- form peculiar to the 20th century; on the other, they were rooted, in strictly narrative terms, in the codes and conventions of Victorian melodrama. As an actress Gish assumed and embodied that contradiction. The almost unparalleled intensity with which she invested every single role she played for Griffith was unmarred by the hysterical tics and tropes of her rivals. There was in each of her performances an emotional simplicity and truth which enabled her to continue acting into extreme old age without ever crucially revising her style. At the same time, her face, demure but never insipid, pale but never spectral, beautiful but without a trace of stereotyped Hollywood glamour, became the Griffithian face par excellence, that of a classic Victorian heroine, naive and sorely abused.

Yet Griffith's melodramas, unlike their models, were seldom of a truly sadistic bent. The pleasure that audiences derived from them was less that of gloating over the seduction of a virginal young ninny than of thrilling to her capacity for struggling back, for defending herself, for surviving. The Griffithian heroine, of whom Gish was the prototype, could also be feisty and humorous when occasion demanded; and, if there ever existed a star whose legend did not require her, like Marilyn Monroe or James Dean, to suffer a tragically premature death, it was she. She grew middle-aged, then elderly, then frankly old, exactly as one fancied the characters whom she had played in the teens and twenties of the century might have grown old. Her face, too, remained noble and dignified: it appeared neither a haggard wreck of its former self nor did it acquire the masklike waxiness of Hollywood's 'legion of the lifted'.

She was born in 1896, the daughter of a woman driven into the then disreputable profession of acting by the frequent absences of her fecklessly drifting husband. While still in her infancy, Gish started touring with a series of seedy, fifth-rate theatrical companies, often with her mother and sister Dorothy but just as often alone. Life was no sinecure for 'Baby Lillian', as she was billed: these were years marked by hunger and loneliness (though she did once land a modest dancing role in a Broadway production starring Sarah Bernhardt). In 1912, however, in the New York offices of the American Biograph Company, she and Dorothy chanced to run into another child performer whose acquaintance they had made on the vaudeville circuit. They had known her as Gladys Smith, but the ringleted little trouper had rebaptised herself Mary Pickford. On that very same day Pickford presented the two sisters to DW Griffith; and, only hours later, the entire Gish clan, mother included, made their first film appearance in Griffith's two-reeler An Unseen Enemy.

Gish's name was to become definitively attached to that of Griffith, the period's foremost film- maker and a man of whom she wrote, with pardonable hyperbole, that he was 'fifty or a hundred years ahead of his time'. It would be impossible to overstate the importance of the actress in the director's vision: her soft, unfleshy, pre-Raphaelite features came to seem as indelibly 'Griffithian' as, for instance, those of Jane Morris were indelibly 'Rossettian'. 'In this period,' she further wrote, 'if your eye was not larger than your mouth you were not considered photogenic. Dorothy qualified with a tiny mouth. I was afraid to laugh for fear that my oversized mouth would show.' Out of that apparently petty professional anxiety was born the prim, unsmiling maiden at the centre of the romantically overblown melodramas in which Griffith regularly cast her.

Of the scores of films on which they collaborated, two-, three-, four-reelers and eventually features, the best remembered are The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1913); Judith of Bethulia and The Battle of the Sexes (both 1914); The Birth of a Nation (1915, and still critically esteemed as one of the cornerstones of film history); Intolerance (1916, a quite stupendous portmanteau epic, possibly still the most expensive film ever produced, in which she made a cameo appearance as the paradigmatic Mother who links each of the film's four episodes); Hearts of the World (a First World War drama of 1918 which also saw the film debut of a diminutive Noel Coward); Broken Blossoms and True Heart Susie (both 1919); Way Down East (1920, in which she was famously rescued from a swirling ice-floe); and Orphans of the Storm (1922, its two title-roles played, naturally, by Lillian and Dorothy).

It was in that last year of 1922 that she and DW, as she would invariably address him, parted amicably over a contractual dispute. Such was her prestige, however, that she continued to be granted the virtually unique privilege of selecting her own scripts and directors, a privilege she exercised with notable taste and discrimination. For King Vidor, for example, she portrayed an unforgettably poignant Mimi in La Boheme (1924), dragging her frail, consumptive body across Paris to expire in her lover's embrace; and for Victor Seastrom (ne Sjostrom) she offered two of her most glowingly exquisite characterisations, as Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter (1926) and as the embattled heroine of The Wind (1928), a fitting conclusion to her silent career.

By contrast with the majority of those silent stars whose careers ignominiously fizzled out with the advent of sound, it was not Gish's voice but, again, her face that would render her all but unemployable. Her virginal ethereality more or less defied casting in the earthier, jazzier comedies and melodramas ushered in by the talkies; and, shortly before being relegated to the status of an occasional supporting performer, she found herself subjected to the indignity of a suggestion by Irving Thalberg, Metro-Goldwyn- Mayer's genius-in-residence, that a mythical scandal be fabricated to spice up her image. Aptly enough, the only sound role at all worthy of comparison with her silent work was to come in Charles Laughton's The Night of the Hunter (1955, with Robert Mitchum and Shelley Winters), a haunting masterpiece in an unashamedly Griffithian tradition. More recently, her presence alone added lustre to films as disparate as Robert Altman's A Wedding (1978) and Lindsay Anderson's The Whales of August (1987).

Lillian Gish was just one year younger than the medium to which she devoted her life: in Paris, a mere 10 months before her birth, the brothers Auguste and Louis Lumiere organised the first public screening of images imprinted on celluloid. If, in the decades that followed, the world has all too often felt like cursing the very invention of cinema, she at least never gave us cause to be anything but grateful.


Despite Lillian Gish's claim that she was born in 1896, which was given credence in the reference books and in yesterday's obituary by Gilbert Adair, the American Film Institute has established from her birth certificate that she was born in 1893.

(Photograph omitted)