Oscar Actors: Gish, Lillian

Born October 14, 1896 in Springfield, Ohio; died 1993.

The actress who is widely recognized as “The First Lady of the Silent Screen” took her first steps on the stage when she was five in a melodrama, “In Convict Stripes.” Lillian's mother had taken to acting shortly before, during one of the frequent absences of her drifter husband, and was persuaded by friends to supplement the family income by letting her daughters, Lillian and Dorothy GISH, become child actresses. Lillian's most memorable experience during these lean years was a dancing part in a Sarah Bernhardt New York production.

Their big chance came in 1912, when they ran into an old friend, a child actress they had known as Gladys Smith, whose name was now Mary Pickford, and she introduced them to director D. W. GRIFFITH. That same day both sisters acted in their first film, Griffith's “An Unseen Enemy.” Their mother was also in the cast.

Lillian was a madetoorder Griffith heroine. Her deceptive fragility, masking a great spiritual vibrancy that could surge forth unexpectedly as physical strength, was perfectly suited to the Victorian sentiment of his dramas. She was deeply devoted to Griffith and admired him greatly, as she later revealed in her autobiography, “The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me” (1969). Under Griffith's guidance, she developed into the most capable actress of the silent screen, an extraordinarily creative and dedicated performer whose work could uplift the most commonplace vehicle. She remained with Griffith until the early 20s, when they amicably parted ways over a salary dispute. Until then he had directed nearly all her films, most notably “Broken Blossoms,” True Heart Susie,” “Way Down East,” and “Orphans of the Storm.”

Gish directed her sister Dorothy in the film “Remodeling Her Husband” (1920), then starred in several major films of minor companies that gave her control over scripts and choice of directors. She received the same privileges when she joined MGM in 1925 and chose King Vidor and Victor Sjostrom to direct her in “La Boheme” and “The Scarlet Letter,” respectively. Both films were highly successful. But her subsequent films for MGM did not fare very well commercially, and with Garbo emerging as a star, the company could afford to let Lillian Gish go in 1928.

She appeared in one film for United Artists, after which she turned her back on Hollywood, which by now regarded her a “sexless antique.” Lillian then returned to her first love, the stage, and appeared in several Broadway plays in the 1930s, including “Uncle Vanya,” “Camille,” and “Hamlet” (as Ophelia opposite John Gielgud).

In between plays, she acted in her last screen lead, in a Paramount film released early in 1934. From the early 40s she kept returning occasionally to the screen, in character parts, but devoted more of her energies to the stage and, later, also to television and lecture tours. Miss Gish never married and, except for a persistent courtship by George Jean Nathan, managed to keep her private life shielded from publicity.

In 1970 she was awarded a special Oscar for her cumulative work. In 1978 she returned to the screen after a long absence in Robert Altman's “A Wedding,” her 106th film. In 1984 she was the recipient of the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award.

Still amazingly resilient and energetic in her 90s, she continued appearing in films through the late 80s, her eighth decade on the screen. Her performance in her last film, The “Whales of August” (1987), opposite Bette Davis, was widely praised.

Oscar Alert

In 1946, Lillian Gish received her first and only nomination in the supporting category for “Duel in the Sun.” She competed for the Supporting Oscar with Anne Baxter (who won) in “The Razor's Edge,” Ethel Barrymore in “The Spiral Staircase,” Flora Robson in “Saratoga Trunk,” and Gale Sondergaard in “Anna and the King of Siam.”