December 9, 2010  |  Film, Modern Women
Candid Thoughts on Lillian Gish

The Whales of August. 1987. USA. Directed by Lindsay Anderson

The Whales of August. 1987. USA. Directed by Lindsay Anderson

Much has been written about Lillian Gish over the course of her 75-year career, and as the Museum’s retrospective of the actress’s films nears a close (concluding with a screening of the Museum’s newly preserved print of Orphans of the Storm on Monday, December 13), I would like to pay particular attention to the writings of three of Gish’s friends, colleagues, and critics—Anita Loos, Andrew Sarris, and Mike Kaplan—who offered the kind of personal insights that aren’t often evident among all of the written discussion of her career.

In my previous blog post on Gish, I wrote about MoMA’s last retrospective of the actress’s work. As part of the press coverage of the 1980 exhibition, pioneering screenwriter Loos contributed an article to The New York Times remarking on her personal recollections of and professional esteem for Gish. When Loos composed “Lillian Gish—A Tribute to a Trouper” (September 14, 1980), she had been friends with the actress for almost 50 years. Although Gish appeared as an extra in the screenwriter’s first film, The New York Hat (1912), the two did not strike up a friendship until many years later, when D. W. Griffith hired Loos as his permanent scenarist at the Biograph Company, where Gish was a repertory player. Despite their lasting friendship, Loos and Gish’s professional collaboration largely ended with that first film; Loos’s niche was satire, and her material was ill suited for Gish. As Loos put it, in a succinct and vital observation on Gish’s work, “Satire requires a touch of malice, and of this Lillian has none.”

In “The Sequoia and the Gilded Lily” (Voice, May 8, 1984), an article that discussed Gish and Claudette Colbert on the occasion of their career honors at, respectively, the American Film Institute and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, film historian and critic Andrew Sarris, another crucial observer of Gish’s career, precisely pinpointed her impact:

“Gish and Colbert both belong to ages of cinema in which women possessed a sublime awareness of their own powers.…What we tend to forget today is that Gish, like Griffith, was considered out-of-fashion more than 60 years ago. First, the flappers were supposed to have made her Victorian virgin obsolete, and then Garbo’s erotically angled features were supposed to have supplanted Gish’s wholesomely rounded countenance as the standard of female beauty. That Gish has outlived the winds of fashion to become an emblem of eternity itself should not blind us to the fact that both the Motion Picture Academy and the American Film Institute have been grotesquely slow to honor her. Everyone seems to have taken her for granted as an inexorable force of nature. Better late than never, of course, as Victor Hugo is said to have remarked after Britain finally erected a statue to Shakespeare a couple of centuries after the Bard’s demise.”

Gish was the 12th recipient of AFI’s Life Achievement Award. Sarris notes in his article that of the first 12 honored by the AFI, she is only the second woman, after Bette Davis. Curiously, Gish and Davis never appeared in a film together until 1987’s The Whales of August, which would be the cinematic swan song of both actresses. (The film screens at MoMA on Saturday, December 12, with an introduction by screenwriter David Berry).

The film’s producer, Mike Kaplan, contributed a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the production to The New York Times on April 18, 1993, as a memoriam after Gish’s passing on February 27, 1993. In “Gish and Davis: Could the Two Work Together?” Kaplan candidly remarks on the contrast between the actresses’ working methods and views on competition. For Gish, “Competition is a word that never entered [her] thoughts or vocabulary,” whereas for Davis, “Competition was ingrained…and she approached each project with antennae overtuned for potential rivals and enemies.” The article paints a detailed portrait of Gish’s and Davis’s acting methods. Gish, acting from her heart, retired to her home immediately after the conclusion of the work day, but Davis, acting from her mind, monitored everything on the set and viewed dailies with the crew. In Kaplan’s description of the process behind the film’s climactic scene, one truly comprehends both actresses’ dedication to their craft, even throughout an arduous shoot that proved taxing to the aging stars. Although they weren’t personally close during filming, both grand dames of the silver screen expressed their admiration for the other with understated class: “I enjoyed playing that scene with Bette today,” said Gish. Davis responded in kind, “Lillian was really good.”

Loos reminds us in her article that Gish once said, “There’s no question that films influence the entire world as nothing has since the invention of the printing press. But the impact of the printed word is nowhere near as strong as a visual experience.” Although I’m inclined to agree with the actress about the majesty of the movies, the printed word can certainly be impactful when it comes from those who knew her, and when it brings new light to an eternal star.