Lillian Gish

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Lillian Gish : biography

October 14, 1893 – February 27, 1993

Having appeared in over 25 short films and features in her first two years as a movie actress, Lillian became a major star, becoming known as "The First Lady of the Silent Screen" and appearing in lavish productions, frequently of literary works such as The Scarlet Letter. MGM released her from her contract in 1928 after the failure of The Wind (1928), now recognized by many as among her finest performances and one of the most distinguished works of the late silent period.

She directed one film, Remodeling Her Husband (1920), when D. W. Griffith took his unit on location—he told Gish that he thought the crew would work harder for a girl. Gish never directed again, telling reporters at the time that directing was a man’s job.

With her debut in talkies only moderately successful, she acted on the stage for the most part in the 1930s and early 1940s, appearing in roles as varied as Ophelia in Guthrie McClintic’s landmark 1936 production of Hamlet (with John Gielgud and Judith Anderson) and Marguerite in a limited run of La Dame aux Camélias. Of the former, she said, with pride, "I played a lewd Ophelia!".

Returning to movies, Gish was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 1946 for Duel in the Sun. The scenes of her character’s illness and death late in that film seemed intended to evoke the memory of some of her silent film performances. She appeared in films from time to time for the rest of her life, notably in Night of the Hunter (1955) as a rural guardian angel protecting her charges from a murderous preacher played by Robert Mitchum. She was considered for various roles in Gone with the Wind ranging from Ellen O’Hara, Scarlett’s mother, which went to Barbara O’Neil, to prostitute Belle Watling, which went to Ona Munson.

Gish made numerous television appearances from the early 1950s into the late 1980s. Her most acclaimed television work was starring in the original production of The Trip to Bountiful in 1953. She appeared as Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna in the short-lived 1965 Broadway musical Anya. In addition to her later acting appearances, Gish became one of the leading advocates on the lost art of the silent film, often giving speeches and touring to screenings of classic works. In 1975, she hosted The Silent Years, a PBS film program of silent films.

Gish received a Special Academy Award in 1971 "For superlative artistry and for distinguished contribution to the progress of motion pictures." In 1979, she was awarded the Women in film Crystal Award in Los Angeles In 1984, she received an American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement Award, becoming only the second female recipient (preceded by Bette Davis in 1977), and the only recipient who was a major figure in the silent era. She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1720 Vine Street.

Her last film role was appearing in The Whales of August in 1987 at the age of 93, with Vincent Price, Bette Davis and Ann Sothern, in which she and Davis starred as elderly sisters in Maine. Her final professional appearance was a cameo on the 1988 studio recording of Jerome Kern’s Show Boat, starring Frederica von Stade and Jerry Hadley, in which she affectingly spoke the few lines of The Old Lady on the Levee in the final scene. The last words of her long career were, "Good night, dear."

Some in the entertainment industry were angry that Gish did not receive an Oscar nomination for her role in The Whales of August. Gish herself was more complacent, remarking that it saved her the trouble of "losing to Cher" (who did, in fact, win for her performance in Moonstruck).

Honours

The American Film Institute (AFI) named Gish 17th among the greatest female stars of all time. She was awarded an Honorary Academy Award in 1971, and in 1984 she received an AFI Life Achievement Award. Gish, an American icon was also awarded in the Kennedy Center Honors