Sunday, October 14, 2012
Birthday Girl: Silent Star
The lady seen here, had she been marginally longer-lived, would be celebrating her 119th birthday today, and for a while it seemed quite likely she might. Lillian Gish had an old soul, and for decades she was the presiding spirit of the Silent Movies, at times almost singlehandedly keeping alive the flame of an art form that conquered the world and then vanished overnight - almost.
We see her here toward the end of her Top Stardom, when she was for a few years Queen of the Lot at MGM (a rather different thing in 1927 than it would be a decade later, but still hardly chopped liver), as a Scottish lass in Annie Laurie. Why she appears to be dressed more as a Russian tsarevna is one of those mysteries of Hollywood we hear so much about.
In an excellent essay on Gish and her career, author Don Callahan observes, "...in a career that spanned seventy-five years, she was a girl of 19 who seemed like 90 and at 90 she seemed like a girl of 19." I think that seems just right. Here she's at the further end of her long life, elegant as always in her ruffles and turquoise lavalier (a very Gish-y word, somehow).
Watching Gish act is a revelation; she was among the first to maximize film's potential for reading a performer's mind, to take advantage of her incredibly expressive eyes and the microscopic movements of her face in extreme closeup. She acts with her stillness. She is at the same time an enormously physical actress - her mad scene in Broken Blossoms is one of the most punishing sequences ever filmed, exhausting in its extremity, and of course the scene on the ice floe in Way Down East is quite rightfully among most famous ever filmed (the whole movie's pretty great, but if you've never seen the ice sequence - watch a bit of it now).
She is the start of a chain of such actresses, with some of whom she has only technique in common - I would include among them Louise Brooks (who is infinitely more carnal), Garbo (distinctly less cerebral), and, more recently, Julie Christie (a woman where Gish is more often a waif). Her greatest descendant, to me, is Meryl Streep, who has Gish's gift of effortlessly dominating the screen, her simple presence throwing everytone around her into the shade, but in a totally untheatrical (seeming) way. Several British actresses - Emma Thompson and Dame Judi Dench, for example - can also recall the Gishian simplicity and directness of approach, albeit in a way that seems a great deal more academic than the style of acting that Gish developed the hard way, in long, arduous barnstorming on stage as a child and through endless trial-and-error in the early days of one reelers.
I admit, though, that I'm not totally unbiased in my devotion to Lillian Gish (even though I share with Callahan deep reservations many aspects of her life, not least her slavish devotion to D.W. Griffith (an essential film pioneer, but not the paragon of genius whose myth she tirelessly promulgated for decade after decade). She was a household saint as I grew up, for my grandmother (the racier of the two; not the be-hatted clubwoman) had in her youth played piano in silent-movie theatres and considered her just this side of heaven (she even met her once, a moment recounted ever after in the way that one might talk about being introduced to Athena or Eleanor of Aquitaine). As children, we were even told the plots of Gish films as bedtime stories, with elements of real life blended in - something easy, actually, to do with her movies, for one instinctively feels that she is as noble in suffering as her Hester Prynne, as brave in life as she is in The Wind, and as obdurate and timeless as she is in her greatest sound film, Night of the Hunter. She may have revered Griffith, but it is Laughton, in that last film, who ensured her immortality in sound as well as silent film.
So it's a joy to think of her on this, her birthday. I never met Miss Gish, but I went to her funeral, in March of 1994 at St. Bartholomew's in New York (she's still there, actually, along with Dorothy and their beloved, indomitable mother). It was a lovely occasion, solemn but joyful as one can be when remembering someone who lived so long and did so much. I was there to accompany one of the elderly Theatrical Names for whom I occasionally BirdieCooganed in those days; he was much affected by her going, but utterly out of his element in St. Bart's unbending High Anglican splendor. "Well," he kept muttering, "this explains a lot. She was e-pis-co-pal. Who knew?" (Being of the theatre, Broadway division, to the core, I have a feeling he just assumed everyone was Jewish, with an overlay of WASP to one degree or another).
It's not what he was thinking, I'm sure, but it's true. "Episcopal," at its root, refers to one who oversees or presides, as a bishop or other leader. Gish, really, is nothing less than the presiding genius of the cinema. She is 119; she is the fragile girl first seen in 1912's An Unseen Enemy; she is the nonagenarian who glows with light in The Whales of August; she is eternal.