Tuesday, October 14, 2014
Birthday Girl: Heart of the World
Let's lift a glass, on this her 121st birthday, to the First Lady of Cinema, Miss Lillian Gish. She's captured here by Steichen in the mid '30s, and he's caught an element of her she rarely showed in public.
Here she's no shrinking silent-movie violet, nor is she genial great lady, the persona that came to fit her like a glove for the second half-century of her life. No, Steichen's Gish is the woman who was a friend of George Jean Nathan and a stage collaborator with the likes of Gielgud and Guthrie McClintic, the keenly intelligent, cosmopolitan artist who spent most of her life in Manhattan, however much she crafted a public persona that emphasized her roots in Masillon, Ohio.
One can hardly blame her for working the character - really almost a separate person - that made her a star when she was both young, just 20 or so, and already a veteran trouper, having worked non-stop for more than a decade. That character - sweet almost to the point of simpering (but with a spine of steel) - only hinted at Gish's own complexity, and it's perhaps one of few tragedies of her long, long career that she never really found a sound role that explored too far beneath the Griffith-heroine surface. Night of the Hunter comes closest, and there are flashes in The Whales of August, but too much of her later work was, if only by the standards of her talent, a kind of coasting.
Look at the face, and think what she might have done with the right part - something knowing, something sophisticated and complicated, maybe even something with just a tinge of mean, or at least a little wry twist. But Griffith's legacy weighed heavy on her, as did the need to support Mother and Dorothy and various friends and relations in the style to which they had grown accustomed back in the days when her films were MGM hits in every city in the world.
But even without a go at the sort of parts that by 1934 were going to Norma Shearer (who never did quite live up to the gala Worldly Woman shtick her place as Mrs. Thalberg secured her), Gish has nothing to worry about: she's as close to immortal as any screen great.
In the glance she gives Steichen, I'm rather glad to see she so clearly knows it.