National treasures come in all shapes and sizes. There’s the Grand Canyon, the bald eagle, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the linear accelerator at Batavia, Illinois—and Lillian Gish.
She was the first great actress of the silent film, the Meryl Streep of cinema’s Age of Innocence (1913-1922), a magical waif adored all over the world as the heroine of D. W. Griffith’s masterpieces: Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, Broken Blossoms, Way Down East and Orphans of the Storm. Vladimir Nemirovich-Dantchenko, the great Russian director, numbered Gish among “the first tragediennes of the world,” and modern critics have acclaimed her performance in 1926’s The Scarlet Letter as “the greatest ever captured on film.” And that was only the beginning. Gish is now 91 and…
“I beg your pardon! That’s simply not true!” Miss Lillian sputters in a genteel huff. “Indeed, my birth certificate does say I’m 91, but that’s a lie Mother told to get around the child labor laws. In fact I’m only 88!”
As we were saying, Gish is now 88, and after an eight-decade career that has generated 105 movies and 42 stage productions, the grand old gal is still roaring right along. In The Whales of August, a new movie that co-stars a trio of reconditioned antiques (Bette Davis, 79, Ann Sothern, 78, and Vincent Price, 76), Gish turns in a serenely luminous performance that all but steals the show from battling Bette—but only after a Struldbruggian struggle that was waged behind the scenes as well as on the screen. When the film was shown at the Cannes festival, Lillian won a 10-minute standing ovation from an audience that included Prince Charles and Princess Di (Gish’s “seventh cousin twice removed,” as she notes with customary precision). And next April when Oscar talk translates into votes, she’ll be a sentimental favorite to sashay past the likes of Barbra Streisand and Glenn Close to grab the gold.
Gish and Davis staged their geriatric showdown on Cliff Island in Maine’s Casco Bay, where Whales was filmed in the fall of ’86. In the movie, Bette is cast as a blind and embittered widow, and Lillian plays the warmhearted sister who patiently puts up with the old scold. Bette apparently expected the pattern to repeat in real life. But it didn’t. As the battle began, most observers bet on Bette: Though her face had been brutally clawed by her 1985 stroke, she had come back strong and was eagerly scratching her old itch to dominate. Whereas Lillian, with her huge fawn-soft eyes, sweet-milk complexion and Dresden-shepherdess fragility, looked as innocent as a 10-year-old playing house in a grandma gown. “Look again,” says producer Michael Kaplan. “Inside the lace glove there’s a hand of steel. It’s not for nothing that they called her the Iron Horse of Hollywood.”
Bette fired the first shot. Ever the prima donna, she demanded (and got) first billing on the picture—an act of commercial aggression that appalled her co-star. Ever the lady, Lillian sniffed, “Oh dear, I just can’t deal with that sort of thing. I don’t care what they do with my name. If they leave it off, so much the better. It’s the work I love, not the glory.” That said, she was prepared to forgive and forget.
But Bette flew into Maine on a four-jet broomstick. Though smoking was banned in the wooden lodge where most of the scenes were shot, Davis smoked like a smudge pot. Time and again, when director Lindsay Anderson suggested a gesture or a line reading, she snorted: “That’s nonsense!” And she cut Lillian cold—seldom spoke to her, rarely even looked at her, except as the script required. Lillian was hurt, yet at the same time she was shocked into sympathy. “That face! Have you ever seen such a tragic face? Poor woman! How she must be suffering! I don’t think it’s right to judge a person like that. We must bear and forbear.”
Up to a point. When Bette continued to treat her like a piece of talking furniture, Lillian invented her own subtle version of the silent treatment. Though somewhat hard of hearing, she had no trouble understanding what Ann or Vincent said. But when Bette spoke a line, Lillian would often look puzzled and then gently protest: “I just can’t hear what she’s saying.” Whereupon, while Bette sat seething, Anderson would repeat Bette’s line in a ringing voice, and Lillian would instantly pick up her cue and continue the scene.
Star wars were the last thing Anderson needed. His stars were not exactly in fighting trim. Lillian was the healthiest of the rickety quartet, but by lunch-time she was often alarmingly pale. So Anderson rarely shot more than six hours a day and usually gave the actors a full two-day weekend. Planks were laid so the principals wouldn’t have to stagger through sand, and for one outdoor episode, two crewmen lay down and gripped Gish and Sothern by their wobbly old ankles to keep them from toppling in the breeze.
Luckily, nobody required medical attention, and Bette’s hackles slowly subsided. If there’s one thing she respects, it’s professionalism, and Gish is a pro from tip to toe. After a scene in which the sisters quarreled, Bette took Anderson aside and murmured confidentially: “Lillian was good in that scene.” Later Lillian confessed: “I really enjoyed playing that scene with Bette.” After their last take together, Bette came forward, wincing a little, and there was an incredulous silence on the set as the embattled legends solemnly embraced. With dulcet insincerity, Lillian said, “We must do this again.” And Bette replied: “Mm.”
For Anderson too, the war had a happy ending; in the film the contrast between the leading ladies plays well. Bette crawls across the screen like a testy old hornet on a windowpane: snarling, staggering, twitching—a symphony of misfiring synapses. Lillian’s performance is as clear and simple as a drop of water filled with sunlight. “She’s pure being on the screen,” says producer Kaplan, and Anderson adds: “It’s a character performance, but so subtle you can’t sense she’s acting.” Which is exactly what Lillian intended. “Hmph!” she says. “If you’re caught acting, nobody believes you.”
Gish learned her skills in a hard school. Born in Springfield, Ohio, sometime during the 1890s, she was the daughter of a grocery clerk who drank too much and got the heave-ho from her mother when Lillian was 4. Whereupon Mother, faced with destitution, swallowed her pride and went to work for $15 a week as (oh, the shame of it!) an actress. At 5, Lillian herself was offered $10 a week by a touring troupe, and off she went in the care of “Aunt Alice,” an actress friend of her mother’s. “I lived on $3,” she says proudly, “and sent $7 home to Mother.” Some months later her 3-year-old sister, Dorothy, hit the road as Little Willie in East Lynne.
It was a rough life: constant travel, bad food, run-down boardinghouses, signs that declared “Dogs and Actors Not Welcome,” stage managers who skipped town with the payroll. “Please, God,” Lillian remembers praying one night in a scabby hotel room, “don’t let us wake up in the morning.” She rarely saw the inside of a school. She learned to read by sitting on grown-ups’ laps and following the words with her finger as they read aloud from her favorite book, Black Beauty. But most of the time she and Dorothy were happy enough. “We had each other,” Lillian says in a voice that trembles with emotion, “and we had Mother. And Mother was as near to God as I’ll ever get!” Until the day Mother Gish died in 1948, all three slept whenever possible in the same bed. “I slept in the middle,” Lillian remembers, “because I had nightmares that trees were chasing me.”
The Gish girls got into the movies by accident. When Lillian was 14, they looked up another “theater rat,” Gladys Smith, who had changed her name to Mary Pickford and was working at a Manhattan film studio. There they met an intense young man named D.W. Griffith, who without warning whipped out a pistol and began shooting. Screaming, the girls ran for cover. The young man ran after them, yelling and firing wildly. Then he stopped. “You’ll do,” he said, and offered them roles in his next movie. “And that,” says Lillian, “was how it all began.”
Dorothy, a happy hoyden who liked to sit on men’s hats and stick pins in their pretensions, soon broke away from the grandiose Griffith and became the Carole Lombard of her day, a hot comedienne who at 17 turned down a seven-picture, million-dollar deal. (“A million dollars at my age?” Dorothy said at the time. “Why, it would have ruined me!”) Lillian stayed on and evolved into a creature of spectral loveliness who seemed to do almost nothing yet evoked soul-shaking effects. In Broken Blossoms, playing a girl who goes insane in a closet, she created one of the most terrifying mad scenes in all cinema. And in Way Down East she tore America’s heart out as an unwed mother, cast out by her family, who sits alone in a shabby rented room and silently, tenderly, baptizes her dying baby.
Not that the work was easy. While shooting a scene for Way Down East, Lillian lay on an ice floe in the dead of winter day after day for three full weeks. To intensify the pathos, she let one hand trail in the frigid water—an experience that left her with permanent nerve damage. And then there were those tedious love scenes. “Oh dear,” Lillian would sigh, “I’ve got to go through another day of kissing John Gilbert.” Gilbert, in fact, fell madly in love and begged Lillian to marry him, but she said no—which in fact she said to every man who ever asked her. “Mother and Dorothy,” she says firmly, “were quite enough for me.”
In 1929, Lillian was summarily expelled from Hollywood by the power-mad master of MGM, Louis B. Mayer. When she proudly refused to let him fabricate a scandal about her, he had her blacklisted. “But I fooled him!” Lillian declares with a doughty toss of her head. “I went back to New York and starred in Uncle Vanya, which was a smash hit”—and the beginning of Lillian’s spectacular second career. As hit play followed hit play—among them Within the Gates, Camille, The Star Wagon and a radiant success, when she was 37 (or 40), playing Ophelia to John Gielgud’s Hamlet—she became the darling of the literati. She was wined and dined by the likes of Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, Thornton Wilder and Scott Fitzgerald. And she served as the model for two celebrated literary figures: the heroines of Joseph Hergesheimer’s Cytherea and James Branch Cabell’s Jurgen.
Would-be lovers besieged Gish. Joseph Medill Patterson, the late owner of the New York Daily News, asked for her hand, but she gave him the back of it. “He already had a bastard child by another woman,” she says indignantly. “I couldn’t find happiness with a man like that.” She felt more kindly toward George Jean Nathan, the drama critic, who was her intimate for more than nine years. In one adoring review he said she played “behind a veil of silver chiffon,” and in private he called her “Potato,” but she refused to marry him. In her autobiography, The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me, Gish gave her reason: “He seemed to resent my love for…Mother and Dorothy.” She couldn’t imagine why. When she broke off the affair, Nathan threatened to kill himself. Then he swore, “I’ll ruin you!” But later they became good friends.
In her mid-40s Lillian also resumed her relationship with Hollywood. Over the years she has delivered a dozen powerful supporting performances—most notably as a wife driven to drink by her brutal husband in 1946’s Duel in the Sun, for which she won an Oscar nomination, and as the shotgun-toting eccentric in 1955’s Night of the Hunter. But she got a shock when she saw all the mansions that had been built during her absence on Sunset Boulevard’s Miracle Mile. She had once refused to buy “all that mud” for $300.
“Dear me,” Lillian says almost apologetically, “I seem to be living forever. I’m an antique!” Ah, but she doesn’t look like an antique. Pale, ethereal, exquisite, she looks like somebody’s fairy godmother—or maybe a slightly wilted Botticelli angel. She’s quietly proud that there’s still more gold than gray in her hair and that when she lets it down it falls below her hips. “It’s never been cut, you know.” And she’s proud that she can still read without glasses and get about without a cane and remember—well, almost everything.
“You only get one body to live in,” she cautions, “so you’d better take care of it.” And she does. She falls asleep every night at 10, wakes up at 6, gets up at 8 and makes her bed. After a bran muffin and a cup of coffee—”Coffee,” she says forcefully, “has brought me through life”—she lies down for half an hour on a slantboard “to get the blood into my head.” At 10 the phone calls begin. Helen Hayes rings often and so do old theater friends Armina Marshall, Brooke Astor, Dolly Haas and Al Hirschfeld.
Jim Frasher, 55, Lillian’s devoted assistant for 19 years, arrives around noon to make lunch and tidy up her seven-room Manhattan apartment, a gracious museum of mementos dominated by large portraits of Mother and Dorothy, who died in 1968 at age 70. Lunch cleared away, Lillian and Jim read through her mail—she gets about 300 letters a week, and these days many of them say they hope she wins an Academy Award for Whales. (“It would be nice,” Lillian says. “But people have been so good to me all along. They don’t have to do anything more.”) The mail also brings all sorts of movie and television offers, but she’s in no hurry to accept.
At least once a week she sits for an interview and delivers her opinions in no uncertain terms. Among them:
“I never eat white bread. Not even bugs will eat it. It has no nourishment.”
“I never smoke. Smoking makes your hair smell.”
“In my time, when a man used improper language in front of a lady, another man took him outside and knocked him down.”
“When I was in films, we pretended to kiss but we didn’t. It was considered unsanitary. Now they swallow each others’ tonsils. It’s disgusting.”
When the subject of age is raised, she bridles. “I can’t think why people are so fascinated with my age, when it bores me, I don’t feel I’m old. I just feel I’m me. And I’ve always been a happy person. I love the human race. I love my work. I love the world—I’ve been around it four times, you know. And I’m a believing person. I believe in God, even though I can’t see him. You can’t see the air in this room, right? But take it away and you’re dead. And I believe there’s something for us after we die. The world isn’t wasteful. It keeps going on and I think we do too.”