Black Page Lillian Gish: The Silent Angel of Hollywood

In the beginning was chaos. The land still smelled of cows and manure; sin and scandal skinned their first victims. Darkness flapped its black wings over Hollywood, until director DW Griffith thundered: Let there be stars!

And the brightest appeared, the fragile and ethereal girl, the virgin threatened by countless misfortunes, the lily in the middle of the swamp of lust: Lillian Gish, the leading film actress.

For eight decades he lit the screen and with more than 90 years he acted, together with his colleague Bette Davis, in Whales of august ; her in the role of Sarah and Davis as Libby, in a film of sadness and nostalgia.

Gish was the filmmaker’s muse and he made her the heroine par excellence, so much so that her entire life was marked by a debt of gratitude to the director and she titled her memoirs, published in 1969: The movies, Mr. Griffith and I .

The two met in 1912, on the set of The invisible enemy and began a relationship that had its stellar moments with The Birth of a Nation , in 1915, and the spectacular Intolerance , which was the financial ruin of the filmmaker. Gish, in gratitude, supported his old friend, who spent $ 2 million on the film and the film was a flop on the billboard.

Lillian teamed up with Dorothy, her younger sister, and they were so alike that they dressed differently to distinguish them; However, the artistic qualities of the first were superior and she would soon be one of the first divas of silent cinema.

The first relevant role came with Daughter’s heart , but it was with the feature film Judith from Bethulia where she achieved success. He went on to immortality for his role as Hélice, a fragile and honeyed young woman loved by a southern military man in The birth of a nation . From that film Gish will embody the prototype of the superstar.

Between Lillian and Griffith an artistic complicity arose that for many was love, but that both always denied. In fact, she embodied the essential concept of the director’s work, which revolved around the confrontation between good and evil.


She had an angelic face, a fragile body, a naive and pure expression, a candid look, heart-shaped lips and the stoniness of a child. This was how it marked the future of an industry that was in the making, in the first decades of the 20th century.

Gish’s interpretive ability was such that he was capable of making viewers cry, as happened with his character of Mimi in Bohemian life –By King Vidor– in the final scene of his death.

For something, in the encyclopedias dedicated to cinema, at the bottom of his photographs, it reads: “Lillian Gish: she invented acting on the screen.”

Lily of the cinema

Only death made her happy. His career spanned nearly 75 years and he shot at least 100 movies; she even became one of the few actresses with power behind the cameras and above the directors.

The experts disagree on the date in which Gish was born, some say that it was the 14 of October of 1893 and others that in 1896; aside from such Byzantine issues, Lillian Diana de Giche, which was her given name, was the daughter of Mary Robinson McConnell and James Leigh Giss.

James suffered from alcoholism and when she turned six he abandoned the family, which passed those of Judas to survive.

The creature was nothing stupid and along with Dorothy she tried acting and modeling at times. With the help of Gladys Smith, better known as Mary Pickford, she would come to the nascent Hollywood to try her fortune, detailed the Encyclopedia of the Seventh Art .

Pickford introduced him to DW Griffith, who would be his teacher and friend, and by his side he shot 48 films in three years, where he laid the foundations for cinematic storytelling. With it, the filmmaker developed concepts such as the close-up, the short shot, the fused-chained; the flashbacks , camera movements and outdoor lighting.

Griffith said of her: “Not only is she the best in her profession, but she has the sharpest mind of all the women I have ever met.” In the swamp of gossipers that was Hollywood these words were interpreted as a lover’s declaration, but they both maintained a respectful silence.

The actress never married or had children; she had an affair with producer Charles Duell, whom she was about to marry; She dated editor George Jean Nathan and also late actor Robert Harron.

The latter committed suicide frustrated because Griffith hired Richard Barthelmess for the film Way Down East ; In a New York hotel room he shot himself in the heart with a gun he bought from a beggar. He was 27 years old.

Once Gish reached stardom, she became an uncomfortable woman, which is why she preferred to act in low-budget works, in exchange for choosing the scripts and directors.

In 1920 he directed Dorothy in Remodeling her husband , with great success, as he demonstrated mastery of all the tricks learned from Griffith, both technical and human.

But Hollywood was a barren ground for independent women with clear ideas and judgment to flourish. The star factory preferred male-eating vampires, scantily clad and loose-hips.

Thus, in 1926 he signed a contract with MGM that gave him control over production; It did not last long because he retired as soon as the talkies entered, of which he predicted – with very bad aim – that it would not be commercially successful.

Rather, she was one of the first victims of the new technology; the paradigm shift privileged sex symbols and Gish was branded as bland and self-righteous.

Starting in 1926, the press harassed her and through a systematic series of criticisms they managed to overthrow her. Magazine Photoplay criticized his role in The scarlet letter , by Victor Sjostrom, and said: “Lillian Gish wears the red letter of sin with her usual virginal sweetness.”

At age 31, she was relegated to the attic of human props, as asexual, slimy, and out of date.

First lady

Even in her old age Gish was a very beautiful woman, with a spiritual air that gave her an aura of eternity.

Ever since Griffith saw her in the lobby of Biograph Studios, she discovered a pearl, so she went and sold everything she had to have and polish it.

She always referred to him as Mr. Griffith and used to say, “With Mr. Griffith questions were never asked; one was content with answering his ”.

Gish was aware that cinema was a universal language, that by standing in front of the camera it could change the world; “It was this ideal of integrity and commitment that united her with Griffith,” noted the obituary published in The Independent .

At the beginning of the 1920s, she decided to separate from her teacher and signed a succulent contract with the Metro Goldwyn Mayer studios, which made her a multimillionaire.

But talking about films, from 1926 on, he felt very badly and although he made several talking films, he no longer fit the screen. At the age of thirty she was seen as a museum piece and she decided to leave the cinema to return to her first love: the theater.

Annoyed by the mediocre roles that filmmakers cast women, she lacked the embarrassment to criticize them: “Lionel Barrymore acted with me, first as my grandfather, then as my father, and finally as my husband. If he hadn’t died, I’m sure he would have had to act like his mother. That’s the way it is in Hollywood: men rejuvenate, women age. “

In this sense, Kevin Brownlow, a journalist from The Independent , said that Robert Mitchum did not want to share roles with her in the film Hunter’s night –From 1955–, because he considered it a porcelain figurine. To convince him of his mistake, director Charles Laughton sat him down to watch her at Wind , and Mitchum realized that Gish would outshine him with his temper, his genius and his legendary wisdom, to outshine whoever he wanted.

Lillian returned to her artistic old ways in 1978 with A wedding day by Robert Altman, where she portrayed a millionaire, dying old lady confined to bed. She still had the look that captivated Griffith, she still had her porcelain skin and long hair.

The cinema is afraid of the elderly.

When actresses become mothers or grandmothers and have to stretch their skin with countless operations, it relegates them to the attic and the oblivion of encyclopedias.

Hollywood made Lillian a living relic; he forcibly retired her, but she resisted dying in 1970, when she was awarded an Oscar for her venerable career. In 1987 the Academy preferred to recognize Cher – the goddess of pop – as the best actress, for the tear Moon spell , and rejected Gish in Whales of August , who at nine decades was still wasting talent with his face studded with wrinkles.

The hand that rocked the cradle in Intolerance she said goodbye placidly on February 27, 1993. Lillian Gish survived and was reborn many times; she overcame sound, color, unscrupulous and talented actors, and a film industry she founded and displayed as a living relic.

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Black Page Lillian Gish: The Silent Angel of Hollywood

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