Lillian Gish is Cooler Than You Think
Lillian Gish isn’t perceived as cool. She probably never was. Not a free-spirit like Louise Brooks, certainly never the “It” girl like Clara Bow and lacking the obvious glamour of Gloria Swanson, her life was never lived as a fabulous spectacle for public consumption. Gish, nonetheless, had staying power. There wasn’t anything particularly stylish about her then or now and I suspect there are personal reasons I feel an affinity for her and see an edge where others might not seeing anything beyond that expressive, ethereal face.
From an early age it was clear to me I was never going to be singled out for my “coolness” either. That is unless freckles and buck teeth would have been a “thing” in the 1970’s. But there’s power in understanding that about yourself early, I think. It allows you to get on with the business of being yourself. It allows you to love things like poetry and show tunes openly, bring mayonnaise on saltine crackers in your school lunch and to wear clothes that others may consider “risky” and not in an ironic or good way. It’s never really bothered me much that I wasn’t cool. It didn’t prevent me from making friends or from learning new things. Instead of this knowledge making me feel overly self-conscious, it often made me feel liberated.
Watching Lillian Gish in her silent era films, one would not consider her liberated at all. In just about every one of these she plays a tragic heroine in one form or another— from her first film, directed by D.W. Griffith, called An Unseen Enemy, in which she and her sister, Dorothy, play victims almost comically trapped in a room by thieves— to her last, Victor Seastrom’s, The Wind, in which Gish plays a woman whose fate, at least up until the end, is guided by the decisions of those around her. With the exception of her later years, she mostly played the role of a delicate women (being physically delicate herself), with doll-like features whose virtue was often at risk or was taken deceptively by a man. She was so often abused in films, that a movie magazine writer of the time suggested a “Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Lillian Gish” should be organized.
Still, despite her frailty, there was an odd strength to her characters— an ability to struggle on despite the hardships, the pain or tragic losses, even if it meant only struggling towards death. Sentimentality abounds in the work, but where some may see many of these films as only antiquated melodramas, I see films whose stories are grounded in a particular time and place and whose interpretations also reveal something about their own time and place. What is depicted is, at intervals, uncomfortable to watch. Moments of racial and gender stereotyping that reveal at once how much progress has been made and how very little progress has been made.
But to think of Lillian Gish as someone who was merely anachronistic in her thinking and living does a disservice to a woman who was more complex than that and who lived life on her own terms— at least to the extent a working film actress of the time could. And while her biography is not without its own difficulties for me— her politics and mine are worlds apart, her unequivocal defense of D.W. Griffith despite his shortcomings— there are things I find to admire about Lillian Gish even today:
1. She was aware of her talent and the limitation of that talent as evidenced by these quotes:
I’m as funny as a barrel of dead babies. (When asked why she didn’t do comedies…)
Fans always write asking why I didn’t smile more in films. I smiled in ‘Annie Laurie’, but I can’t recall that it helped much.
Those little virgins, after five minutes you got sick of playing them— to make them more interesting was hard work.
2. She had relationships with men, but never married, never had children. She chose a career over family at a time when it was unconventional to do so. It wasn’t without difficulty— even now there are those who look at this decision as suspect despite her many achievements.
3. She understood the challenges and unfairness women faced in Hollywood as they aged when she wryly noted decades and decades before Amy Schumer’s wonderful clip— “Last F**kable Day”: You know, when I first went into the movies Lionel Barrymore played my grandfather. Later he played my father and finally he played my husband. If he had lived I’m sure I would have played his mother. That’s the way it is in Hollywood. The men get younger and the women get older.
4. She said other lovely things about life and curiosity and learning and believing. You can look them up. But here’s one of the quotes I will always love best, perhaps because it shows a level of self-knowledge that most celebrities are not capable of: I’ve never been in style, so I can’t go out of style.
Lillian Gish remarking on her lack of coolness in this way, makes her seem even more so to me. But then again, what could I possibly know about that.