LILLIAN GISH: HER LEGEND, HER LIFE (BOOK REVIEW) Send This Review to a Friend
There is one key figure in the history of American movies whose career virtually spanned the first century of the art form. She is the late actress Lillian Gish, about whom much has been written and who carefully tended to her own image as an icon from whom film history could not be separated. Charles Affron's definitive new biography, "Lillian Gish: Her Legend, Her Life" (Scribner, 448 Pages, $35) is a fascinating, informative and revealing read. The writer, a movie buff and author of several books on film as well as a professor of French at New York University, puts a premium on thorough research, and of equal importance, he has an inquisitive mind that does not easily succumb to myth. He does his best to show the various sides of the venerable lady who began acting on stage as a youngster, moved into film with periodic return to the stage and worked for most of her 99 years.
As Affron sees it, her commitment to keeping the memory of director David Wark Griffith alive was partly about assuring her own place in history. He pays attention to the various ways in which she worked on perpetuating her reputation. But he also fairly recounts evidence of her talent, her screen magnetism, her very real contributions, and the incredible energy with which she continued acting long after other stars of the silent era had faded into oblivion. Gish, who died in 1993, made her last film appearance in director Lindsay Anderson's "The Whales of August" In 1987. What a career!
Despite his access to many key papers, Affron still can't pin down answers to some of the enigma about her personal relationships. Whether she had anything other than a close professional and friendly attachment and to Griffith, whose films first brought her fame, is unknown. On the other hand, he does deal interestingly with her long involvement with critic George Jean Nathan. Affron's book is also a valuable contribution to knowledge of Gish's business dealings and conflicts, and as any good biography should, it illuminates much about the period in which she flourished, and sometimes floundered. With her span of a century, that means we learn a good deal about behind-the-scenes machinations in film and theater, as well as about important productions and the careers and lives of numerous stars, including her beloved sister Dorothy Gish.
Affron does not flinch from exploring an unappetizing side of her life--her sympathy for the America First Committee, a right-wing isolationist movement in the years before World War II. Those were days in which America First extremists spouted anti-Semitism and support for Germany, but Affron also points out Gish's hatred for war and one senses some political innocence on her part. What is commendable is that Affron pays considerable attention to documenting and explaining her rightist activities, not the most edifying part of her history, without recklessly tarring her with guilt by association and separating her from aspects that were decent in her attitudes and actions. In short, he is a biographer looking both for facts and balance.
This is a book that anyone interested in the sweeping 20th century history of cinema should find extremely worthwhile. Gish stands unique in the pantheon of film stars, and her life goes so much beyond that. I had the pleasure of meeting her on a few occasions, and was impressed by her beauty even in advanced age, and also by her professionalism. Once, as then chairman of the New York Film Critics, I had to enlist her to present an award at a ceremony. We wanted to arrange a special screening for her to see the movie with the performance she would be honoring. "Oh, no, she said. "There's no need. It is playing around the corner. I'll just go on my own." Gish was a trooper. That, and so much more comes through in this major work by Affron.