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Legacy: Lillian Gish

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Legacy: Lillian Gish

If you never saw Lillian Gish in a movie — even if she was no more to you than a face in an old-timey photo in last week’s papers — there are three reasons why this actress, who died Feb. 27 at the age of 99, matters to this day.

First, she laid down the ground rules for movie acting. ”With her death,” Katharine Hepburn told Entertainment Weekly, ”all the things that made me think, ‘Oh, I want to be an actor,’ disappeared.” The truth is, there isn’t an actress working today who doesn’t owe the way she presents herself to a motion-picture camera directly to Lillian Gish. Director D.W. Griffith may have developed the close-up, but it was Gish who figured out what to do with it, bringing a naturalism to screen behavior that stood in subtle contrast to the vampy histrionics of Theda Bara or the stagy simpering of Mary Pickford. Because of that, Gish’s performances hold up even when the films have become dated: Griffith’s groundbreaking Birth of a Nation today plays as rose-colored racism, but Gish, as Elsie Stoneman, still shines clear and true.

Second, she always knew exactly who she was. The heroines Gish portrayed — especially for Griffith, her discoverer and mentor — were fluttery, waiflike creatures assaulted by cruelties straight out of Dickens. However, the actress herself was sensible, gracious, and, according to screenwriter Frances Marion (The Champ), ”as fragile as a steel rod.” After her pure-hearted persona fell out of synch with the party-hearty 1920s, Gish blithely absented herself to the New York stage and occasional character parts in movies. She never married, and that too dovetailed with the schoolmarmish image. But even in latter-day fluff such as 1984’s Hambone and Hillie — in which she plays an old lady searching for her lost dog — there is the balanced, compassionate grace of that rare person fully at ease with life. ”I’ve never been in style,” Gish once said, with her usual serene clarity, ”so I can’t go out of style.”

And finally, with her death, the early days of film become mere history. Lillian Gish was present at the birth, and as long as she was alive and kicking, the movies remained our most modern art, a medium completely in the present. Now the cord has been snapped, and part of our culture has slipped inescapably into the past. You can watch the movies and read all the histories you want, but there is no one to tell us what it was like anymore.

Five enduring Gish performances, all available on video:

*BROKEN BLOSSOMS (1919) If Griffith’s melodrama seems like dated hokum, then how come Gish is frighteningly real as a battered tenement girl in love with a Chinese shopkeeper? B+

*WAY DOWN EAST (1920) A classic country-girl-goes-astray weeper (again from Griffith), with an ice-floe finale that can make even jaded modern viewers gnaw their nails. Years later, co-star Richard Barthelmess said to Gish, ”There isn’t enough money in the world to pay me to do that today,” to which she replied, ”But we weren’t doing it for money.” A-

*THE WIND (1928) A box office disappointment, this Victor Seastrom epic now looks like Gish’s finest moment. She’s a dust-bowl wife crumbling under pressures both domestic and natural. A+

*THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955) She was the epitome of goodness — with great aim — battling psychotic preacher Robert Mitchum in director Charles Laughton’s dreamlike cult classic. A

*THE WHALES OF AUGUST (1987) Bette Davis was 15 years Gish’s junior — yet the older actress seems the younger in this wistful valedictory to a number of Hollywood generations. B

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