The Kennedy Center

Lillian Gish


Lillian Gish
(actress; born October 14, 1893, Springfield, Ohio; died February 27, 1993)
America fell in love with Lillian Gish before it had ever heard her voice. That was back in the days when silent films were the most talked about entertainment medium, and the epic motion picture, Birth of a Nation, had just ushered its star, Gish, pioneer director D.W. Griffith, and silent films into the era of their apex.

Gish was born in Springfield, Ohio and made her acting debut as a child in a play called, In Convict's Stripes. Her sister, Dorothy, also joined the acting profession, and their mother took the two touring across the country in broken down trains and living in boarding houses.

After dancing in one of Sarah Bernhardt's New York stage productions, in 1912, the Gish sisters visited a former child player who they had known as Gladys Smith. By this time, though, she had been renamed Mary Pickford, and her director, D.W. Griffith, was looking for two young girls to play sisters in a melodrama he was filming called, An Unseen Enemy. Griffith, impressed with the Gish sisters' "ethereal beauty," asked the two if they could act, and, consequently signed them on.

Gish starred in four more Griffith silents after Birth of a Nation brought her national fame. Leading the way in transforming movies into art were Broken Blossoms, Hearts of the World, Way Down East, and . Griffith, who Gish considered the greatest director who ever lived, taught her how to edit films, select the best takes, and operate a camera. She even directed Dorothy in a film, Remodeling Her Husband.

When sound made its way into the movies, "the first lady of the silent screen," as she became known later, brilliantly made the transition. She starred in One Romantic Night, Commandoes Strike at Dawn, A Portrait of Jenny, and The Wedding, among others. She also returned to theater on Broadway and in Chicago.

In 1970, Gish received a special Academy Award for her "superlative artistry and for distinguished contribution to the progress of motion pictures." Gish kept herself busy in later years with television appearances, writing two autobiographies, and acting on stage now and again.

Lillian Gish died at the age of 99, after a 75 year-long career that included appearances in more than 100 films. Her last film was The Whales of August, costarring Bette Davis.
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