Lillian Gish: The First Lady of American Cinema

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Credit: Los Angeles Times

Lillian Gish was one of the most influential and famous actors in Hollywood’s history. Her first film was in 1912 and a career spanning seventy-five years followed. Gish’s partnership with pioneering director D. W. Griffith is regarded as one of the greatest collaborative relationships of all time. Some of their films include Way Down East (1920), Intolerance (1916), Broken Blossoms (1919) and the controversial, and highest grossing film of the silent era, The Birth of a Nation (1915). Not only having a successful acting career, Gish was also a writer, director and producer. She received an honorary Academy Award in 1971. As the years passed, the media dubbed Gish “The First Lady of American Cinema.”

Lillian Diana Gish was born on the 14th of October, 1893, in Springfield, Ohio. Her father left when she was young. Running low on money and with nowhere else to turn, Gish’s mother, Mary, and her daughters joined a group of traveling actors. Gish and her sister, Dorothy, made their stage debuts in 1902. They proved to be extremely popular in melodramas, making $10 a week for their efforts. (No figures in this article have been adjusted for inflation.) The three women travelled all over America, taking any roles they could and saving every cent possible. It was during this period Gish met future silent screen legend Mary Pickford and the two became lifelong friends.

In 1912, Gish and Dorothy appeared before a camera for the first time in An Unseen Enemy. Pickford had previously introduced Griffith to the sisters and he decided to give them a go. On set, Griffith thought the two women were twins and found it hard to distinguish them apart at a distance. He gave them different coloured hair ribbons; blue for Gish and red for Dorothy. Griffith very much enjoyed working with the two, especially Gish. He cast them often in his one- and two-reel shorts. Gish appeared in near forty silent shorts between 1912 and 1914. She received universal acclaim for her performance as The Young Wife in The Mothering Heart (1913).

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Dorothy and Gish in An Unseen Enemy (1912) Credit: Movies Silently

As silent films became more sophisticated and had longer run times, Gish starred in many of Griffith’s signature feature films. In 1915, she was cast as Elise Stoneman in The Birth of a Nation. The film was a critical success, but drew a lot of controversy for its negative depictions of African-Americans. It had white people dressed up in blackface. Gish stayed clear from commenting on the issues, but always defended that it was never Griffith’s intention to be racist.

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Dorothy, Griffith and Gish Credit: Library of Congress

In the climax of Way Down East, Gish, Griffith and the film crew shot on a real frozen river during a blizzard. Gish had to dangle her hand and hair in freezing cold water for hours at a time. She never once complained and crew members noticed how dedicated to the role she was. Though the scene is now regarded as one of the greatest in Hollywood’s history, Gish would experience health concerns for the rest of her life. She lost partial feeling in her hand. Gish’s last film with Griffith was Orphans of the Storm in 1922.

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Gish on the ice in Way Down East (1920) Credit: Pinterest

Gish directed her first and only movie in 1920. The film, Remodelling Her Husband, starred her sister Dorothy. With no known footage existing today, it is now considered a lost film. Around this period, Gish supervised the construction of a new film studio for Griffith too.

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Photoplay Magazine (December, 1921) Credit: Famous Fix

In 1924, Gish signed a $800,000 picture deal with MGM. This made her one of the highest paid and sought after actors in Hollywood at the time. Under MGM, Gish appeared in classics such as The Scarlet Letter (1926) and The Wind (1928). She made her “talkie” film debut in One Romantic Night in 1930.

By the early 1930s, Gish and MGM’s relationship had broken down and they parted ways. She returned to the theatre and focused her attention there. Gish also had her radio debut in the early 1930s. She scarcely acted in films during this period. In 1948, Gish appeared on television for the first time. She was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance in Duel in the Sun (1946). Gish also received critical praise for The Night of the Hunter (1955).

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Gish accepting her Oscar in 1971
Credit: University of California

Gish was active in films throughout the 1960s to 1980s. She received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on February 8, 1960. As part of the pre-production for the western The Unforgiven (1960), director John Huston and star Bert Lancaster intended to teach Gish how to shoot. They were shocked to discover she already knew and was quicker and more accurate than them both.

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Gish and Davis in The Whales of August (1987)
Credit: IMDb

In 1987, Gish starred along side Bette Davis in The Whales of August. At 93-years-old, this made Gish the oldest actress ever to star in a leading role. She passed away peacefully in her sleep on February 27, 1993. Every year on Gish’s birthday, the Museum of Modern Art, in New York, show at least one of her films as a tribute.

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Credit: IMDb

This article was originally posted on The Sydney Feminists Blogspot on December 6th, 2017. (http://thesydneyfeminists.blogspot.com.au)

Sources:

50 Facts About Lillian Gish – The First Lady of American Cinema (http://www.boomsbeat.com/articles/105983/20160119/50-facts-lillian-gish-first-lady-american-cinema.htm)

Charles Affron – Lillian Gish: Her Legend, Her Life (Book)

Lillian Gish, 99, a Movie Star Since Movies Began, is Dead (http://www.nytimes.com/1993/03/01/movies/lillian-gish-99-a-movie-star-since-movies-began-is-dead.html?pagewanted=all)

Lillian Gish – Encyclopaedia Britannica (https://www.britannica.com/biography/Lillian-Gish)

Lillian Gish – IMDb (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001273/)

Lillian Gish: The Actor’s Life for Me (http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/lillian-gish-about-lillian-gish/614/)

Lillian Gish – Women Film Pioneers Project (https://wfpp.cdrs.columbia.edu/pioneer/ccp-lillian-gish/)

The Official Website of Lillian Gish (https://www.lilliangish.com/)

Stella Adler on Method Acting

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Credit: The Famous People

A big influence on the modern Hollywood acting style comes from Stella Adler. She had done away with the earlier big gestures used in silent film acting, such as an actor placing both hands on their heart to indicate sorrow. She bridged the gap between early twentieth-century Russian theatre and what was becoming popular in film at the time. Adler drew from the imagination rather than personal experience. She had a name in American theatre, appeared in a handful of films and has taught some of the greatest actors of all time. She was known for her harsh, but fair analysis of student’s skills. Some included Marlon Brando and James Dean. Even after her passing, the likes of Mark Ruffalo and Angelina Jolie have studied at her acting schools.

Stella Adler was born on the 10th of February, 1901. Her father, Jacob P. Adler, was a famous actor on the Yiddish Theatre circuit. She was only four-years-old when he had her star in one of his productions, Broken Hearts. Adler had no formal acting training, but instead learnt from her father and by watching others. By her late-teens, she had been in over one hundred plays either in the Yiddish Theatre or as part of a vaudeville act. Adler’s performances took her all over the United States, Europe and South America.

In 1931, she was invited to join the Group Theatre in New York City. Adler accepted the offer but never felt fully welcome. Many agree this is where she achieved her best work as Sarah Grassman in Success Story, Adah Menken in Gold Eagle Guy, Bessie Berger in Awake and Sing and Clara in Paradise Lost. The Group Theatre was formed by Harold Clurman, Cheryl Crawford and Lee Strasberg; themselves experimental actors focusing on cutting edge techniques and deeply influenced by Russian theorist Konstantin Stanislavski. Adler and Strasberg frequently clashed over the interpretation of Stanislavski’s work.

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Credit: Stella Adler: A Life in Art

Having a break, Adler headed to Europe in 1934. On a chance encounter in Paris, she met Stanislavski and was not only able to speak with him, but was instructed and taught by him for the next five weeks. Stanislavski was born in Moscow in 1863, was an actor himself and brought new psychological and emotional aspects to the craft. His theories were big in the United States in the 1930s. Adler was the first and only American to study directly under him. Returning home with new insight, Adler and Strasberg still couldn’t find a common ground so she decided to leave the Group Theatre.

In 1937, Adler gave Hollywood a shot. She appeared in three films: Love on Toast (1937), Shadow of the Thin Man (1941) and My Girl Tisa (1948). Adler spent six years as an associate producer at MGM. She taught acting at the New School for Social Research around this time. Adler also directed commercial theatre in the 1940s and 1950s.

The Stella Adler School of Acting first opened its doors in New York in 1949. She could finally teach acting her own way. Where Lee Strasberg highlighted an actor’s need to draw upon personal experience to envision a character, Adler focused and honed the imagination. She was against the idea of using past traumas as a way to achieve an emotion, especially a negative one. In her own words: “drawing on emotions I experienced – for example, when my mother died – to create a role is sick and schizophrenic, I don’t want to do that.” Adler instead focused on spiritual realism, emotional memory, dramatic and self-analysis, and disciplined practise. Adler received critical acclaim for her work with Marlon Brando and his performance in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). He was nominated for Best Actor at the 1952 Academy Awards.

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Credit: Los Angeles Times

Today, Adler’s school is known as the Stella Adler Studio of Acting. It is a not-for-profit organisation; an LA branch opened in 1984. Both run weekly acting classes. Some actors to come through Adler’s schools include Robert De Niro, Paul Newman, Marilyn Monroe, Al Pacino, Alec Baldwin, Dustin Hoffman, Salma Hayek, Steve Buscemi and Scarlett Johansson.

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Credit: John Kehoe Bookseller

Adler officially retired from acting in 1961. In the later part of the decade, Adler juggled her time between her acting school and teaching at Yale University’s School of Drama. She was head of drama at New York University in the 1980s. Adler released a book in 1988, The Technique of Acting. The book is still widely taught and referenced. She continued to teach until her death from a heart attack on December 21, 1992.

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Credit: Pinterest

This article was originally posted on The Sydney Feminists Blogspot on November 21st, 2017. (http://thesydneyfeminists.blogspot.com.au)

Sources:

8 Acting Techniques (and the Stars Who Swear by Them) (https://www.backstage.com/advice-for-actors/resources/8-acting-techniques-and-stars-who-swear-them/)

Encyclopaedia Britannica – Stella Adler (https://www.britannica.com/biography/Stella-Adler)

PBS – American Masters (http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/stella-adler-about-stella-adler/526/)

Stella Adler Biography (https://www.thefamouspeople.com/profiles/stella-adler-5150.php)

Stella Adler – IMDb (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0012245/bio)

Stella Adler Los Angeles (http://www.stellaadler.la/)

Stella Adler Studio of Acting (http://www.stellaadler.com/)