Lillian Gish Overview:

Legendary actress, Lillian Gish, was born Lillian Diana Gish on Oct 14, 1893 in Springfield, OH. Gish died at the age of 99 on Feb 27, 1993 in New York City, NY and was laid to rest in Saint Bartholomew's Episcopal Church Cemetery in Manhattan, NY.

Early Life

Lillian Diana Gish was born October 14th 1893 in Springfield, Ohio. Her father was alcoholic traveling salesman who abandoned his family, while Lillian was still a baby. Lillian's mother, Mary, then took to acting to support Lillian and her sister Dorothy. Thanks to their mother chosen profession, both sisters soon took an interest in acting. While still just a child, Gish made her stage beauty in the 1902 play In Convict Stripes. The family eventually relocated to East St. Louis, Illinois to live with Mary's brother and sister. The two Gish daughters attended St. Henry's School, furthering their interest in performance, acting in staged school productions. In her teen years, Gish got word that her father was ill and traveled to Oklahoma to see him. She stayed with her aunt and uncle, and only returned to her mother after her father's death in 1912. Upon her return, the family relocated to New York City.

Early Career and Griffith

After Gish and her family moved to east coast they made fast friends with her next-door neighbor, Mary Pickford. The three became close quickly and soon began acting together on stage. Pickford then introduced the sisters to up and coming film director D.W Griffith. The talented young artist was impressed by their ethereal, fragile beauty and signed the sisters to a long-term contract. The two made their film debut in Griffiths An Unseen Enemy. They worked tirelessly the next year, appearing together and separately in a succession of shorts and two-reelers. In 1912, she starred in The Musketeers of Pig Alley, an early Griffith film that featured Gish as the pious wife of musician who is robbed by NYC gangster. Griffith championed the older Gish sister, using her in over 20 of his shorts film between 1912 and 1915. More than her delicate beauty, Griffith also noticed the subtly and nuance she put into her performances. Gish deliberately moved away from the theatrics of the stage, understanding that camera would pick up detect her smallest of movements, creating a depth of intimacy much different than that of the stage. The young actress soon became more popular than Griffith and is often credited with being the first movie star, becoming known as "The First Lady of Hollywood." The two formed one of Hollywood first and greatest collaborative teams. The two shared a deep appreciation for the arts and saw the artistic potential of this young new medium of film.  Together, the two helped usher in new artistic yet more commercially viable film-era that would set the course for the rest of Hollywood.

Feature Films

In 1915 Gish starred in now infamous Griffith masterpiece Birth of a Nation. The film, which tells the story of family divided by the Civil War, was as technically marvelous as it was ethically revolting. The three-hour epic is considered the to be birth of the feature film and set the standards of Hollywood filmmaking from that point forward. Filmic techniques such as parallel editing, the close up, montage editing, and camera movement all came together to create a visual and story telling triumph for the ages. However, the films content, sympathetic to the KKK and the racist south, was a repugnant display of hate and ignorance, left much to be desired. Still, even with the controversy surrounding the film, Gish's performance remains one of silent films greatest display of emotion on the silent screen. Griffith again cast Gish in his next big budget, sprawling epic, 1916's Intolerance after starring in another series of shorts. In 1919 she starred opposite Richard Barthelemess in D.W Griffiths Broken Blossom. In the film Gish plays her signature role, a frail beauty, who then sparks a doomed friendship with a sensitive Chinese immigrant. The film is remembered as one of Gish's finest silent performances. She continued to work with Griffith into the 1920's, her most film notable being Way Down East. That year she also directed her first and only film, Remodeling Her Husband, preferring to stay behind the camera instead. By this time, Gish had become a huge star in her own right and began to take control of her career. Her final film with Griffith was 1921's Orphans of the Storm.


Gish starred in a couple smaller studio features before sighing a $800,000 contract with MGM studios in 1925. Hoping to capitalize on her massive popularity, MGM cast her in lavish literary adaptations. In 1926 she starred as Hester Prynne in the film adaption of the Scarlett Letter. Despite the films impressive marketing strategy, the film was a failure at the box office. In 1927, she starred in two forgettable films, Annie Laurie and The Enemy. The next year she starred in The Wind as Letty. In the film Gish plays a young woman brutalized by her distant relatives with whom she was forced to take refuge. Although now consider one of her greatest roles, the film was failure at during the time of its release. Soon after she was released from her contract at MGM.

Return to Stage and Supporting Roles

By the end of the decade, Gish's virginal image of purity was in contrast to what is now called the"Jazz Age" sensibilities. She remained the frail damsel in distress, while audiences' tastes were changing the more independent and saucy flapper exemplified by Clara Bow and Joan Crawford. She remained in Hollywood long enough to complete her first talkie, One Romantic Night, before deciding to return to Broadway. She played a wide range of role upon her return to the stage. In 1934/35 she stared in the Phillip Barry penned comedy of manners The Joyous Season. The next year she portrayed Ophelia in Shakespeare most famous tragedy Hamlet along side John Gielgud and Judith Anderson.  After nearly a decade away from the screen she retuned in a supporting role in 1942's Commandos strike at Down. She continued to play supporting characters in films such as 1943's Top Man and 1946's Miss Susie Slagle's. Gish received a Best Supporting Actress Academy nomination for her role as Laura Belle in King Vidor's Duel in the Sun.

Throughout the 1940/50's, Gish continued to split her time between the stage, the screen, and soon, television. In 1947 She starred with famed acting professor Sanford Meinser in the stage production of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. The next year she was cast along side Jennifer Jones, Joseph Cotton and Ethel Barrymore in The Portrait of Jennie. She made her first of many teleplay appearances in Philip Televisions Playhouses presentation of The Late Christopher Bean. She would make regular appearances on TV for the next three decades, her most famous being her role as Carrie Watt's in 1953's The Beautiful Trip. In 1955 Gish appeared as the god-living, gun-touting grandmother figure in the Charles Laughton helmed Night of the Hunter. In the film Robert Mitchum plays murderer in priests clothing terrorizes the live of his rich wife's children. In 1958, Gish made her stage directorial debut with The Beggars Opera.

Later Career and life

In 1960 She played grandmother Zachary in John Huston's Unforgiven starring Burt Lancaster and Audrey Hepburn. That same year she also speared in the hit Broadway play All the way Home. She remained active throughout the 1960/70's, appearing in shows such as The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and Television renditions of Arsenic and Old Lace. In 1971 Gish was presented with a Special Academy Award for  "For superlative artistry and for distinguished contribution to the progress of motion pictures." She also remained active on the stage, starring in the Albert Marre directed Too Good to Be True in 1963 and as Maryina in 1973's Uncle Vanya.

In 1983, Gish starred in the Disney financed Hambone and Hill as Hill, an old woman trying to reunite with her dog. She appeared along side Alan Alda, Michael Caine, and Michelle Pfiffer in 1986's Sweet Liberty. The next year, Gish would make her last screen appearance in starring opposite fellow legend Bette Davis in Whales of August. In 1988, Gish made her final performance in a small cameo on stage in Showboat. Two years later, Lillian Gish passed away peacefully in her sleep in her New York apartment. She was 99 years old.

(Source: article by Minoo Allen for Classic Movie Hub).



Although Gish was nominated for one Oscar, she never won a competitive Academy Award. However she won one Honorary Oscar Award in 1970 for superlative artistry and for distinguished contribution to the progress of motion pictures .

Academy Awards

YearAwardFilm nameRoleResult
1946Best Supporting ActressDuel in the Sun (1946)Belle McCanlesNominated

Academy Awards (Honorary Oscars)

1970Honorary Awardfor superlative artistry and for distinguished contribution to the progress of motion pictures


She was honored with one star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in the category of Motion Pictures.

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Lillian Gish Quotes:

Rachel Cooper: I'm a strong tree with branches for many birds. I'm good for something in this world and I know it too.

Rachel Cooper: [to Ruby, sobbing in her lap] Child... You were looking for love, Ruby, in the only foolish way you knew how.

Elsie Stoneman: [Ben is to be hanged. Elsie has an idea] We will ask mercy from the Great Heart.

read more quotes from Lillian Gish...

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Lillian Gish Facts
She was filmed for a scene in Woody Allen's film, "Zelig" (1983). She scolded legendary director of photography, Gordon Willis on his lighting set-up and, while the crew watched aghast, gave Willis step by step instructions on how to re-light the scene. Willis complied. The scene did not make it into the final version of the film.

In 1970 she wrote to congratulate California's First Lady Nancy Davis after the Governor's wife likened anti-war protesters to Nazis in an interview. "Every time you and Ronnie open your mouths you echo my thoughts," Gish wrote.

At her 1984 AFI Life Achievment Award ceremony, John Houseman claimed that Gish and her sister Dorothy were offered the chance to buy the Sunset strip for $300. After considering the offer, they decided to spend the money for two dresses at the fashionable Bullock's instead.

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