There is only one “First Lady of American Cinema,” and her name is Lillian Gish.
She made her debut on the stage at the very dawn of the 20th century, in 1902, at her native Ohio’s Little Red School House in Risingsun. The young actress was just nine years old at the time.
In 1912 she made her first appearance on screen in one of D.W. Griffith’s short films, An Unseen Enemy, along with her younger sister, Dorothy. From here on, everything would change–the movie star was born; Gish’s affair with the big screen endured for a lifetime.
Gish starred in a number of Griffith’s movies, including one of the most commercially successful and controversial films of the period, The Birth of a Nation.
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But perhaps the most memorable scenes ever associated with Gish appeared in cinemas in 1920; it was a scene from Way Down East, another of Griffith’s big accomplishments.
The scene in question is a winter scene where Gish is filmed lying down on a slab of ice drifting in a river.
The filming of the scene took extended hours of work and Gish even suffered lasting nerve damage in one of her hands because it needed to be dipped in the ice-cold water all that time. Just how close her relationship was with Griffith is unresolved. While several people working closely with the twosome believed they were a romantic item for a short while, Gish herself never confirmed it.
Gish had a life well-lived, and a life well-played on the big screen until the end.
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She became the oldest actress in American cinema to be offered a leading role when she said yes to co-starring with Bette Davis in Lindsay Anderson’s The Whales of August in 1987. Gish was aged 93, and this would be her last appearance on screen.
During her 75-year career, Gish claimed most of the awards and lifetime acknowledgments an actress can possibly collect.
Her Hollywood Walk of Fame star was added in 1960. A little over a decade later, in 1971, she was given her Honorary Academy Award. A year after that her name forever entered the American Theater Hall of Fame.
The American Film Institute distinguished Gish as the 17th greatest female star of Classic American cinema. That her reach was so great is demonstrated even outside of academia or official prizes. Lillian Gish was acknowledged by the Smashing Pumpkins, who adopted her surname for the title debut album in 1991.