Don’t believe everything you read in the press. Contrary to published reports, legendary silent film actor Lillian Gish is not dead – she’s alive and well and totally winning at Twitter. Using the handle @MsLillianGish, the star of Broken Blossoms and The Birth of a Nation drops wisdom on the internet from a great height every day. Check out her Twitter biography, which is typically witty, informative and self-effacing: “I am the greatest actress of all time. If I had been a scientologist, you all would be one today. Yeah, I rocked it like that.”
Not content with enjoying Ms Gish’s wise words 140 characters at a time, I asked the star if she would be happy to answer a few questions for the benefit of the Silent London readers. To my great delight, she accepted. Unfortunately the time difference did not allow us to conduct the interview live, but I posted some questions to Ms Gish, and with her help of her loyal secretary she was able to answer them. Her responses are illuminating, I think you’ll agree. Here is the transcript of my interview with Lillian Gish …
Hello Silent London, this is an absolute joy. You know I don’t give interviews often. In fact, this may be my first in over 20 years. But I adore your website and the work you do to promote the great films of our past. I’m not promoting any films at the moment, so all topics are welcome. Though I would prefer not to dwell on Charles Duell. You must understand. I typically answer questions by batting my eyes, wringing my hands, or gazing into the distance. However, for this interview, I’m sad to say your readers will have to make do with mere words. Let’s get started!
1. What is the secret of your success?
It’s no secret. I published it in a 1928 article in Photoplay Magazine, The Secret of My Success. Part of it certainly has to do with timing. It’s a blessing when you’re in the right place at the right time. I’d encourage anyone that is interested in enduring fame to get involved in the cinema as early as possible, preferably in the 1910s. But it’s more than that. It takes hard work. Harold Lloyd blew off part of his hand. Tallulah Bankhead got chlamydia. I suffered near hypothermia on an ice floe. And I can’t even tell you what Roscoe Arbuckle did. But the point is that we worked. Hard. Being a legend isn’t easy. It’s a 24-hour-a-day job. I’m a legend when I appear on the red carpet or at a charity event. But I’m equally legendary when I crawl out of bed at two in the morning to use the restroom. I have no downtime. But I’m comfortable with that. When someone asks, how can I be like you Lillian? I typically just laugh and call security. But if I had to quantify it, I’d say it’s 50% timing, 90% hard work, and 60% angelic good looks. And 0% mathematics.
2. You have truly timeless style and allure. I’m sure many of the readers of Silent London would love to know your fashion and beauty tips.
For the busy girl, I found that mixing a beauty regime with your ongoing film career to be the best approach. I suggest you sign on for only films with the finest makeup artists and designers. I don’t understand it when stars insist on downplaying their looks. I told Charlize Theron she should have gussied up a bit when she played that killer in Monster. Sure, she won an Academy Award looking like a wreck. But just imagine the reception she would have received for that role had she simply brushed her hair a little and added a little eyeliner. For myself, I recommend a good lead-based powder and a good pink lipstick. Ask for the one with mercuric sulfide! It tingles, but eventually your lips go numb. That way you know it’s working. For skin treatment I recommend exfoliation. I signed on to The Wind, in part, because of Victor Sjostrom and a chance to work with Lars Hanson. But I also found that sand blasting oneself with the force of eight aircraft propellers brought out my youthful inner glow. I highly recommend it.
Exercise and eating well is also important. Again, working this into your daily activities is key. For example, I found that one can burn upward of 1,000 calories frantically pacing about in a small closet. Fretting was the Zumba of the 1910s. I watch what I eat. Unlike Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, I don’t chew up scenery. I simply nibble in a subtle yet touching way. It also helps that I haven’t had a carbohydrate since 1993. Gin is also a good preservative. It keeps one young. In modest amounts, of course. We’re not all Louise Brooks.
3. The size zero debate continues to rage. Can the waif look ever be womanly?
Absolutely. Roads and women are alike in this regard: having too many curves can be dangerous. Had Carol Dempster had less curve appeal, she could have focused more on her work. That would have saved a lot of wasted time and doctor visits. With that said, I believe that a waif of a woman may be improved upon by the simplest application of undergarments. Without overdoing it, I would recommend bloomers, stockings, a corset with boning for support, a corset cover with button front, closed drawers, followed by a petticoat and then a second petticoat for fullness, a skirt (showing ankle if you’re feeling adventurous), and finally a shirtwaist with a standup collar. This makes a lovely light summer outfit. But be careful, while the filling out of a waif may be helpful, one mustn’t be Marie Dressler.
4. How is Dorothy?
Wonderful as always. It’s not easy being the little sister of an icon. I understand that, but she manages it well. I tell her being the “funny one” has its advantages. It’s not expected that she shower as often as I do. I let her use my Twitter account for her most recent birthday and I picked up a few odd followers from that fiasco. Though I believe she may have simply used it to market her Kickstarter campaign to finance a Kardashian-style reality show called Getting with the Gishes. Not that I’m interested. We can do better than that. I’m also pleased to say her lute playing is getting better.
5. Why do you think that you were able to shine in both silent and sound films, and many of your contemporaries didn’t?
I did a bit of shining on the stage, on radio and television as well. Don’t forget that. Acting is communication and I’ve always felt I was a great communicator, regardless of the forum. And again, it comes down to hard work. It also helps to live almost 100 years. I find you struggle to adapt to new technologies when you’re dead. I hear Constance Talmadge is still using the telegraph and Bette Davis is still on MySpace.
6. When you look at the film stars of 2014, do you see anyone who comes close to your talent?
No. Wait, is Kate Hepburn still working? No? My secretary tells me she’s not. I do admire the work that Julianne Moore is doing. Cate Blanchett, Kate Winslet, and Jessica Lange are wonderful as well. But it’s a different art form now. We had to act without the benefit of dialogue for the most part. Today, an actor walks across the screen and announces “I’m sad!” End of scene. In my day we had to show it. Tears, fits, gnashing of teeth, fainting. Basic acting. Imagine a remake of Broken Blossoms today. Cate Blanchett as Lucy Burrows. And I adore Cate. But imagine she’s in the closet scene. As Battling Burrows is beating down the door, Cate turns to the camera and says: “I’m scared.” It’s just not the same. But that’s the way they do it today. Or so I’m told. I’m sorry, what was the question again?
7. Who was your biggest rival in the silent days?
Audie Tucker. Don’t Google her or try to find any of her films. You won’t find any trace of her. I made damn sure of that. What’s this? My attorney is asking you not to print that. In many ways my greatest rivals weren’t individuals, but rather a shift in American culture away from the influence of Victorian ideals. While my rivals were taken down by a misplaced freckle or a lack of talent, it took a fundamental change in American society to impact my career and even then, only temporarily. While I certainly wouldn’t consider her a rival, I was never fond of that Marion Davies after that little stunt she pulled in The Patsy. I mean, really. Who acts with their fingers like that? I certainly don’t.
8. And your greatest friend, Mary Pickford or Helen Hayes?
That’s akin to asking a parent to pick their favourite child and by that I mean, it’s remarkably easy. Of course I have a favourite. Mary says she discovered me. But I take that in much the same way as one saying Mr Columbus discovered America. Someone would have found me sooner or later and when they did, the course of history would change. (Mother, said it’s good to have a healthy image of oneself.) But I do owe Mary greatly for her work in getting me into Mr Griffith’s troupe and for many years and many lunches that followed. We had a grand time together. When I close my eyes and think of my time in early Hollywood, the setting is always Pickfair and Mary and I are laughing at (not with) Marion Davies. Good times. Dearest Helen was my confidante. I trusted her with everything. Sure, we laughed at (not with) Marion Davies as well. Who didn’t? But Helen was my closest companion. And how devoted was she? She couldn’t live without me. Literally. You get significant points on the friendship scale for that. Kudos to you, Helen. So which is my favourite? Nell Dorr. But it’s rather complicated.
9. You never married, did you never meet your one true love or was there another reason?
Acting was my true love and we had a 75-year relationship. I don’t think I had the time or the energy to properly devote myself to anything or anyone else. Sure, I turned down marriage proposals, some of which resulted in lawsuits. Who hasn’t? We’ve all been down that road. In fact, if I had a nickel for every proposal I turned down, I’d be a rich woman. My secretary reminds me that I am a rich woman. So I guess I’m right.
10. You haven’t appeared in films for a while now. Are there any recent films you would love to have been cast in?
There are simply too many for me to name. I love working. Really there are such great parts for women now. Just this past year, I think the lead roles in Blue Jasmine and Gravity were fantastic. Ryan Stone in Gravity, just imagine the amount of panicked fretting I could have done in a space capsule. Being in 12 Years a Slave, a marvellous film, would have been a nice bookend to Birth of Nation. Elsie Stoneman grows up to be a leader of the underground railroad. I think that would have been a good way to go out on a high note. Artistic credentials aside, my real dream is to be cast against type in a reboot of the Charlie’s Angels franchise. I’ve got Clara Bow and Louise Brooks on board. But still a few details to work out. I need top billing of course, and the largest gun.
11. Which film of yours do you consider to be your greatest achievement?
Achievement is a broad term. I would certainly say that having survived working with Bette Davis in The Whales of August was an achievement of great magnitude. As when I was filming Hearts of the World on location during World War I, I questioned if I would finish that film alive. I think one of my most unheralded achievements was not in front of the camera at all, but rather behind it. I directed Remodeling Her Husband in 1920. [One moment please, those present here with me have erupted into applause.] I was the first directoress or lady director, as they say nowadays. It was such a joy to direct Dotty and James Rennie. They played husband and wife in the film and to ensure a proper performance I demanded they marry in real life. It was that attention to detail I think that made it one of the greatest films ever directed. In terms of acting performance, I would also say my role as Princess Leia in the original 1916 production of Star Wars. Sadly that film has been lost.
12. You won an honorary Oscar in 1971. Wouldn’t you have liked a real one?
I think you have this backwards. Why would I want a regular Oscar? I wish there was an adjective to describe an honorary Oscar. It’s indescribable. And very select company. My honorary Oscar party includes Cary Grant, Orson Welles and Jimmy Stewart. Ordinary Oscars go to Marisa Tomei and Three 6 Mafia. No offense intended, of course. They’re both wonderful. Sharknado II wouldn’t have been as successful without them. But I’m in a more select group of recipients and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’ve spoken with the Academy about emphasising this difference in next year’s ceremony. I expect that the winners will be announced with a new phrase. “And the ordinary Oscar goes to…” I think that sounds appropriate, don’t you?
13. Can you tell us a little about how it was to work for Mr Griffith?
I could tell you about Mr Griffith’s brilliance and his impact on the art of film in general and my career specifically. He was the first to understand film as a language. And he spoke it fluently, often through me. But you can hear that from anyone. What I can tell you is what you won’t read in the history books. Mr. Griffith smelled of pipe tobacco and aftershave. You smelled it when he hugged you and he’d hug you just a little bit too long. But he never hugged Dotty after she shin-kicked him on the set of Old Heidelberg in 1915. He was sharp like that. One mistake and he’d never made it again. He was a perfectionist, but he often forgot to tie his shoes. And he was kind. I remember in 1920, halfway through the filming of Way Down East, Mr Griffith noticed that our cameraman Billy Bitzer hadn’t yet removed the lens cap from the camera. Rather than embarrassing Billy, Mr Griffith didn’t call attention to it, proclaiming instead that he had directed the scenes improperly and demanded we reshoot. Mr Griffith slyly removed the lens cap and I climbed back on that ice floe and we shot the film again. You know what else people don’t know about Mr Griffith? He invented the pimento cheese sandwich. My secretary is shaking her head, no.
14. How do you really feel about The Birth of a Nation?
It was a product of its time and should be judged as such. We wouldn’t make that film today. But subject matter aside, the film was a wonderful advance in cinematic storytelling. Mr. Griffith’s use of dynamic cinematography and narrative techniques were groundbreaking. The makeup, not so much. From a personal perspective, looking back on it now, in many ways, it was my celebrity sex tape. It was poorly lit and horribly embarrassing, and yet it made me wildly famous. I couldn’t have rocked the cradle in Intolerance without it. With that I’m afraid I must be going. I’ve promised Theda Bara I would help her polish her skeleton for a show tonight. She’s an odd one. This has been a pleasure. I’m available any time by Twitter or telegram! Thank you Silent London.
Thank you @MsLillianGish!