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Lillian Gish; A National Treasure, Still A Trouper

By Stewart McBrideStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / September 23, 1982



Santa Fe, N.M.

For all her Dresden china delicacy, Lillian Gish booms out chitchat as if her every comma had to be heard in the cheap seats. ''I'm sorry,'' blushes the grande dame of silent film. ''My normal speech is pretty loud, because in my acting lessons they always told me, 'Speak loud and clear or we'll get another little girl.' ''

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Miss Gish retains much of that plucky little girl who first took to the stage at age 5, went on to star in D. W. Griffith's 1915 classic ''The Birth of a Nation'' and, 100 films later, appeared in Robert Altman's ''A Wedding.'' Miss Gish is a woman of such elastic talent that she has remained consistently modern over more than a half century in show business. She is a legend in her own lifetime.

On this particular morning she is receiving guests in her white adobe hotel room after the gala tribute given her at the Santa Fe Film Festival. She is decked out with a wide-eyed girlish radiance and the monstrous medallion given her the evening before. She wears flashy white knickers, white stockings, black crepe jazz shoes, and a robin's-egg blue Indian smock embroidered with tiny mirrors.

Behind that sweet innocence and frailty is a woman of oaken convictions and steely wit. After a hearty handshake, she offers me a copy of her autobiography. It has just been translated into Burmese and she teases: ''Go ahead, read a little aloud, why don't you?'' As I contemplate the hieroglyphics on the dust jacket, she sends the conversation galloping off in all directions. Without question Lillian Gish is driving this stagecoach.

For some reason her recent role as a retired schoolteacher on ABC's TV series ''The Love Boat,'' strikes her fancy. ''Doing the part was delightful and the work was easy. For movies in my days, I used to get up at half past four in the morning. I had Mrs. Pickford's (actress Mary Pickford's mother) beach house in Santa Monica, and I would fall out of bed in the dark and into the ocean. I went swimming year-round. Then I'd jump in the car and go to the studio about half-past five, and the maid would make breakfast while I did my hair.''

She continues, without missing a beat, stringing stories together like the pearls in her necklace. ''I never had a hairdresser in my life. I never had a makeup man. Once when I was with George Cukor he said, 'I want the makeup man to get you ready for this short thing.' So I went to the makeup man. When I came down George looked at me and said 'What? You don't look like yourself. What did they do to you?' Well, of course I didn't look like myself. The makeup man put a face on me that he puts on everybody: take out the eyebrows, a little blue or purple over your eyelids - I've never seen anything but birds with that coloring on their eyes. I was made up to look like anybody else, so I couldn't look like myself. He said, 'You go up and take that off and put your own makeup back.' And then I just came back as God made me.''

If Lillian Gish is a national living treasure, as many would argue, she is one seemingly without pretense. ''I think I know what makes her so magnificent, '' says Brooks Atkinson in the introduction to her autobiography, ''The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me.'' ''She has no vanity. She is not concerned with defining, exploiting, or defending her reputation. She does not try to be smart or clever. In a play she is not concerned with what it does for her career; she is concerned with the group performance. . . . Although Miss Lillian is not much interested in herself, she is very much interested in other people and in what they do and think. That is why she has never been bored or immobilized. She began as a trouper; she is a trouper now.''