Lillian Gish -- from silent films to TV specials
Lillian Gish knows the secret of the success of "Dallas." "You see the eyes of every person in that show just about every minute," she explains, focusing her clear, steady eyes on me. "The faces and the eyes are better than the words," she explains. And who should know better than Lillian Gish, star of countless silent films like "Orpahns of the Storm," "Birth of a Nation," and "Way Down East" -- films that depended upon eyes and faces rather than words?
She has invited me to her spacious cooperative apartment in a sedate apartment building on East 57th Street, on the edge of chic Sutton Place, to discuss her latess role in a movie of the week, "Thin Ice" (CBS, Tuesday, 9-11 p.m., check local listings). We are having a "high tea," with such goodies as fruitcake, cheese and crackers, cookies. Now an octogenarian, Miss Gish still lives in the apartment she shared with her late mother and sister. She confides that she uses an "upside-down board" to stand on her head every morning.
I have previewed "Thin Ice" and it is a paper-thin problem-of-the-week superficial show about a schoolteacher, played by "Charlie's Angel" star Kate Jackson, who falls in love with one of her high-school students. Miss Gish plays the woman's loving grandmother -- an dproves to be the highlight of the show, underutilized but still managing to use those expressive eyes to bring warmth and understanding to the meager role.
Now, in the living room of her confortably elegant but hardly lavish apartment, furnished in French antiques with a huge, delicate Aubusson rug on the floor, surrounded by vases of flowers, a painting of her beautiful mother on the wall behind the sofa, we look at a tabletop full of tiny portraits, mostly of friends and relatives of the Gishes. There is only one portrait of Lillian in the room -- a painting done of her in her teens -- and she explains that she doesn't like to be surrounded by portraits of herself in earlier times.
Why did she do "Thin Ice"? Well, she gets offered lots of horror film roles, and just about the only other decent role she has done recently was a "Love Boat" cameo on ABC. One needs to keep working somehow, she implies, but she makes it clear that she will not do any of the "tasteless, vulgar" films she has seen recently. Or else she receives scripts "written for five-year-old minds." So, much of the time she spends touring with her silent film show-and-tell lecture titled "Infinity in an Hour," with many excerpts from the film of her acknowl" edged "guru," director D. W. Griffith, whose name comes up in the conversation often and to whom she always refers respectfully as "Mr. Griffith."
"I think television is killng itself," she says. "They're playing down. Mr. Griffith used to say, 'Remember, there are more them out there than there are here, so they know more than we do. Always play the best you can -- play up to them, never down." But they're all playing down in television."
Does Lillian Gish see any contemporary directors in the same class as her Mr. Griffith?
"I think Truffaut in France and Zefferelli in Italy have done good things. And Herbert Ross who made "The Turning Point," one of my favorite recent movies. I'm so sorry that Baryshnikov isn't moving into films more because the camera loves that face. It's beautiful . . . such a romantic face."
Faces again. "The camera is most effective when it shows faces. Audiences want to get really acquainted wih the actors. But in both film and TV now they try for effect with shadows. They have lighting experts, but mostly the electricians are bored. Our electricians were as interested as we were, and they, the property men, the camera crew were treated just as the stars were treated. It was before unions. You would go on the set early in the morning with the electrician and help him paint your face with lights for whatever it was you were playing . . . the scene, the mood. But you would not lose the face , the eyes. They don't do that any more. Except, perhaps, with 'Dallas.'"
Did Miss Gish, who started her career as a child actress, ever take acting lessons?
She giggles and it is the giggle of a little girl. "The only acting lesson I ever had were the frightening words: 'Speak loud and clear or else we'll get another little girl!'"
Miss Gish is proudest of these days of the huge movie palaces of the golden silent days. Many of them are still in existence, although not as movie theaters alone -- they are being turned into shopping centers, with perhaps a small theater included in the complex and auditoriums for dance and concerts. Miss Gish has been taking her show to appear at many of them, often dedicating the reactivated cultural center and shopping centers.
"Oh, those marvelous old palaces," she says. "But what do they do now? Why my little olld meat market on 59th street is gone and in its place is a tiny movie house called, dear me, the D. W. Griffith theater. Isn't it ironic?" She sighs sadly, but there is still humor in those lively eyes.
Does Lillian Gish believe we should be making silent films again?
"Yes. I just saw 'Napoleon,' the Abel Gance film which is being revived at Radio City. It was made more than fifty years ago and it is still great. After all, only 5% of the world speaks English. Silent films are universal. Everybody can understand them and there is a world market for them without dubbing.
"And with music as well. There was a full orchestra for the 'Napoleon' screening, just as there used to be for many of Mr. Griffith's films when they palyed the old movie palaces.
"If directors were brave enough now, like Mr. Griffith was, they'd be doing silent films again. Only recently I saw the movie 'Black Stallion' and there was a marvelous 30- minute sequence without dialogue which went beautifully.
"You can't keep silent films from coming back . . . they are the universal language. I'd just like to see them come back while I'm still here . . ."
Is Lillian Gish a feminist now?
She shrugs her shoulders. "I was born liberated. Nobody ever stopped me from doing anything because I was a woman. I have lived my life liberated. I acted in film. I directed. I always managed to do anything I really wanted to do. Why should I be a feminist now? I am a woman. That is feminist enough, isn't it?"
For Lillian Gish, certainly, that is enough.
Protests, pickets, and boycotts are becoming everyday occurrences in the world of entertainment these days.
As Hispanic-American groups picket and protest against Paul Newman's new film "Fort Apache, The Bronx," still anothe ethnic group has issued warnings to still another film which allegedly perpetuates "degrading stereotypes."
A coalition of Asian-American organizations is concerned about the revival of the "Charlie Chan And the Curse of the Dragon Queen," scheduled to open in New York soon. According to the "Coalition of Asians to Nix Charlie Chan," which plans a demonstration today, the character as portrayed by Peter Ustinov is "a racist and degrading stereo- type created by white writers and movie producers. The Chan character -- with his slanted eyes, phony accent, fortune-cookie dialogue, subservient Uncle-Tom image and inscrutable manner -- robs Chinese and Asian-Americans of simple human dignity and is a historic symbol of racist attitudes toward Asian-Americans."
The Dragon Queen is portrayed in the film by Angie Dickinson. So far there has been no protest organized by Dragon Queens.
In another protest case, The Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith has issued a statement deploring the "bad taste" of PBS in airing its new production of Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice" on February 23. According to the national director of the League: 'It would seem to me that PBS, which is publicly supported, is not executing its responsibility by providing a forum for a Shylock who would have warmed the heart of Nazi propagandist Julius Streicher."
Jonathan Miller, the producer of the Shakespeare series for PBS, anticipated the objections which his production would probably cause and answered them in advance in a wrap-around commentary included in the broadcast. He stresses the fact that there is good reason to accuse the character of being anti-semitic, but that is an oversimplification of the play which was written that way by Shakespeare, who delighted in complicating issues.
According to Mr. Miller, both Jews and Christians emerge badly from the play. He insists that in reality the purpose of the play is to establish "symmetical opposites between the Old and New Testaments."
It is interesting to note that Warren Mitchell, who plays Shylock, was the original Archie Bunker in the British version of "All In The Family," which was then called "Till Death Us Do Part."
Mr. Mitchell, like producer Jonathan Miller and director Jack Gold, is Jewish.
In the area of television, The Gay Task Force has lodged a protest with the authorities at the Monte Carlo International Television Festival because CBS News has entered in the competition what the Task Force considers an objectionable, stereotypical documentary about homosexuals -- "Gay Power -- Gay Politics."