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Lillian Gish: Her Legend, Her Life

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At the time of her death in 1993, Lillian Gish was universally recognized as a film legend. In this revealing and absorbing narrative, Charles Affron uses newly released documents to uncover a life that was cast in the shadow of self-generated myth. Filling the gaps left by Gish's selective memoirs and authorized biographies, he shows how the actress carefully shaped her p At the time of her death in 1993, Lillian Gish was universally recognized as a film legend. In this revealing and absorbing narrative, Charles Affron uses newly released documents to uncover a life that was cast in the shadow of self-generated myth. Filling the gaps left by Gish's selective memoirs and authorized biographies, he shows how the actress carefully shaped her public identity while keeping much of her life private. A New York Times Notable Book


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At the time of her death in 1993, Lillian Gish was universally recognized as a film legend. In this revealing and absorbing narrative, Charles Affron uses newly released documents to uncover a life that was cast in the shadow of self-generated myth. Filling the gaps left by Gish's selective memoirs and authorized biographies, he shows how the actress carefully shaped her p At the time of her death in 1993, Lillian Gish was universally recognized as a film legend. In this revealing and absorbing narrative, Charles Affron uses newly released documents to uncover a life that was cast in the shadow of self-generated myth. Filling the gaps left by Gish's selective memoirs and authorized biographies, he shows how the actress carefully shaped her public identity while keeping much of her life private. A New York Times Notable Book

30 review for Lillian Gish: Her Legend, Her Life

  1. 4 out of 5

    Jeslyn

    Wow - this is an odd book; the author spends the first 180 pages chronicling Lillian Gish's earliest years in entertainment through her films with D. W. Griffith in an assessment that reads as "hmph - she's not THAT great..." and, as many others have done, focusing a 21st century lens on the silent-film era, without considering the differences in time, people, or American culture. I had to smile (smirk?) at his implied perception that Gish had a superiority complex; this from an author who uses Wow - this is an odd book; the author spends the first 180 pages chronicling Lillian Gish's earliest years in entertainment through her films with D. W. Griffith in an assessment that reads as "hmph - she's not THAT great..." and, as many others have done, focusing a 21st century lens on the silent-film era, without considering the differences in time, people, or American culture. I had to smile (smirk?) at his implied perception that Gish had a superiority complex; this from an author who uses the word "supernumerary" about half a dozen times in the first 60 pages! Seriously, we are talking about the film business here - wouldn't "extra" suffice and be understood by the anticipated readership? I was also surprised to see words such as "hegira" and "dithyrambic" used - a bit too academic for this subject, in my mind. The second half of the book is an improvement, though there is a disconcerting report of an appalling lawsuit between Gish and Charles Duell; the author seems to convey the idea that, if Gish and Duell's secret engagement had been proven true, Duell would have won his case. However, the gross misconduct in contract amendments that Duell pushed by Lillian occurred before (or at least during) their engagement, conduct that was even more reprehensible considering he wanted to marry her. In this section of the book the author's argument holds no weight with me. This is an uneven book at best...on the positive side, hers is without question an interesting life, and I would love to see more of the films that are discussed here. The ones I've seen to date are definitely impressive.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Graceann

    Lillian Gish: Her Legend, Her Life is a strange book. Not so much a biography as a deconstruction, it takes apart the myth that Gish spent 99 years creating and shows us the contradictions behind that virginal smile. The first half of the book is largely a snooze; for those who have seen Gish's silent films, the exhaustive shot-by-shot detail of their storylines is rehash, and for those who haven't seen the films, it's Spoiler City. Of course it makes sense to go over the details of films that a Lillian Gish: Her Legend, Her Life is a strange book. Not so much a biography as a deconstruction, it takes apart the myth that Gish spent 99 years creating and shows us the contradictions behind that virginal smile. The first half of the book is largely a snooze; for those who have seen Gish's silent films, the exhaustive shot-by-shot detail of their storylines is rehash, and for those who haven't seen the films, it's Spoiler City. Of course it makes sense to go over the details of films that are now considered lost, but even in 2000, many of these titles were available on VHS at least. When we get to Gish's political activities and theatre work, the book becomes more interesting, precisely because this is a part of her life she said nothing about (though she did leave a rather impressive paper trail). We find out that she was a staunch isolationist in the ugly vein of Charles Lindbergh, Henry Ford and Joseph P. Kennedy, and that there is evidence that she broke up with the one serious love she had because she found out he was part-Jewish (that wasn't what bothered her, apparently, but the fact that he kept it a secret did). Even here she's a bundle of contradictions, however. She is an isolationist and a pacifist (as many were, especially in the years between the wars), but she signed an affidavit in order to help a Jewish refugee escape the Nazis by easing his immigration to the States. She was an ultra-right-wing conservative Republican who pushed at every opportunity for Federal funding for the Arts and reduction in military spending (not something you often hear from that side of the aisle). She was excited to have the opportunity (unrealized, sadly) to star opposite Paul Robeson in Othello when such things "just weren't done," but was Griffith's apologist in chief for the heinously racist Birth of a Nation. When we got into the political spectrum of her behavior, I was sure that I was going to get to the end of the book and loathe Lillian Gish; something I was not looking forward to doing as I've always been quite fond of her. As it turns out, however, I ended up with a great deal of respect for the lady. She carried political views that I do not share, but she seemed to have considered the sides of an issue, and if the more liberal point of view was more appropriate, she took that path. I find it refreshing that she wasn't a goose-stepping idealogue, and that she was willing to put her money where her mouth was, even when it cost her acting jobs. She was also a private person. These things didn't come out in her lifetime for the simple reason that her life was nobody's business but hers. In this age of confessional television and tell-all books, I found this to be a breath of fresh air.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Julia Hendon

    Affron has done an excellent job of getting behind the legend of Lillian Gish. Gish herself was very selective in what she revealed about herself (as were many of her contemporaries). Affron has made use of letters and other primary sources to fill in the gaps. He obviously respects Gish as an artist and is honest but kind about her personal strengths and weaknesses. His discussion of early filmmaking and the ways that Gish contributed to the development of acting styles is especially insightful Affron has done an excellent job of getting behind the legend of Lillian Gish. Gish herself was very selective in what she revealed about herself (as were many of her contemporaries). Affron has made use of letters and other primary sources to fill in the gaps. He obviously respects Gish as an artist and is honest but kind about her personal strengths and weaknesses. His discussion of early filmmaking and the ways that Gish contributed to the development of acting styles is especially insightful.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Benjamin

    Fantastic and insightful biography of Lillian Gish, one of the first movie stars. She remained a working actress on screen and stage well into her nineties!

  5. 5 out of 5

    Sally

    Read during my biggest classic-films phase, wherein I would read anything and everything: didn't matter that I wasn't a huge Gish fan and had only seen a couple of her films! I suppose I just liked reading about the era, and whether or not I liked the star, the life was at least usually interesting. Read during my biggest classic-films phase, wherein I would read anything and everything: didn't matter that I wasn't a huge Gish fan and had only seen a couple of her films! I suppose I just liked reading about the era, and whether or not I liked the star, the life was at least usually interesting.

  6. 4 out of 5

    PennsyLady (Bev)

    3.5* Well researched but a bit long for my tastes (hence a drop from 4 to 3.5) Black and white photos interspersed lend a special touch to the book Informative read!

  7. 5 out of 5

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  30. 5 out of 5

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