US actress. Known as the First Lady of the Silent Screen, she also appeared in sound films and on the stage in a career that lasted almost ninety years.
Born in Ohio, Lillian Gish gave her first stage performance at the age of five. In 1912 Lillian and her sister Dorothy Gish (1898–1968) made a joint screen debut in D. W. Griffith's An Unseen Enemy with the Biograph Company. The following year the Gish sisters moved with Griffith to Hollywood and appeared, in 1915, in his acclaimed Civil War epic The Birth of a Nation, in which Lillian took the lead female part. Lillian Gish subsequently played the ‘Mother of the Ages’ in Griffith's Intolerance (1916) and went on to create the image of the waif-like but determined heroine, for which she is best remembered, in such films as Hearts of the World (1918), Broken Blossoms (1919), Way Down East (1920), and Orphans of the Storm (1922). In 1920 she directed her sister Dorothy in Remodeling Her Husband.
Lillian Gish parted company with Griffith and moved to MGM in 1925. Already established as a star, she was able to negotiate the right to approve both director and script. This arrangement resulted in a number of remarkable and successful films, among them La Bohème (1926), The Scarlet Letter (1926), and The Wind (1928). However, less successful were Gish's first films with sound. Her acting style, perfectly suited to the silent era, began to seem dated, and she left Hollywood to return to the stage. Here she excelled, notably as Ophelia in John Gielgud's Hamlet (1936), and continued to work in the theatre for the rest of her life. Gish did, however, return to films from time to time and scored a number of critical successes. These included the western Duel in the Sun (1947), for which she received an Academy Award nomination; Charles Laughton's thriller Night of the Hunter (1955); Robert Altman's A Wedding (1978); and, at the age of ninety-one, Lindsay Anderson's The Whales of August (1987). In recognition of her contributions to cinema, Lillian Gish received a Special Academy Award in 1970 and an American Film Institute Life Achievement Award in 1984.