An anti-hagiography that seeks, while remaining respectful of its screen-legend subject, to rescue the “real” Lillian Gish from the myths perpetuated by her authorized biographers and her own public self-presentation.
From her earliest fame in the 1910s and ’20s—when she was protégé to the groundbreaking silent-film director D.W. Griffith—until her death in 1993, Gish “participated obsessively in the telling of her life by others and told it herself as often as people would read or listen.” In addition to feeding the public’s image of her as a serious, bookish, asexual, mother-devoted, idealized woman, Gish often explicitly linked her individual career as an actress with the birth and development of the cinema itself, thereby giving a transcendent importance to even her most self-serving career moves—or her sometimes expedient relationships with certain powerful and influential men. To delve below this kind of mystification, Affron (Divine Garbo, not reviewed) makes broad and unprecedented use of articles, interviews, Gish’s own letters, and the manuscript of her unfinished, unpublished autobiography. The result is a highly detailed, gently corrective biography that gives Gish great credit for her acting abilities and her dedication to the film arts, while also portraying her as a willful, determined, ambitious, and complicated woman who participated knowingly in the creation of her own legend. Along the way, Affron offers an encapsulated history of cinema and its connection with the wars, racial struggles, and shifting gender roles of the early- and mid-20th century.
Too detailed for casual Hollywood buffs, but a solid addition to any serious film history collection.