"The First Lady of the Silent Screen," Lillian Gish was the movie industry's first true actress. A pioneer of fundamental film performing techniques, she was the first star to recognize the many crucial differences between acting for the stage and acting for the screen, and while her contemporaries painted their performances in broad, dramatic strokes, Gish delivered finely etched, nuanced turns carrying a stunning emotional impact. While by no means the biggest or most popular actress of the silent era, she was the most gifted, her seeming waiflike frailty masking unparalleled reserves of physical and spiritual strength. More than any other early star, she fought to earn film recognition as a true art form, and her achievements remain the standard against which those of all other actors are measured.
Born Lillian de Guiche October 14, 1893, in Springfield, OH, Gish, her younger sister, Dorothy, and their mother, actress Mary Gish, soon relocated to New York. Beginning their acting careers not long after, the girls were in short time the family breadwinners. Among their colleagues was another child actress, Mary Pickford, who in 1909 traveled west to Hollywood to pursue a career in the movies. She found work with the famed director D.W. Griffith, and soon persuaded him to recruit the Gish sisters for his Biograph Studios' repertory company of actors. Lillian and Dorothy debuted together in 1912's An Unseen Enemy and over the next several years appeared both together and independently in dozens of the director's one- and two-reelers. While overshadowed by Pickford's fame, Lillian was the Griffith stable's most skilled actress, and she starred in many of his greatest works, including 1915's The Birth of a Nation, 1916's Intolerance, 1920's Way Down East, and 1922's Orphans of the Storm.