The new American intolerance: Gish Film Theater shorn of name

Film
by 

ed. note: With a heavy heart, we publish words submitted by Mike Kaplan, a friend of artsmeme whose peerless collection of dance movie posters now hangs at the National Dance Museum in Saratoga Springs. Mike, the producer of ‘The Whales of August’ (1987) starring Bette Davis and Lillian Gish, is at the forefront of controversy now roiling the film world. Bowling Green State University decided last month to remove the Gish name — but retain the Ohio native’s endowment and personal memorabilia — citing Lillian Gish’s role in D. W. Griffith’s controversial 1915 film “The Birth of a Nation,” a racist silent film that glorified the Ku Klux Klan. 

In its 40 years of existence, The Gish Theater at Bowling Green State University presented films and related discussions and displayed Gish sisters memorabilia. Bowling Green accepted and solicited papers and other documents relating to the sisters’ work as well as a scholarship endowment Lillian instituted for the best student films and for students studying film. 

This preceded the prestigious Dorothy & Lillian Gish Prize she established through her 1994 will, awarded to “a man or woman who has made an outstanding contribution to the beauty of the world and to mankind’s enjoyment and understanding of life.” 

Recipients have included six African-American artists — Spike Lee, Ornette Coleman, Bill T. Jones, Anna Deavere Smith, Lloyd Richards, and Suzan-Lori Parks — in addition to Bob Dylan, Trisha Brown, Frank Gehry, Pete Seeger, Maya Lin, Laurie Anderson, Chile’s Isabel Allende, Nigerian author-diplomat Chinua Achebe. Los Angeles Philharmonic conductor Gustavo Dudamel was the 25th recipient last year. The Gish prize carries an annual award of approximately $250,000 — amongst the highest in charitable arts honors.

Without directly speaking to anyone who knew Lillian, the university established a “task force” to investigate the situation, “pored over” written material, including her memoirs, and came to the conclusion that the Gish name should be removed because she stated that actors should be judged by the value of their work.  Even though she did not write, produce, or direct BIRTH, and none of her over 100 credits contained any other “offensive” element, that she played a key supporting role in BIRTH, and never denounced D. W. Griffith as a racist, “justifies” their decision. Throwing Dorothy Gish under the same bus was never addressed.

Those of us on the advisory board of the Gish Theatre — George Stevens Jr., Lauren Hutton, critic Anthony Slide and myself were never consulted about this rash decision that stains the legacy and reputation of one of the finest women and important artists in film history.  

Lillian Gish THE WHALES OF AUGUST

Lillian Gish was nothing less than the most inspiring, virtuous, stimulating, compassionate, luminous, human being one could meet. Impugning her was something I could never imagine. I spent twenty years searching for and eventually producing a film that would present her in a major way to new generations … to experience her uniqueness, her inherent beauty, spirit and truthfulness. That turned out to be THE WHALES OF AUGUST, directed by Lindsay Anderson, for which Lillian Gish was named BEST ACTRESS  by the National Board of Review.

This situation is particularly ironic as what brought us together was the film of THE COMEDIANS. As a reward for successfully completing a tedious publicity assignment, I could chose which actor in the heavyweight cast to work with for the opening. I chose Lillian, for she stole the film from the Burtons, Alec Guinness and Peter Ustinov, not only by the energy and life force she brought to her role but through the values she displayed as the one character who stood up to the ‘Ton Ton Macoute,’ the dreaded Haitian secret police, as evil as the Ku Klux Klan, who were terrorizing the people of Haiti. She was nominated for a Golden Globe for that performance.

The film Griffith made after BIRTH was INTOLERANCE. Some say he made it in part to atone for BIRTH. Regardless, his concept of crosscutting four stories of man’s intolerance from four different time periods was an unequaled milestone in the art of film. Connecting them is a beautiful image of tolerance and humanity — Lillian Gish, rocking her baby — poetic, startling, advanced. 

In THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, Lillian again defines man’s goodness, protecting children against evil.  At Lillian’s AFI Life Achievement tribute, Robert Mitchum, who was usually sardonic or outrageously entertaining in interviews, became reverential in his praise of Lillian Gish.

Lillian & Dorothy Gish

Finally, if it weren’t for Lillian, students at Bowling Green and everywhere else might not have film schools at all. Starting in the 1930s, Lillian helped form and endow the Film Department of the Museum of Modern Art, saving Griffith’s and Mary Pickford’s films, she tirelessly toured the world in her pioneering campaign on behalf of the cultural importance of cinema.

Calling for the restoration of Gish’s name to the theater is an eclectic coalition that includes: James Earl Jones, Helen Mirren, Martin Scorsese, George Stevens Jr., Bertrand Tavernier, Peter Bogdanovich, Joseph McBride, Lauren Hutton, Malcolm McDowell, Mike Hodges, Taylor Hackford, Annie Ross, Jay Cocks, Illiana Douglas, Shep Gordon, Joe Dante, three former presidents of the Writers Guild — Victoria Riskin, David W. Rintels, and Howard A. Rodman, James Frasher (Lillian’s longtime manager), and 20 prominent artists, writers, and scholars from universities and colleges throughout the country, There is also an on-line petition with nearly 800 signatures.

Leave a Reply