Gish Sisters Blogathon: Lillian Gish in Sweet Liberty

A note from Lindsey: Welcome to Day 2 of the Gish Sisters Blogathon! Today I’m posting a Lillian review, and tomorrow will be dedicated to Dorothy, but I’ll also be keeping up with the master list of everyone’s contributions as the celebration continues. To see what all of our wonderful participants have come up with, visit yesterday’s post, “The Gish Sisters Blogathon is here!”

(Image via rarefilmposters.com)
(Image via rarefilmposters.com)

Lillian Gish led an incredibly long career, spanning nearly eight decades and including 120 film and television credits. She made her film debut in 1912, and her final film was released in 1987… a whole 75 years later!

Lillian and her sister are both best-remembered for their work in silent film, but as with any actor from the silent or classic eras of Hollywood, the films that the Gish sisters made later in their careers can be just as fascinating, valuable and entertaining as the films that made them legends.

Lillian’s penultimate film, Sweet Liberty, is one that deserves a look.

Released in 1986, the film stars Alan Alda (who also wrote and directed it), Michael Caine and Michelle Pfeiffer. The story follows history teacher Michael Burgess (Alda), a man who has sold the film rights to a book he wrote about the revolutionary war.

Michael finds that adapting his book for the screen will not be as easy as he thought it would be, when a film crew shows up and it becomes clear that they want to change everything about his source material — the characters, the battles, all of it. Having written a scholarly and informative piece of research, these changes are not exactly welcomed by the author.

Meanwhile, Michael must also contend with his not-quite-all-there mother, his wedding-obsessed girlfriend, and his growing infatuation with Faith (Pfeiffer), the actress set to play the female lead in the adaptation of his book.

Lillian Gish’s role is that of Cecelia Burgess, Michael’s mother.

Age has always been a strange factor in Hollywood movie-making. Some performers, such as Meryl Streep, completely defy Hollywood’s habit of giving greater roles to younger actors who are seen as being “in their prime” (read as: young). Some actors, on the other hand, get relegated to bland, insignificant supporting roles as they age.

When I began watching Sweet Liberty, I fully expected Lillian’s role to be one of that bland, supporting type. On paper, she sounds like the stereotypical “mother losing her marbles” — a small addition to the film that doesn’t add much except for a couple of laughs. After all, the film’s focus is not Michael’s relationship with his family, but his grand Hollywood encounter.

Sweet Liberty luckily exceeded my expectations both as a whole and in terms of Lillian’s role.

The film is a very fun watch, though not a “laugh every minute” comedy. It offers romance, humor, a bit of drama and a satirical look at the Hollywood filmmaking process (particularly for costume dramas/historical “bodice-rippers”). The performances are solid and Alda’s flair for writing shines, particularly through his script’s dialogue, which flows seamlessly.

Lillian’s screen time is quite small, as expected, but she does much more than add a few small laughs to the movie. That’s not to say she isn’t hilarious — she is! The character is written very well. She makes her son have full-blown conversations with her dog, is obsessed with an ex-boyfriend she hasn’t seen in half a century, makes jokes about poisoned food, has so many locks on her door that she can barely unlock them and believes that the Devil himself lives in her kitchen.

Michael and Cecelia have a chat about poisoned food and lost love. (Screen capture by Lindsey for TMP)
Michael and Cecelia have a chat about poisoned food and lost love. (Screen capture by Lindsey for TMP)

Beyond sheer comedic value, the interactions between Michael and his mother, however brief, have an interesting dynamic that allows the viewer to more fully understand Michael’s personality. Even when she winds up in the hospital, Michael has a low tolerance for his mom’s nuttiness — she’s sure that the doctors are going to remove all of her nerves! He seems fed up with her most of the time, but his frustration isn’t completely unwarranted. He’s obviously very logically-minded, while she has a flair for the dramatic and kooky; their personalities clash.  His intolerance of the flip-flopping and fact-ignoring ways of the Hollywood team make a lot of sense after seeing how he acts around his mother. Knowledge and accuracy are key to him, and anyone who disregards those things is perceived to be below him.

Lillian’s delivery of the character is spot-on. Not once do we see her as Lillian Gish, Classic Film Legend. The audience is easily able to believe her as Cecilia Burgess, a quirky, aging mother with an offbeat sense of humor and more than a few delusions. Lillian brings the character to life in such a way that she seems to fully buy into her character’s delusions, delivering her kooky quips without a hint of a smirk, which makes them seem all the more real (and makes them even funnier).

Lillian apparently enjoyed the experience of making this film, which was her 104th big screen role:

“Making Sweet Liberty reminded me of D.W. Griffith in 1912. There was no place we could go that was as happy as when we were shooting, and this film was just like that.”

Writer/director/star Alan Alda also relished in the experience of working with Gish:

“The one striking moment I remember in shooting Sweet Liberty was shooting a scene in a hospital bed and while they were touching up the lighting, she started to reminisce about D.W. Griffith. Everyone on the set (carpenters, grips, everyone) stopped in their tracks and listened. We all knew we were in the presence of a living history of our profession. I’ve always regretted that I was so taken with the moment that it didn’t occur to me to tell the operator to roll film on the moment.”

If only he had been able to capture that moment! Filming seems to have been a nice experience for all, and Sweet Liberty is an incredibly enjoyable watch, either for fans of Gish hoping to complete her extensive filmography or fans of comedy in general. Lillian is a definite scene stealer, and it’s wonderful to see her talent still shining brightly on display, even 74 years after her film debut.

*The quotes used above were sourced from Stuart Oderman’s “Lillian Gish: A Life on Stage and Screen.

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18 thoughts on “Gish Sisters Blogathon: Lillian Gish in Sweet Liberty

  1. Very cool, Lindsey! Your write-up makes me wish her role was bigger than it was. And what’s next for you and Movies, Silently…a Mitchum Brothers blogathon? If so, I have dibs on either ‘Thunder Road’ or ‘Dirty Harry’!

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