Established in 1994 through the will of Lillian Gish, the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize is given annually to an individual who has “made an outstanding contribution to the beauty of the world and to mankind’s enjoyment and understanding of life.”
Prize recipients from 1994 through 2017 include: Frank Gehry, Ingmar Bergman, Robert Wilson, Bob Dylan, Isabel Allende, Arthur Miller, Merce Cunningham, Jennifer Tipton, Lloyd Richards, Bill T. Jones, Ornette Coleman, Peter Sellars, Shirin Neshat, Laurie Anderson, Robert Redford, Pete Seeger, Chinua Achebe, Trisha Brown, Anna Deavere Smith, Spike Lee, Maya Lin, Suzan-Lori Parks, Elizabeth LeCompte, and Meredith Monk. Prize recipients are nominated by the arts community and chosen by a distinguished committee of arts leaders for their groundbreaking work in their chosen fields.
The Gish Prize selection committee, a group of five experts that changes every year, has included choreographer Garth Fagan, filmmaker Mira Nair, sculptor Martin Puryear, composer Alvin Singleton, President Emerita of The Museum of Modern Art Agnes Gund, and Senior Advisor for Global Programs at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and President Emerita of the Asia Society, Vishaka Desai.
Dorothy Gish was born Dorothy de Guiche in 1898 in Dayton, Ohio. As the youngest daughter of actress Mary Gish, Dorothy performed as a child with her sister, Lillian, and her mother.
After the family moved to New York City, the two girls became friends with another young actor, Mary Pickford, who introduced them to D.W. Griffith. Griffith subsequently recruited them to his Biograph Studios’ company and the two sisters made their film debut together in 1912 in An Unseen Enemy. Over the next several years, the two appeared separately and together in various Griffith projects. Both had distinct strengths: Dorothy excelled in both pantomime and light comedy while Lillian shone in melodramatic tragedies and historical pieces.
In Lillian’s one and only directorial effort, she directed Dorothy in the comedy Remodeling Her Husband (1920), after which Dorothy married her leading man, James Rennie.
Dorothy made her final silent screen appearance in 1927. She acted in only a few films during the 1930s and thereafter, focusing instead on the stage as well as radio. In 1935, she and James were divorced. Dorothy returned to Hollywood in 1944, starring in Our Hearts Were Young and Gay and Centennial Summer, before backtracking to Broadway once more.
She made her final film, The Cardinal, in 1964. Four years later, she died of pneumonia. In recognition of her early touring years in the theater and the gratitude she felt to many in the profession, Dorothy Gish left the major part of her estate to the Actors’ Fund of America.
Lillian Gish was born in Springfield, Ohio, in 1893. She and her younger sister Dorothy acted in local theater before moving with their family to New York, where Lillian danced with Sarah Bernhardt’s Company. Lillian’s real talent, however, was in front of the camera. During her lifetime, she appeared in over 100 films, her first in An Unseen Enemy, with her mother and sister and her last, The Whales of August, at age ninety-two.
Lillian established her screen presence during her 13 years working with D.W. Griffith, who cast her in 40 films, including Birth of a Nation. On screen, she played the fragile and innocent beauty, while off screen she forged new ground for women in the industry. As the first female film director, she cast her sister Dorothy in Remodeling Her Husband (1920). Moving to MGM several years later, Lillian received the special privilege of artistic control over her films.
Following One Romantic Night, her first sound movie, in 1930, Lillian devoted most of her time to the Broadway stage, returning occasionally to both film and television. Her Broadway career included roles in Uncle Vanya, Camille, Within the Gates, The Chalk Garden (with Dorothy) and opposite Sir John Gielgud in Hamlet and Crime and Punishment. Lillian also starred in Horton Foote’s stage and TV productions of The Trip to Bountiful, the Pulitzer Prize-winning All The Way Home and A Musical Jubilee, her last stage role in 1975.
While she went on to star for numerous other directors, Lillian remained a lifelong friend of Griffith, persuading him to contribute his films and papers to the fledgling Film Library of The Museum of Modern Art in 1936. Through a charitable trust, Lillian posthumously left more than $1.2 million to the Film Library’s preservation program.
In 1971, Lillian received an honorary Oscar from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and Kennedy Center Honors in 1982. The American Film Institute presented her with its Life Achievement Award in 1984. She died in 1993, seven months’ shy of her 100th birthday.