The other day, FlickChick noted in a comment that she'd hoped to see a mention of Miriam Cooper somewhere in my write-up of D.W. Griffith's epic masterpiece Intolerance, but alas, it was a short review and I was destined to disappoint her.
Like most silent performers whose careers didn't stretch into the sound era, Cooper is nearly forgotten today, with her reputation resting on the handful of surviving films, most made for Griffith. She was born in Baltimore in 1891 to affluent parents, but slid into poverty and then an orphanage after her father abandoned the family and her mother took ill.
Cooper made her film debut in the Griffith short The Duke's Plan, but really established herself in a series of short Civil War pictures made at Kalem Studios. "I was a stunt girl; I didn't do any acting."
Her first real picture with Griffith was Home, Sweet, Home, an early attempt to stitch four separate narratives together using a common theme (John Howard Payne's song "Home, Sweet, Home"). Cooper's role wasn't much—just a bit part in the second story as a woman who briefly catches Robert Harron's eye—but Griffith must have seen something because the following year he cast her as Mae Marsh's older sister in The Birth of a Nation.
In his book Silent Players, film historian Anthony Slide praised Cooper's acting as "modern" and "naturalistic."
"I think I must have been some sort of a natural actress," Cooper said later while cheerfully admitting to having no real formal technique or clear idea how to create the effect she wished to achieve.
"I couldn't cry to save my soul," she said of one scene played for Griffith. "He pulled a chair up [and said] 'Miss Cooper, I didn't want to tell you this, but your mother has just died.'" She cried buckets.
Cooper's best surviving performance was as "the Friendless One" in the Modern sequence of Intolerance. After murdering her philandering boyfriend, a slum gangster, Cooper played her grief and guilt so realistically, she bit her lower lip hard enough to draw blood. (In a later film, she permanently damaged her eyes by staring soulfully into a Klieg light.)
During the filming of Intolerance, Cooper and Raoul Walsh (who would later direct such films as White Heat and High Sierra) married—secretly, since Griffith was himself romantically interested in the actress. Not until after Walsh moved over to Fox studios did they make their marriage known.
Cooper made 100 movies in her career, but largely abandoned acting after her marriage, working only for her husband after they left Griffith. She made her last movie in 1923.
Cooper and Walsh had two children together but she divorced the chronically philandering director in 1925 and never remarried. She invested her movie money well, however, and lived comfortably until her death in 1976, touring the country as a golf enthusiast and playing well enough to sink holes-in-one in three different states—no doubt some sort of record among golfing ex-silent film actresses!