According to my math, the careers of the three leading ladies – Lillian Gish, Bette Davis, and Ann Sothern – in Lindsay Anderson’s The Whales of August total 191 years. And that is without taking into consideration their co-stars, among them Vincent Price and Harry Carey Jr. That’s an awful lot of acting experience for one film.
The Whales of August begins with the leisurely, early morning routines of two sisters living together in a small cottage on the coast of Maine in late summer. Sarah Webber (Lillian Gish) greets the day by working in the garden, dusting the house, and fixing breakfast for her blind sister, Libby Strong (Bette Davis). Sarah is upbeat, patient, and hopeful; Libby, on the other hand, begins her day cranky and irritable.
The two sisters share a lifetime of memories together, reminiscing much of the time and discussing their families. Conflict arises when the sisters must decide whether or not they should have a new picture window installed in their cottage. Sarah is excited about the prospect of having a view of the ocean, but Libby is resistant to change as she believes they’re too old to try new things.
The vast majority of the scenes in The Whales of August are focused on the two veteran stars: 91-year-old Lillian Gish and 79-year-old Bette Davis. The dialogue exchange between these two – from a screenplay by David Berry based on his own play – feels not only fresh and natural, but also quite realistic.
Additionally, The Whales of August features introspective moments in which the two women are silent and alone, their faces revealing a host of emotions: Gish as she gets ready for a “date,” and Davis caressing her cheeks with a feather, given to her from a lost love of long ago.
The film’s supporting cast couldn’t be better. The always delightful Ann Sothern plays Tisha, the blueberry-picking old friend. (Sothern’s real-life daughter with Robert Sterling, Tisha Sterling, plays the young Tisha.) With her flaming red hair and ample body while shuffling around with a cane, the Academy Award-nominated Sothern contributes a bright and cheery presence to the otherwise low-key story.
Vincent Price is Mr. Maranov, a deposed Russian aristocrat who remembers the good old Czarist days of splendor and grandeur. Now, however, he has been reduced to catching fish and living off the kindness of the small town’s elderly ladies. Although Mr. Maranov’s accent seems to be both elusive and imprecise, his gentlemanly demeanor and sincerity make him seem trustworthy.
Harry Carey Jr, for his part, plays Joshua: the old, noisy handyman, waiting around for permission to install the picture window. Carey Jr, who early in his career played supporting roles in John Ford Westerns, creates a fully convincing character, one with Maine speech patterns and a gruff exterior.
But the real delight in The Whales of August is the interaction – and the contrast – between Bette Davis and National Board of Review Best Actress co-winner Lillian Gish (who tied with Broadcast News’ Holly Hunter). Both actresses work brilliantly opposite one another. Gish gives a complex performance as a warm, sweet, old woman who knows her end is near, even though she is not ready to die. Davis also displays a great range of emotions as a blind woman afraid of dying. Although Libby is cranky by nature, Davis shows us that she still has a sense of humor, as in the scene where Libby sits back and laughs while dishing with the girls.
Lillian Gish, Bette Davis in Lindsay Anderson’s The Whales of August
Libby is also possessive of her sister, resenting the relationship between Sarah and Mr. Maranov. When Sarah invites the man to dinner, Libby scowls, “I will not eat his fish!”
More cutting dialogue continues over dinner, during which Libby is rude to the point of insulting their guest. When the subject turns to the past, Libby emphatically insists, “Photographs fade. Memories live forever.”
Mr. Maranov, however, notes, “Alas, Mrs Strong. Memories can fade too.”
Libby snaps, “That has not been my experience!”
The “whales” in the title refer to the women’s lost youth. Sarah and Tisha are anxious to see them one more time, but blind Libby seems not to care. Anticipating her own death, she is unable to understand why her sister continues to relish life.
Once again, the contrast between the two sisters is what makes their relationship fascinating. Their minor spats are frequent, but do not last for long. Sarah insists, “We are so different, you and I.” Libby responds, “We are strong stock, Sarah. And with precious little time.” (As a side note, make sure to pay close attention to the photos around the house, showing the two women in their youth. There is even one manipulated image of Lillian Gish and Bette Davis “together” in the 1930s.)
Ultimately, their dispute about installing a new picture window is only symbolic. Libby does not want to “try new things,” while Sarah is eager to enjoy what’s left of her life. “You can choose death if you’d like to. But life is not over for me!” she insists.
Eventually, Libby realizes how selfish she has been, especially considering that she doesn’t want to lose her sister to either Mr. Maranov or Tisha. She slowly becomes less abrasive, while Sarah regains her patience and determination. They’re then finally able to come to terms with their differences.
In the deliberately paced, lovingly directed The Whales of August, don’t expect action scenes, special effects, or explosions. This is all about old age, folks. Lindsay Anderson takes his time to tell a simple story about the affection and devotion of two sisters facing death in their own separate ways, with or without a new picture window.
Also worth noting is Mike Fash’s soft-focus but vibrant cinematography. Fash’s lighting, in fact, is flattering for the entire geriatric cast. In one beautiful scene, for instance, we see a close-up of Lillian Gish brushing Bette Davis’ long, thick, white hair; it almost seems to glow in the sunlight.
By now, everyone knows the stories that went around during (and after) the making of The Whales of August: Lillian Gish was quite deaf and Bette Davis was quite bitchy. According to one apocryphal story, when Anderson praised Gish after a stunning close-up, Davis groused, “Of course it’s a good close-up. The bitch invented the close-up!”
Well, Davis was almost right. After all, Gish had been around since near the beginning of film history. I should add that even if this anecdote were true, I can see how Davis would have meant it as a compliment: she was addressing Anderson, chastising him for even considering that Gish could give anything but a good close-up.
Although it is sentimental and may suffer from a sort of rigor mortis, The Whales of August is neither manipulative nor dull. Once the slow pace of the proceedings is accepted, the film becomes a powerful and compelling story of how aging affects us all.
Personally, the most moving scene is at the end when Libby asks Sarah to take her out to the cliff to wait for the whales. Libby’s hand stretches out and clasps Sarah’s. When their hands touch, they are finally connected with their past as well as their future.
Do the whales return?
“You never know,” Libby croaks. “You never know.”
THE WHALES OF AUGUST (1987). Director: Lindsay Anderson. Cast: Lillian Gish, Bette Davis, Vincent Price, Ann Sothern, Harry Carey Jr, Mary Steenburgen, Frank Grimes, Margaret Ladd, Tisha Sterling. Screenplay: David Berry; from his own play
© Danny Fortune
THE WHALES OF AUGUST
1 Academy Award Nomination
Best Supporting Actress: Ann Sothern