The Whales Of August

USA (1987) Dir. Lindsey Anderson

In a small cliff top house by the shores of Maine live two elderly sisters Sarah (Lillian Gish) and Libby (Bette Davis). The elder Sarah looks after he younger sibling whose eyesight is waning, as is her lust for life. When an old Russian aristocrat Mr. Maranov (Vincent Price) passes his time fishing nearby and family friend Tisha (Ann Sothern) drops by for a chat, Sarah is starting to wonder if it is time to sell up and move into a care home.

Based on the play by David Berry, The Whales Of August is memorable for its cast made up of mostly of elderly Hollywood legends but it marks the final screen appearances for both Ann Southern and Lillian Gish. It also introduces us to a more mellow Lindsay Anderson who, in the late 60’s and early 70’s, was something of a maverick in British cinema with such subversive masterworks as if… and O Lucky Man. Nothing so daring here, except a simple and charming tale which teaches us that life doesn’t have to end with old age.

The titular whales refer to the ones the sisters and Tisha would watch and welcome every summer as they passed by the shores. Unfortunately the whales haven’t returned which makes the first sign of change to enter the lives of the elderly siblings who have spent their summers at the seaside house for the past fifty years after it was built by their aunt.

The two sisters couldn’t be different from one another – Sarah is genial, amiable and always busy looking after the house and her sister; Libby is cantankerous, selfish, opinionated and often petulant, hampered by her failing eyesight but Sarah takes it all in her stride as her sister duty. Feeling sorry for herself Libby’s talk of death and how life is a cruel trick is becoming a source of upset for Sarah.

As it happens this particular day is also the forty-sixth wedding anniversary of Sarah and her late husband Phillip, whose passing it seems that Sarah has never got over. Her gregarious and oldest friend Tisha invites herself to the house for a cup of tea and immediately she can tell that the tension in the house is down to Libby.

Subtle as a sledgehammer, Tisha tries to encourage Sarah to think about selling up and leaving her past behind – including Libby – and sell up to afford a more comfortable life. Later that day Maranov dines with the sisters, espousing his own philosophy on moving on in life after the recent death of his female housemate. Coupled with Libby’s overt rudeness and irascible behaviour, Sarah gives the idea of moving on some serious thought for the first time.

It is very probable that film with a cast made up almost entirely of elderly actors will have limited appeal which is a shame as the themes and philosophies shared are substantial food for thought for any age group. The combined age of the main cast – including Harry Carey Jr who plays straight talking handyman Joshua Brackett – is 394 with a cumulative career span (up to that point) totalling 272 years. That is a lot of experience!

Lindsay Anderson, a sprightly 64 at the time, is tasked with harnessing that talent – no mean feat with the varied temperaments before him. One famous off screen incident came when Anderson remarked to Bette Davis one day about how Lillian Gish had delivered the perfect close up earlier. “She should” Davis replied dryly “She invented them!”

Playing the crabby and selfish Libby doesn’t seem much of a stretch for Davis whose reputation for being less than amiable is legendary. While she is able to make Libby as unpleasant as possible, her delivery is a tad stilted here, almost as though she is reading her lines from a card. This may be because her age had caught up with her as Davis would pass away two years later aged 81. For Ann Sothern (then 78) she might not have the mobility but she exudes the spirit and devious busybody energy her character requires. Both Vincent Price (76) and Carey Jr (67) are also vibrant for their ages, the former having not lost his suave charms since his heyday in Hammer horrors of the 60’s and 70’s.

And so to Lillian Gish. In her movie swansong after 75 years in the business (1912 -1987) you’d be forgiven for thinking that she was the younger sister, being far more active and alert than Davis despite being 94 years of age! While Davis may have seemed a little forced Gish was, as always, note perfect.

She is rewarded with a poignant solo scene in which she shares a glass of wine with her late husband, forty six roses, red and white, laid out on the table beside a photograph of him. After a sentimental toast, Sarah puts on a favourite record and stares wistfully into the night, stroking her cheeks with a red rose – until Libby ruins the moment following a supposed nightmare in which Sarah had deserted her. Sadly, there would be no Oscar nomination for Gish for this role despite being worthy of it.

Production wise this is very straight forward with barely any adventurous camera work employed. Keen eyed viewers will have noted the genuine photos from Lillian Gish’s personal collection of her mother, father and a doctored photo of her with younger sister Dorothy, replaced here with Davis. Also, the actress playing young Tisha in the opening flashback scene was Tisha Sterling, Ann Sothern’s real life daughter.

The Whales Of August has no pretensions of being anything other than charming and poignant story about the decisions we make in life and how they can affect us right to the end. Simple and superb.