October 28, 2008 -- “The Whales of August” is a static still life portrait of a movie that doesn't really go anywhere in terms of drama or comedy. It is so obviously adapted from a play (by David Berry, who also wrote the screenplay) that it is almost impossible to imagine it escaping the bonds of a cramped stage set. The main reason to see this film is not the motionless story, but to see the end of a movie era. It is the last movie that Lillian Gish ever starred in. Indeed, at age 93, Gish, who starred in “Birth of a Nation” in 1915, is said to have set the record for oldest actress in a starring role in this 1987 film. It is also Ann Sothern's last film, and among the last films that screen legends Bette Davis and Vincent Price ever appeared in. Another longtime actor who appears in this film is Harry Carey Jr., who started his long career in the 1940s, appearing in classic westerns directed by Howard Hawks and John Ford, including “Red River,” “Rio Grande” and “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.” The film's director, Lindsay Anderson, was also nearing the end of a career of over 40 years in movies when this film was made. In many ways this film was a kind of last hurrah for several Hollywood legends.
Bette Davis (“All About Eve”), who plays the blind and frail Libby Strong, and Lillian Gish, who plays her sister Sarah Webber, spend their summers on an island off the coast of Maine and the rest of the year in Philadelphia. Judging by their interaction, Libby has most of the family's money. She also makes a lot of demands on her sister and seems to control her to an uncomfortable degree. Sarah seems to be getting ready to rebel against her increasingly irritable sister. Libby seems to be waiting for the end, rejecting any new experience. Sarah, however, says she's not ready yet for the end of her life. She embraces new experiences. Neighbors and other passersby pop into their lives from time to time. One neighbor, Tisha Doughty (Ann Sothern, who was nominated for an Academy Award for this performance) is an old friend of the sisters. She brings them blueberries and gossip about island residents. She hints that the sisters could move in with her if they want to sell their house. She even brings a Realtor to look over the place. The idea is rejected.
Libby and Sarah argue over the idea of putting in a large picture window in place of two smaller windows overlooking the sea. The argument seems to be about more than a window. It becomes an argument about Libby wanting to live in the past, while Sarah is still interested in the future. A smooth-talking gentleman, Mr. Maranov (Vincent Price of “Edward Scissorhands”), the guest of another island resident who recently died, makes his pitch to stay with the ladies, but is rudely rebuffed by Libby. Mr. Maranov shows the ladies his last bit of jewelry, given to him by his mother just before he escaped Russia and the bloody revolution. Mr. Maranov, a former Russian count, explains this last jewel, an emerald, will have to last him the rest of his life. Mr. Maranov makes a strategic retreat in the face of Libby's rebuff. The island handyman Joshua Brackett (Harry Carey Jr.) fixes the pipes in the ladies' house, forgets his wrench, and worries that he might be getting slow in his old age. He doesn't know what to do if he is forced to retire.
Lillian Gish steals this movie about facing the end of life with dignity. Even though she is the oldest member of the cast, she is the most vital, life-affirming member of it. She maneuvers unerringly through the minefield of emotions confronting her in the story. Bette Davis, the best known member of the cast, is effectively irritating as the bitter, complaining, passive-aggressive, uncooperative control freak. Price is excellent as the polite, smooth, amiable, charming gentleman who knows his place in the scheme of things. He knows he has to live on sheer wits and charm and doesn't mind admitting it. He even seems to genuinely enjoy his role of entertaining the ladies. Carey is good as the loud and gruff, but good-hearted handyman, and his is the only halfway decent Maine accent in the movie. Sothern is near-perfect as the nosy, talkative friend who is genuinely concerned about the future of her neighbors. Nothing much happens in this film and the real issues are never spoken aloud by the characters. The real issues seep in around the edges, unseen, like water oozing into a leaking lifeboat. This is not my cup of tea, but it is a fascinating last picture show for a likeable legendary acting troupe. This film rates a C.
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