The Whales of August
- Lillian Gish as Sarah Webber
- Bette Davis as Libby Strong
- Vincent Price as Mr. Maranov
- Ann Sothern as Tisha Doughty
A splendid cast of cinematic icons stars in The Whales of August; a warm, subtly moving and charming story of growing old and reflecting on life in the twilight years, that takes place over the course of a day and a half.
On a Maine island in an old-fashioned cottage, aging Sarah Webber lives with her older sister Libby Strong. Sarah is the genial, warm yet firm sister, whereas Libby, who has gone blind, is bitter and cantankerous towards everyone around her. The cottage they live in is one they have been linked to for decades. As young ladies, they would stay and watch as the whales passed by. Now all those years later, the two sisters are living together in the autumn of their lives. Yet while there is love between them, Libby’s mean streak and bleak outlook put her at odds with sincere Sarah, who wants to still do things while she’s able to. As the two attempt to make a sort of compromise, they begin to recall their past adventures and events in their lives. Both women are widowed and craving a sense of companionship, but the waspish Libby pushes people away while Sarah is gregarious. Their childhood friend, well-meaning but nosy Tisha Doughty stops by to check on them and reminisces on their friendships over the long years. Also passing by is Mr. Maranov, a member of Russian nobility who is now penniless and depends on the kindness of others. Maranov takes a shine to the sprightly Sarah and this causes her to think of the husband she lost and what she should do about Libby. Should she ask for help with her difficult sister? Or should she stick with her and attempt to reach her buried good side in the hopes of mending their often fractious relationship?
With a natural sense of direction, Lindsay Anderson creates a film of moving warmth and tenderness. He doesn’t overplay anything and makes do with the small but very beautiful setting of Maine. There is no visual trickery to speak of, just good old-fashioned directing that is simple to follow. He allows the actors to really show their ability and never lets them resort to histrionics. In fact, one of my worries before watching The Whales of August was that it would be very dull. I was pleased when I found that the film was anything but. There are those who will say that nothing much happens during the course of the movie. In fact, quite a lot of things takes place over the day and the half the movie covers. It just doesn’t do it in an overly dramatic way, everything is subtle and very authentic. And to be honest, this movie wouldn’t have worked if it was melodramatic and over the top. The tone just feels so right in this movie and while some of it is a bit slow, it is a minor niggle in a beautiful film examining how we react to growing older and the passage of time. There is also a welcome lack of sentimentality to The Whales of August, which benefits the movie hugely. Sure the film is warm and sweet, but it never becomes cloying in the slightest due to the precise direction, subtly drawn drama and work of the actors. A fleeting and very wistful score goes to the heart of the themes on show and creates the nostalgic longing for the past that is expressed by many of the characters.
Lillian Gish, who was 93 at the time of making this movie, is a complete marvel. Sprightly and filled with guile and warmth, she makes Sarah such a beautifully sympathetic character. I liked how Gish didn’t resort to making Sarah just a saint, she showed that she could be firm and decisive, while still recalling the days of her youth with a fondness and bittersweet taste. This was the last film role for Lillian Gish after a career spanning multiple decades, and it was a stunning send off to a gifted actress. Bette Davis, who was old at the time and suffering with her health, also delivers a splendid performance. She is extremely adept at showcasing Libby’s bitterness brought on by age and blindness, but through subtle gestures we see that underneath everything she just wants someone to care for. Davis was not exactly known for her subtlety in her performances, but her work here shows a moving natural progression from waspish to ultimately longing and caring. Vincent Price, in a non-horror role, is suitably amiable and full of grace as Mr Maranov who becomes fond of Sarah. Ann Sothern is utterly delightful as the slightly nosy but always loyal best friend to the sisters.
An evocative study of age, the memories we collect and the autumn years of one’s life, The Whales of August is a beautifully rendered movie, given depth by wonderful direction and especially the work of silver screen legends Lillian Gish and Bette Davis.