Title: The Whales of August
Director: Lindsay Anderson
Screenwriter: David Berry
based on his own play
Music: Alan Price
Cinematography: Mike Fash
Harry Carey Jr.
For any cinephile, thrills and veneration aplenty can be elicited from the sole banner “a movie starring Bette Davis and Lillian Gish”, to say nothing of THE WHALES OF AUGUST is both celluloid doyennes’ (quasi) swan song (Davis’ penultimate, and Lillian’s last film), plus in a lesser extent, it also features a fine Vincent Price in his twilight years and bookends veteran entertainer Ann Sothern’s six-decade long career (and surprisingly, it is she who is given an Oscar nomination for a rather prosaic impression, which only precipitates one’s reckoning it is a token validation of the film per se and her hitherto unheralded track record), lastly, it is the final theatrical feature of director Lindsay Anderson, the high priest of British New Wave.
It is only logical that THE WHALES OF AUGUST is an elegiac piece of work cogitating and reminiscing about time, mortality, past glory and reconciliation, two elderly widow sisters, Sarah (Gish) diligently attends to her blind, elder sister Libby (Davis) in their seaward abode on Maine’s Cliff Island (In reality Gish was 93, 15-years senior of a 78-year-young Davis), while Libby has become ever so bitter and disagreeable to live with, Sarah is tempted to slough off the heavy burden and sell their house, encouraged by their common lifelong friend Tisha (Sothern), but after a visit from and sequentially a dinner with Nicholas Maranov (Price, still a handsome specimen of chivalry and proprieties, impeccably leaves a trace of hurt that otherwise, is beautifully hidden underneath his inscrutable facade), an old-money Russian expatriate who is forced to find a new lodging by his landlady’s sudden departure, the next morning, Sarah finds a new take on her and her sister’s status quo.
The sibling spat is endearingly a riff on WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? 25 years earlier, but here, there is no vendetta in their history, only two sisters, living their autumn days, one is comparatively agile, buoyant, has learnt to be philosophical towards loss and oblivion, but also adheres to the carpe diem motto, whereas the other is deviled by her unsighted affliction and senility, trying very hard to be the devil’s advocate just to upheld her fragile dignity. It surely arouses strong pathos to see these two legends carry their lines strenuously and retain their poise with discernible effort (especially Ms. Davis for her stroke-impaired articulation and gaunt physiognomy), as if they also realize this is the curtain call, Gish takes her time sedately and handles every movement in minute nicety, in contrast to Davis’ unvanquished spirit, who still aspires to hold court whenever the camera is on her, these two performances are sterling précis of their equally distinguished but radically disparate lasting screen images. But in the end of the day, it is Gish’s ingrain benevolence and cordial affection purveys us the ammunition of admiration and wistful nostalgia in this case.
From its daguerreotype-tinged opening to its repurposed finish, Anderson’s paean to dotage and all its trimmings is a rare bird belongs to a type of cinema endeavor neither beautifies or sentimentalizes its raw-nerve-touching subject matter, for all its banal simplicity and understated emotion, THE WHALES OF AUGUST is a miraculous entity even just for its own existence.