Marvelous performances by Bette Davis, Lillian Gish, Vincent Price, and Ann Sothern distinguish The Whales of August, a simple, elegant tale with very little plot, but plenty of relatable, resonating themes. Though this subdued character study might not appeal to all audiences, those willing to take the journey with these extraordinary actors will be richly rewarded. Strong video and audio transfers and a veritable treasure trove of rare and captivating supplements make this a recommended release.
"Everything dies sooner or later."
Legends, however, live forever. And few movies hammer that point home more forcefully than The Whales of August. Director Lindsay Anderson's touching portrait of two elderly sisters dealing with the ravages of age in their rustic seaside home on an island off the Maine coast strikes a universal chord, but the real pleasure of this wispy, quiet film comes from watching four members of Hollywood royalty ply their craft and enjoy one final hurrah. Lillian Gish, Bette Davis, Vincent Price, and Ann Sothern are all gone now, but their immortal work secures for them a very special place in both entertainment history and the hearts and minds of legions of loyal movie fans. This fine, uplifting film salutes not only them, but also the indomitable spirit of every aged American who forges ahead and continues to meet the ever-increasing - and daunting - challenges of life.
Adapted from the play by David Berry, The Whales of August is all about devotion, duty, compromise, and the steely spines of hardy New England folk who cherish simple pleasures and wear their stubborn self-reliance like a badge of honor. There’s not much plot, but the intriguing characters, bucolic setting, and magnetic actors cast enough of a spell to keep us involved, and the 90-minute running time is just right for this type of understated, lyrical tale. Unlike similar films that test the patience of their audience, The Whales of August never overstays its welcome. It lasts just long enough to make its points, then wisely concludes so the themes can percolate.
Sarah Webber (Gish) and her older sister, Libby Strong (Davis), have lived together since their respective husbands died many years ago, but as they age and deteriorate, their unbreakable bond begins to show signs of strain. Most of the year, they reside in Libby’s stately Philadelphia home, but they make an annual summer pilgrimage to Sarah’s picturesque seaside cottage in Maine, where they enjoy the cooler weather, natural landscape, and uninterrupted tranquility. Yet this particular year, the atmosphere isn’t quite as peaceful. Libby, who has gone blind and become increasingly frail, depends on Sarah more than ever before, and her sour demeanor, demanding attitude, and bitterness over the past and future both contribute to her decline and heighten tensions with her tolerant, solicitous, and optimistic sister. Sarah tries valiantly to bolster Libby’s spirits and cater to her needs, but begins to wonder whether she still has the stamina for the job, and whether she and Libby might be better off living apart.
Over the course of the story’s two days, their dear friend Tisha (Sothern), whom they’ve known since childhood, drops by and bemoans the loss of her driver’s license, and the sisters entertain the dapper Mr. Maranov (Price), a transient, lonely widower who’s traveling through the area trying to find meaning in life after his wife’s death. Libby also vetoes Sarah’s idea of installing a bay window in the front room of the house to showcase their beautiful view, saying they’re too old for new things. That’s about the extent of the film’s drama, but through their conversations, the characters do evolve. The baby steps they take may seem trivial, but at their advanced age, any change is monumental.
Beautifully filmed on location and directed with sensitivity and a keen perception that makes the simple story ring true, The Whales of August provides most of us with a preview of how our lives will evolve. Yet amid the loneliness, regret, and ever encroaching infirmities that will ultimately consume us, the movie depicts the power of personal connection, the pleasures derived from trivial pursuits, and how nature, fresh air, and familial roots revitalize us. The screenplay may speak softly, but the underlying emotions are potent enough to cut through the mundane action and creep into our consciousness.
And that’s largely due to the impeccable performances. All the actors - even the typically histrionic Davis - underplay to perfection, embracing the nuances of their respective roles and embodying their characters. Gish is a bona fide treasure, and she exudes a mesmerizing radiance. Thanks to her long tenure in silent cinema, she doesn’t need dialogue to express what she feels; it’s all in her serene and beautiful face. Davis is less natural, but she always was, even in her prime. She can’t contain the classic mannerisms, but they’re more muted, and though we can never divorce the Davis persona from any part she plays, she nevertheless crafts a finely etched portrayal of a crusty, cantankerous old lady. Her frail and emaciated appearance is a bit of a shock, but it belies the invulnerable soul within, and the combination of the two makes it impossible to take our eyes off of her whenever she’s on screen.
It’s refreshing to see Price in a non-horror role, and his elegance and charm remind us of his captivating early performances in Laura and The Keys of the Kingdom. (He also played Sir Walter Raleigh to Davis’ Elizabeth I in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex almost four decades before.) Sothern projects an infectious ebullience that always grabs attention, and her natural, relatable work earned her well-deserved recognition. Many thought Gish and Davis would be shoo-ins for Oscar nominations, but Sothern wound up garnering the film’s only nod, though she would lose the Best Supporting Actress prize to Olympia Dukakis in Moonstruck.
For many in its cast and crew, The Whales of August would prove to be a final film, which lends the production an additional air of melancholy. Gish, who at 93 was - and still remains - the oldest actress to assume a leading role in a feature film, would never act again, nor would Sothern. Anderson would never direct another full-length movie, and Davis, who was already in poor health while shooting The Whales of August (she had recently suffered a series of debilitating strokes), would only make a brief appearance in one more picture before her death two years later.
Yet they are all very much alive here, and just watching them walk across the frame and perform bits of insignificant business is a pleasure. The Whales of August may be a trifle - albeit a meaningful one - yet Gish and Davis are towering giants who defy age and time. They command the screen with as much confidence as they did in their heyday, and their presence remains riveting. This film is a love letter to them and to those of us who appreciate their careers and legacies. Sarah and Libby won’t live forever, but on film, Lillian and Bette will.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The Whales of August arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. A 16-page booklet - Five 'Whales' Tales by the film's producer Mike Kaplan - featuring various articles about the production and cast along with several color and black-and-white photos is tucked inside the front cover. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
A vibrant, colorful 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer brings The Whales of August to brilliant life, with excellent clarity and contrast leading the charge. Grain is evident, but the texture it supplies lends the image a lovely film-like feel. Hues are bright and lush, from the crystal blue sky and sea to the red roses and green foliage that grace the sisters' oceanfront property, and flesh tones remain natural and stable throughout. Black levels are appropriately deep, whites are crisp, and background details are easy to discern. While sharp close-ups highlight the wrinkles and creases on the faces of the aged cast, their natural presentation is both beautiful and affecting. Occasionally, the sky appears a bit noisy and some softness pervades a few isolated scenes, but only a couple of stray marks dot the pristine material. Despite a few hiccups, this is a fine transfer that showcases the picturesque setting and Mike Fash's beautiful cinematography.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track supplies clear, well-modulated sound, but there's not much separation in this stereo mix. The Whales of August is a quiet, dialogue-driven film, and all the conversations are well prioritized and easy to comprehend. Atmospherics, such as the churning sound of the sea, gentle breezes, and chirping birds, nicely complement the action without overwhelming it, and subtleties like creaky doors and floorboards are well rendered. Alan Price's understated music score enjoys sufficient presence and depth, and though the dynamic scale is limited, it captures all the highs and lows without a hint of distortion. Best of all, no age-related hiss, pops, or crackles intrude. This is a muted track, but it handles its chores with ease.
Kino really packs on the supplements for the Blu-ray debut of The Whales of August, and the studio's enthusiasm for this release makes the presentation very special for fans of Davis, Gish, Price, Sothern, and the film itself.
Audio Commentary - Producer Mike Kaplan sits down with film historian Stephen Farber for an absorbing commentary that includes many anecdotes and insights. Kaplan talks about his long-standing friendship with Gish and desire to find a contemporary film for her, the differences between the play and movie, the importance of the film’s location, the arduous casting process, and the relationship between Gish and Davis. He also discusses Davis’ need for off-screen drama, a “tiff” between Price and Anderson over proposed script revisions, and why The Whales of August struck such a chord in Japan. Kaplan’s enthusiasm for the film is infectious, and his lively remarks give the impression more drama transpired off the screen than on it.
Peer Talk: The Raw September 1986 Interviews with Stars Bette Davis, Lillian Gish, Vincent Price, Ann Sothern & Harry Carey Jr. (SD, 73 minutes) - These fascinating interviews were shot on location about five weeks into the film's production and allow these legends to express their views on a variety of topics. Price, who's sharp as a tack, well spoken, and delightfully witty, talks about what attracted him to the project, the challenges of the material, working with "living legends," and the fraternity of Old Hollywood, while a down-to-earth, direct, humble, and very gracious Gish discusses her commitment to work, the film's themes, her lengthy 81-year career, the importance of good manners, her preference for silent pictures over sound, and working with John Gielgud on stage in Hamlet. In addition to expressing her thoughts about The Whales of August, Sothern recalls her roots in musical theater, her name change, how she landed her most famous role (Maisie), and the magical atmosphere at MGM, and Carey extols the virtues and professionalism of the cast and director, analyzes his character, and relates how he learned the Maine dialect. The Davis chat caps this collection, and it's typical Bette. She's combative, a tad belligerent, impatient, and doesn't seem to want to do the interview. In her brusque manner, she talks about playing a blind woman, the difficulties of living up to one's fame, and how the Cliff Island location is "not my kind of Maine." She's guarded with her praise of others and dismisses any notion there are connections between her and any character she has played. Surprisingly, she states her number one motivation for making the film is money and she is not particularly enjoying the process. Davis is the quintessential diva, and at almost 80 years of age, she holds court like the Hollywood queen she is and always will be.
Behind the Camera: Raw September 1986 Interviews with Director Lindsay Anderson, Cinematographer Mike Fash and Production Designer Jocelyn Herbert (SD, 29 minutes) - The creative team comments on the film's production, beginning with Anderson, who talks about why he wanted to make The Whales of August, the difficulties of working with temperamental performers, his aversion to Hollywood due to the lack of creative freedom, and the challenges this particular film presented. Fash praises the location and its picturesque nature, examines his collaboration with Anderson, compares Davis and Gish to younger actresses, and appreciates their talent and professionalism. And Herbert discusses the film's look, hunting for appropriate furniture, procuring meaningful set decorations the actors could really use and relate to, and her symbiotic relationship with Anderson. Some behind-the scenes photos and footage this interesting piece.
Interview: "Sister Sarah with Mary Steenburgen" (HD, 14 minutes) - Steenburgen, who's only in the film for a few short minutes (she plays the Lillian Gish character as a young woman in a brief prologue), gives a glowing interview about the inspiring experience of making The Whales of August. She expresses her deep admiration for Anderson, Davis, Gish, and Price, and explains her prior connections to all of them. She also honors Gish's commitment to feminism and her craft, and recalls the privilege of watching these legends work on the set.
Interview: "Sister Libby with Margaret Ladd" (HD, 12 minutes) - Ladd, who portrays the Bette Davis character in the prologue and is perhaps best known for her long-running role on the TV series Falcon Crest, calls making The Whales of August "a magical experience." She shares her memories of her childhood friendship with producer Mike Kaplan and how she had worked previously with Gish in Robert Altman's A Wedding, extols the joy of acting, recounts a "naughty" story involving Davis, lauds Gish's serenity, and terms filmmaking a "great philosophical journey."
Interview: "Tisha with Tisha Sterling" (HD, 16 minutes) - Sterling is the real-life daughter of actress Ann Sothern and in this candid interview she talks about how thrilled she was to play her mother as a young woman in the film. She recalls her first - and only - meeting with the legendary and intimidating Davis, the ladylike gentility of Gish, her difficult, often painful relationship with her mother, and the intimate connection between Sothern and Gish. She also reads an excerpt from a memoir she wrote about her mother concerning their time on The Whales of August and Sothern's disappointment over not winning the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for the film.
Interview with Executive Producer Shep Gordon (HD, 6 minutes) - Gordon calls The Whales of August "the most beautiful piece of art I was ever involved with." He confesses he wasn't an active participant during shooting, but he brought the finished movie to the Cannes Film Festival. He shares his memories of his time there with Gish, as well as a little-known connection between the actress and Diana, the Princess of Wales, who attended the event.
Mike Kaplan Vignettes (HD, 7 minutes) - The producer of The Whales of August recounts a few of his random experiences involving the film. The first vignette addresses the hurt Bette Davis felt over the publication of her daughter's nasty tell-all book and how it influenced a meeting between her, Ann Sothern, and Sothern's daughter, Tisha Sterling. In the second, Kaplan recalls a memorable interaction with a Portland, Maine cab driver at the time of the movie's 25th anniversary showing, and in the third, he honors one of the residents of Cliff Island, where The Whales of August was shot.
Film Excerpt: Never Apologize: Malcolm McDowell on Lindsay Anderson (SD, 10 minutes) - This clip of McDowell talking about The Whales of August comes from the film version of a one-man theatrical show about McDowell's long-standing professional relationship with Anderson. Here, he mostly reads from Anderson's diary, quoting the director's impressions of his two leading ladies and their opposing personalities.
Music Video: You Can Never Tell (HD, 6 minutes) - Clips from the movie, still photos, and posters of previous films associated with the cast comprise this brand new music video, which features music and lyrics by producer Mike Kaplan and vocals by actress Tisha Sterling. Some liner notes detailing the song's genesis and explaining its meaning follow the video.
Simplicity, elegance, gorgeous locations, and the marvelous performances of a quartet of legends distinguish The Whales of August. Director Lindsay Anderson's adaptation of the play by David Berry has very little plot, but the vivid, aged characters portrayed by Bette Davis, Lillian Gish, Vincent Price, and Ann Sothern carry the day, and the relatable themes swirling about them resonate as deeply as the picturesque Maine shoreline. Kino's Blu-ray presentation features strong video and audio transfers and a veritable treasure trove of rare and captivating supplements. This subdued character study might not appeal to all audiences, but those willing to take the journey with these extraordinary actors will be richly rewarded. Recommended.