Bringing ‘Whales’ to silver screen wasn’t easy (1987)

Desert Sun, 21 November 1987

Bringing ‘Whales’ to silver screen wasn’t easy

BY ALJEAN HARMETZ  – NY Times News Service

HOLLYWOOD – There were no deal whales in The Whales of August and no place to buy a cup of coffee on the island where the movie was made. The weather was nasty, and the director had to point his camera at whirlpools and pretend they were whales. The 90 year old star wore four pairs of leg farmers under her summer dress, but the 78-year-old co-star butted heads with the director every day.  Lillian Gish, Bette Davis, Vincent Price and Ann Sothern took the 40 minute ferryboat ride to Cliff Island in Casco Bay off the coast of Maine in September 1986 to make the most unlikely of movies. The protagonists were a pair of elderly sisters fighting over a picture window.

Bette Davis and Lillian Gish - The Whales of August, 1987
Bette Davis and Lillian Gish – The Whales of August, 1987

At a time when the core audience for movies is under 25, the combined age of the four principal actors was 317 years. “I thought the success of On Golden Pond would have made it easier to raise the money for The Whales of August.’ ” said the producer Mike Kaplan. But it didn’t. People think of ‘On Golden Pond’ and ‘Cocoon’ as flukes. And they would say, ‘Where’s the Jane Fonda character?’ But what attracted me to ‘Whales’ was that there was no younger-generation character, no gimmick.” The duties of producers vary.

Mike Kaplan and Lillian Gish during filming for 'The Whales of August'
Mike Kaplan and Lillian Gish during filming for ‘The Whales of August’

One of Kaplan’s biggest worries was finding three houses with bathrooms on the ground floor. Gish was 90, Davis had had a stroke. And Sothern’s back had been broken in an accident, making it increasingly difficult for her to walk.

Lillian Gish and film director Lindsay Anderson - The Whales of August
Lillian Gish and film director Lindsay Anderson

Casting any movie involves compromise, but the three ladies in Whales.” which opened in New York last week, were Kaplan’s first choices “Everything dies, sooner or later.” says the nagging voice of Libby, the disagreeable character Davis plays in “Whales of August.” It is obvious that Gish doesn’t believe that statement for a minute. Although Kaplan was apprehensive, Gish at 90 (she never had a birth certificate and may have been as young as 88, or as old as 93) was only slightly less mobile than she had been at 85.

Lindsay Anderson directing Lillian Gish in The Whales of August
Lindsay Anderson directing Lillian Gish in The Whales of August

She was, however, considerably more deaf. Davis is neither optimistic nor uncomplaining. Since she had not expected to be given a summer cottage without central heating, she made everyone’s first two weeks on the island extremely difficult. Bette does have her dukes up,” said Vincent Price, who played Sir Walter Raleigh to Davis’s Queen Elizabeth in “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex” 48 years ago. “Bette likes me. That doesn’t make us bosom buddies, but it keeps us from being enemies “She’s funny-bitchy.”

Bette Davis in The Whales of August 1987 V

“She smoked those 18 million cigarettes, and we giggled a great deal. She had 18 fires going in her cottage, and it was so hot you got drunk on one martini.” Kaplan had always planned “to star Bette Davis and Lillian Gish, wonderful actors from the golden age of movies who hadn’t appeared together.” Davis crossed him up by turning down the role of Libby six years ago. Her illness seemed to pound the final nail into his hopes, but she fought the stroke as angrily as she had fought directors and studios for 55 years. She struggled back, weighing less than 90 pounds, yet learning her own and everyone else’s lines perfectly as she always had. Whales gave her a chance to star in a movie and a movie that allowed her to go back to Maine, where she had lived for 10 years and raised two children.

Bette Davis - The Whales of August
Bette Davis – The Whales of August

“Half of Bette Davis is a real solid trouper and half is the victim of some temperamental compulsion.” said Lindsay Anderson, the director of “Whales.’’ “She’s difficult because she’s Bette Davis, not because she’s a star. She has an initial hostility to life and people that she has had all her life. But she was never concerned with what she looked like. She came to the rushes and never once said. Oh God. I look awful.’ She just wanted to get the character right.” Davis and Anderson had daily battles.

Lindsay Anderson rehearsing a scene with Lillian Gish (The Whales of August)
Lindsay Anderson rehearsing a scene with Lillian Gish (The Whales of August)

“They ended in a draw because Lindsay doesn’t back down.” said Harry Carey Jr. who found it astonishing that he was acting in a movie with Lillian Gish, three-quarters of a century after his father had starred with her in D.W Griffith’s “Musketeers of Pig Alley.”

The prickly Davis, who refused an interview for this article because she was too busy, was the most generous to the other actors. Sothern: She would call and compliment me. She would say abruptly; Ann, I just saw the rushes. It’s the nuts!’ and hang up.

Aljean Harmetz – NY Times 1987

Desert Sun, 21 November 1987
Desert Sun, 21 November 1987
whales of august - bette davis and lillian gish 1987
whales of august – bette davis and lillian gish 1987

 

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2 thoughts on “Bringing ‘Whales’ to silver screen wasn’t easy (1987)

  1. I was Bette Davis’ live in companion when she did the Whales of August out on Cliff Island Maine in Sept. and October 1986. The courage to stand in the wind at the edge of a cliff 100’s of feet above the crashing Atlantic Ocean waves below seemed effortless for these 3 women (Bette Davis, Lillian Gish and Ann Southern). They stood there for quite a bit of time while the camera was getting the perfect continuity. I had broken out in a sweat worrying for their lives. Bette knew how I felt and adamanently instructed me to stand down and wait for her to turn around and start walking back away from the edge before I could bring her her winter coat. The all were in late summer garb.

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