FILM; Gish and Davis: Could the Two Work Together?
By Mike Kaplan
The New York Times – April 18, 1993
When “The Whales of August” was filmed in 1986, the story of the relationship between two elderly sisters brought together two of the screen’s most enduring stars, Lillian Gish and Bette Davis. Miss Gish, who died Feb. 27 at the age of 99, will be remembered on Thursday at the Museum of Modern Art with a program called “In Memoriam.” It will include “The Whales of August,” her final film, directed by Lindsay Anderson, as well as her first, D. W. Griffith’s “Unseen Enemy” (1912). Here, Mike Kaplan, who co-produced “The Whales of August,” reflects on the interaction of its two stars.
In the tributes to Lillian Gish that followed her death, references to her final starring role in “The Whales of August” were always glowing. But they were invariably accompanied by a rehashing of stories about her difficulties with her co-star, Bette Davis.
These stories suggested that a feud had occurred between the legendary actresses. Although transferring David Berry’s play to the screen had more than its share of problems, many of them were caused by the ambitions of the film itself, an attempt to capture the lives of two disparate sisters who have lived and summered together for more than 60 years on a remote island off the coast of Maine. Like the stars, the main supporting actors (Ann Sothern, Vincent Price and Harry Carey Jr.) were over 70, and everything was to be filmed during early autumn on a rugged location on Casco Bay, 45 minutes by ferry from Portland.
As much as we tried to shorten the actors’ shooting schedule to an eight-hour-a-day, five-day week, the precariousness of Maine’s climate, together with the variety of temperaments on the international crew, always created an extended work week.
At the center, of course, were Lillian Gish, at 92 beginning the most demanding role ever undertaken by an actor of her age, and Bette Davis, at 78 returning to the big screen after a series of ailments that had left her, as she said, “carved up” but ready for action. Miss Gish was Sarah, the embracing romantic eager to install a picture window to better enjoy her remaining summers; Miss Davis was her blind sister, Libby, dependent on Sarah, cantankerous and starting to withdraw into herself as she faced her own mortality. Both were full-bodied star parts.
Competition is a word that never entered Miss Gish’s thoughts or vocabulary. She began working on the stage when she was 5 and never stopped. She began in film when it was an infant art and became a fundamental part of D. W. Griffith’s company as he invented and perfected the medium’s grammar. She was a pioneer by design and ancestry, and her approach to her work was devoid of ego or vanity.
Miss Davis’s film career began in the golden age of the studio system. In those days, an actress had to fight against the constrictions of typecasting, and even after winning an Oscar, she was denied roles she wanted. She sought legal means to gain artistic freedom, and eventually she broke the stranglehold of the studio contract. She never shrank from challenges, playing opposite more formidable female stars — Joan Crawford, Olivia de Havilland, Miriam Hopkins, Mary Astor — than any other major actress of her era. Competition was ingrained in her, and she approached each project with antennae overtuned for potential rivals and enemies.
So Lillian Gish and Bette Davis came to Cliff Island to become sisters on the screen, Miss Gish with an openness that had endeared her to everyone she had ever worked with; Miss Davis with a wariness built up during years of struggle and confrontation. Their different approaches to life could never make them friends, but they were consummate actresses whose interaction created a rare synergy. The director, Lindsay Anderson, put it succinctly: “Lillian acted from her heart; Bette, from her mind.”
Miss Gish’s shooting schedule was a week longer than Miss Davis’s, but both had to be on location the entire time. As the seventh week of filming began, I was particularly concerned about Miss Gish’s stamina. Although she conserved her resources, resting between shots, returning home immediately after the day’s filming, this was the week she would be working largely alone, and by the penultimate week of shooting a film, the emotional and physical drain on everyone is overwhelming.
Miss Gish’s scenes would include her most important — Sarah’s wedding-anniversary soliloquy to her deceased husband, Philip. There was an undercurrent of anticipation as midweek approached and the sequence was readied.
Miss Davis rarely stayed away from the set, even when she wasn’t filming. She came to protect her character, but she really craved the activity. By this point, all her major scenes had been completed, except for the nightmare confrontation, when Libby awakes with the fear of impending death and grasps her sister.
Miss Davis had made a brief appearance on Monday of that week, calling me aside to stress the importance of this remaining scene; how it was dramatically crucial; the way her wig had to look against the white of her nightgown, and so on. It was unusual for her to be so concerned about a scene so far in advance (we were four days away from filming it), but it was her way of saying: I’m still here, and don’t forget it.
Miss Davis loved the politics of the set. She loved assessing the crew’s individual strengths and weaknesses and monitoring everything, including the viewing of the dailies, which she religiously attended. (Miss Gish rested at home after her day’s work.) Miss Davis prided herself on her preparation, memorized everyone’s lines and instinctively recognized that with Miss Gish, as Vincent Canby later wrote in The Times, “scenes are not purloined when she’s on screen.”
The filming of Miss Gish’s soliloquy was technically difficult. It was to be shot in two sections: one accompanied by her monologue; the other, by a recording of her spoken thoughts. As Sarah, she toasts her husband with his words about their young love: “White for truth. Red for passion. . . . Passion and truth, that’s all we need.” Miss Gish imbued Sarah with all the joy of her romantic past and all the longing of her later life. We were transfixed.
Miss Davis had been properly absent for two days. On Thursday morning, however, she called me early. Would I come over? She had to see me. At her house, adjoining the location, she repeated all her concerns about the coming scene. The script called for her, as Libby, to grab Sarah out of fear, and Miss Davis acted out the episode with me. Although she was physically small and looked frail, she had a viselike grip. She was shaking my arms so much that they began to ache.
I walked to the set in a daze, worried about the next day’s filming. Miss Gish had gone through seven hard weeks and just completed one of her most difficult scenes. She was understandably tired. Miss Davis, by contrast, had been resting for five days and had evidently discovered new strength. In her eagerness to demonstrate Libby’s desperation, Miss Gish might be physically hurt.
It was not an easy scene to film. The action begins with Miss Davis interrupting Miss Gish’s reverie, crying out for comfort. Miss Gish tries to calm her, then tells her to go to bed.
Each time the interplay neared the point where Miss Davis grasps Miss Gish, I cringed. Although Miss Davis’s dialogue was poignant, her grappling was vigorous. I couldn’t tell if Miss Gish was acting out her agitated reaction or simply responding to the force of Miss Davis’s energy. I only imagined Miss Gish’s upper arms covered with black and blue marks, or worse.
Miss Gish left sooner than usual after the filming. I drove to her house in trepidation. Walking through the open door, I was startled to see a perpendicular figure in a green embroidered caftan, backlit by the sun. Miss Gish was positioned there, feet high on her upside-down board, gravity pulling blood to her head. I waited until she came upright.
The sun was setting over Casco Bay. We had often spent this time in silence, and we did again. When the sun set, and before the living-room lights came on, I asked how she felt.
“I enjoyed playing that scene with Bette today,” she answered contentedly. As usual, Miss Gish had elevated the situation.
The following evening, in a converted community hall, we viewed the nightmare sequence. Miss Davis’s performance was desperate and convincing, filled with a childlike fear. Miss Gish’s was consoling but firm, refusing to give in to her sister’s outburst.
As members of the company began to leave, I went over to Miss Davis, confident about the success of the scene. Normally, she was accompanied to dailies by assistants, but this evening she was alone.
“Well, Bette, how did you like it?” I asked.
She stood up carefully, locked eyes with me and said, “Lillian was really good in that scene.”