Golden With Age – Chicago Tribune, 1987

`The Whales Of August` Is A Screen Survivors` Showcase

Chicago Tribune archive, 1987 (trilogy)

February 08, 1987|By Clarke Taylor.

Bette Davis and Lillian Gish were holding each other tightly as they stood on the edge of a treacherous Maine cliff, two frail figures at the mercy of the wintry, Atlantic wind, waiting once more for the movie cameras to roll. “Do you want to rest, or do it again?“ called director Lindsay Anderson, before taking a second shot.

“No, let`s get it over with,“ Davis called back.

“All the things we have done have prepared us well for this, haven`t they?“ Davis asked Gish.

“Oh, yes, we`ve been well prepared,“ Gish said softly, nodding her head in agreement, and adding. “There were no stunt men, and we worked quickly.“ “Yes, that`s the way it was in the early days of motion pictures,“ said Davis, before the second and final “take“ of the shot.

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

“You look at these women, and you see the whole history of motion pictures,“ said Anderson`s 24-year-old assistant, Marc Sigsworth, who was in awe of the pioneering film actresses.

Lillian Gish, Bette Davis, Vincent Price and Ann Sothern - The Whales of August, 1987
Lillian Gish, Bette Davis, Vincent Price and Ann Sothern – The Whales of August, 1987

The history of motion pictures was on many minds in the little community of Casco Bay, Me., during the recent shooting of “The Whales of August.“ In addition to Gish, whose career stretches from D.W. Griffith`s silents to this, her 105th film, and Davis, the film features veteran actors Ann Sothern and Vincent Price. The $3-million film, which is due to be released by Alive Films some time this year, wrapped after eight weeks` shooting on this rugged island location, a rough 45 minutes by boat from Portland, Me.

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

“It`s been a film buff`s dream,“ said Harry Carey Jr., the fifth and youngest member of the small cast, himself a 40-year veteran of films, including 57 Westerns. Carey`s father was a pioneering film actor and star of numerous films by John Ford, a native of Portland.

Harry Carey

“The first day I worked, I walked into the room, and there was Bette Davis, Lillian Gish, Ann Sothern and Vincent Price, and for a cowboy actor that`s quite a jolt,“ said Carey, enthusiastically.

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

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity because of the combination of extraordinary elements that have come together here,“ said Sigsworth, who, like Anderson, is British. “The history, personalities, and techniques of these actors are very different, and they also represent virtually every film genre: silents, melodrama, Westerns, musicals, comedy and horror films.“

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

The low-budget film, by first-time scriptwriter David Berry, from his own play, is set on a Maine island during a two-day period in 1954. It focuses on Gish`s character and the difficult, demanding blind sister for whom she cares, played by Davis. Sothern plays a good-natured, but lonely lifelong friend and island neighbor of the two sisters, and Price plays a ruthless, Russian emigre in search of home.

Vincent Price and Lillian Gish - The Whales of August (promotional)
Vincent Price and Lillian Gish – The Whales of August (promotional)

The conflict revolves around the characters` confrontations with timeless questions of old age and how to carry on. Anderson, director of such socially conscious films as “This Sporting Life“ and “If . . .,“ said the title refers to the whales that once visited the Maine coast. Their disappearance, due to modern development, is a symbol of change.

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A new generation of actors has also been cast in “Whales.“ Mary Steenburgen, Margaret Ladd and Tisha Sterling appear in a flashback scene as the Gish, Davis, Sothern characters, respectively. Sterling is the daughter of Sothern and actor Robert Sterling.

Ann Sothern and Lillian Gish - The Whales of August
Ann Sothern and Lillian Gish – The Whales of August

“It`s a story of survival, and we are all survivors, by God, all of us,“ said Sothern, adding, “we have all been at it for a long time.

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

The extraordinary and long careers of all five actors were literally on display here with regularly scheduled on-island screenings of their films:

Gish`s “The Wind,`

` Davis` “All About Eve,`

` Sothern`s “Lady, Be Good,“

The Raven - Vincent Price (reading)

Price`s “The Raven`

WAGON MASTER (1950) - Ben Johnson - Harry Carey Jr.

` and Carey`s “Wagon Master.“

Ann Sothern b

But most of the attention was focused on the three actresses. “Lillian and Bette are the royal queens of the cinema, and I guess I`m the royal princess,“ said Sothern, pointing out that, at 67, she is the youngest of the three women.

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

Members of the young film crew often spent their free evenings playing poker with the gregarious Sothern, who brought her own chips. Or, on the set, during breaks and camera setups, they could be found lounging in the sun browsing through a picture book about Davis, “Bette Davis: A Celebration,“

Bette Davis - A Celebration
Bette Davis – A Celebration

or through Gish`s autobiography, “The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me.“

miss lillian gish in her new york apartment, photographed in 1972 by allan warren b

Often, when the actresses were on the set and free for a few moments, members of the crew could be heard reminiscing with Davis about her Warner Bros. days, or seated reverently at Gish`s feet listening to her reminiscences of Griffith, Charles Chaplin, or other film history.

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“You know, as a child I played with Sarah Bernhardt,“ she said, out of the blue, during one spontaneous session. “Of course, I couldn`t understand, because I couldn`t speak French . . .

Lillian Gish and Sir John Gielgud in "Hamlet"
Lillian Gish and Sir John Gielgud in “Hamlet”

“Who do you think is the best actor in the English-speaking world?“ she asked a rapt, silent young audience on another occasion. “Why, that`s easy,“ she answered for them. “Sir John Gielgud.“

 

 

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Golden With Age

`The Whales Of August` Is A Screen Survivors` Showcase

February 08, 1987|By Clarke Taylor.

Lillian Gish and Bette Davis - The Whales of August (the last scene)
Lillian Gish and Bette Davis – The Whales of August (the last scene)

“A lot of us on the crew have stuck this out because of the great respect we all have for these three women,“ said production coordinator Janice Reynolds, referring to the remote, no-frills location. “There have been difficulties, but (the actresses) haven`t been all that demanding and certainly not as demanding as some of the younger actors we`ve all worked with who have reached so-called stardom early and are already used to all the comforts and perks that come with it.

Lillian Gish - The Whales of August
Lillian Gish – The Whales of August

“These women are sitting here in their houses, with a companion, or sometimes alone, and every once in a while they call to ask us to bring something to them, usually something like decaffeinated coffee,“ said Reynolds.

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

The warm relationship that developed over eight weeks between the actresses and the crew was evidenced one day after Sothern`s last shots in the movie, when she made a spontaneous speech:

Ann Sothern and Vincent Price - The Whales of August
Ann Sothern and Vincent Price – The Whales of August

“I`ve done a lot of movies, but never with a more solicitous, dedicated crew than you guys. I`ve had a wonderful time, and I`ll never forget you,“ she said.

Lillian Gish - The Whales of August
Lillian Gish – The Whales of August

“And we`ll never forget you!“ responded Gish.

Said Sothern privately, on a more serious note, after she left the set:

“How do we know that this is not going to be the last hurrah for all of us?“

Lillian Gish, Bette Davis, Vincent Price and Ann Sothern - The Whales of August, 1987
Lillian Gish, Bette Davis, Vincent Price and Ann Sothern – The Whales of August, 1987

It was in 1981 when the film`s co-producer, Mike Kaplan, first saw Berry`s play at the Trinity Square Repertory Theater in Providence, R.I. He said he immediately saw it as a vehicle for Gish, whom he first met 18 years ago while working as a publicist on MGM`s “The Comedians,“ and possibly for Davis as well. Kaplan recounted the usual struggle to find interest and funding for the specialized film, which he was determined to make without the obligatory

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - Lillian and Paul Ford in MGM's The Comedians (1967 - R.Burton - E.Taylor) — with Lillian Gish.

“sure-fire box-office“ star. He said Gish committed to the film soon after he took her to see an Off-Broadway production of the play, and that Anderson agreed to direct shortly thereafter. He said Davis declined the first time she was offered the role, but had agreed by the time he made his last rounds to the major Hollywood studios, including MGM, Paramount, 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros.

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

Kaplan also said that Sothern was considered for her role early on and that John Gielgud was the actor first considered for the role now played by Price.

“All the studio people said they liked the film, but,“ recalled Kaplan, who said he got all the“classic reasons“ for rejections, such as the fact that “people don`t want to see a movie about old people,“ or the fact that there was no “Jane Fonda role,“ as in “On Golden Pond,“ to add a youthful point of view. But the project finally came together last spring with the formation of Alive Films (a result of the split-up of Island Alive Films). Kaplan is president of marketing for Alive and is co-producing this, his first film, with Alive`s co-chairman Carolyn Pfeiffer.

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

Gish, Davis and Sothern all credited Kaplan for keeping the film project going, and Alive Films for taking what Davis referred to as “a tremendous box-office gamble.“ They all expressed hope, but also great skepticism, that in today`s movie market, the film would be a success.

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“I didn`t do it because it was a gamble, I don`t want to gamble anymore, I want to make money,“ Davis said candidly, adding “and frankly, I think there are enough movies with old people–sometimes I think there are too many–thank you very much. I did it because it was a good script and a good part. I don`t know why I changed my mind, I just did,“ she said. She also thought “it would be nice“ to make a theatrical film after an eight-year absence, during which she endured a stroke, a mastectomy and a major hip operation.

Lillian Gish in "The Whales of August" (1987)
Lillian Gish in “The Whales of August” (1987)

Gish declined to talk about the film in any detail. “I haven`t seen it, it isn`t finished, I don`t know what it`s like, and I won`t know until I do see it,“ said Gish, noting that she does not see daily rushes of her films, because “I think I`d look terrible and would be discouraged.“ She said she committed to the role because she liked the idea of the film and because she couldn`t say no to “a fine, dear face“ like Kaplan`s. “I never thought at all about the character.“

Lillian Gish - The Whales of August
Lillian Gish – The Whales of August

Gish had returned to her island quarters after a 12-hour, nearly non-stop day on the set, changed into a full-length, green velvet lounging gown and was rushing a visitor over to a picture window overlooking Casco Bay to catch the sunset.

Lillian Gish in "The Whales of August"
Lillian Gish in “The Whales of August”

“Now, if you want an interview, just ask me questions,“ said Gish, as if following an obligatory routine of her 81-year-long career, but with her mind and her voice still clear as crystal.

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“I started working so young (at age 5) that I don`t know how to play,“ she said, when asked how she coped with the strenuous schedule demanded of a leading role.

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Golden With Age

`The Whales Of August` Is A Screen Survivors` Showcase

February 08, 1987|By Clarke Taylor.

Final scene - real photographs of Lillian Gish's relatives (The Whales of August)
Final scene – real photographs of Lillian Gish’s relatives with some add ins suited for “The Whales of August”

Throughout the day, shooting a cramped kitchen scene with Sothern, Gish demonstrated that there was more to her work. She moved slowly, and found difficulty remembering and hearing her lines, and she seemed passive, almost indifferent as she sat silently awaiting the call to “action.“ But when the cameras rolled she seemed to switch on, too, speaking her lines in the right mood, and looking into the right light at just the right time, as though she knew exactly what to do–meticulously, professionally and effortlessly. At one moment, Sothern was overheard whispering to Gish, “It`s an honor to act with you, darling.“

Ann Sothern and Lillian Gish - The Whales of August
Ann Sothern and Lillian Gish – The Whales of August

“She is completely unique,“ said Anderson. “These are not just Hollywood stars,“ he said of the three actresses, “they are artists.“

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

Sothern, who has not made a feature film since 1976, when she suffered a severe back injury in a stage mishap, was the opposite of Gish on the set. Feisty, and appearing to move in a whirlwind, despite the fact that she actually moved very slowly and only with the aid of a cane, Sothern demonstrated her experience as an actor on stage and in 75 films, as well as a production executive on her long-running (nearly 200 episodes) TV series.

Ann Sothern (Radio star)
Ann Sothern (Radio star)

“It`s a dammed good thing we know what we`re doing,“ she growled, at the reminder of “too little rehearsal time. “I know about production. I know how to cut a film,“ she said, acknowledging that she and Anderson “have had it on a couple of times. “But it all comes down to respect. There have been no big ego clashes here,“ she said.

Bette Davis in The Whales of August 1987 V

Everyone on location would not have said the same about Davis. “She is difficult,“ said one after another of those who worked closely with her, from the unit photographer, to British production designer Jocelyn Hebert, to Anderson. They also all called her “totally professional.“

Bette Davis by Ron Galella

Toward the end of a difficult day`s shooting, during which she gave what Anderson called “a brave and serious performance“ as the old, silver-haired blind woman, Davis agreed to put a reporter to her test. Earlier, she had put the entire company to the test, by declining to shoot a scene that had been planned and carefully set up for the day, because the wig she was to wear in a closeup shot did not suit her. She worked out a compromise shooting schedule with the crew, however, resulting in little waste of time or money. Said Kaplan: “She knows what we have to get done, maybe more than anybody does.“ Having changed from her dowdy costume into chic gray slacks and silk blouse, and draped in a full-length mink coat, Davis seemed strong and indomitable as ever as she sat alone with the reporter in a rustic room off the set and proceeded to take control of an interview. Chain-smoking, she brushed aside attempts to discuss the challenge of her latest role–“it`s not so tough, although I guess photographing me without my eyes is totally different“–and she also cooly cut off an attempt to discuss the history represented by the five actors on the location.

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

“You can`t talk about Miss Gish and me together,“ she snapped. “It`s all totally different. She`s 81 years an actress, starting in the silents. It`s fun that we`re working together, but there is nothing similar in our backgrounds . . . Well,“ she added, on second thought, “she did start in the theater, which I never knew until I read her book here, and her mother was a tremendous help to her, just as mine was to me. But we are totally, totally different actresses. At the risk of jeopardizing any rapport that had emerged, she was asked for her thoughts about being considered “difficult.“

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“Well, if they hire me, and don`t know I can be difficult, it`s too bad,“ she said, quickly adding, “but it`s not a question of being difficult. Sometimes, there is a very important issue at stake. “Lately, if I feel that I am going to get into a big hassle on a film, I am apt to say to myself, `Forget it,` You get lazy. Then, I give myself a talking to and say, `No, you must say something, you owe it to the film.` “Today, for instance, my wig was not right. I thought to myself, `I am the one who is going to be seen up there (on screen),` and that gave me great insecurity. I agreed to do a big, wide shot of the scene, because they had it all set up. And I thought, now, I suppose I should let them go on and do the rest of it. And then I thought, no, it would not be right, I wouldn`t be secure and I wouldn`t play it as well. I thought, I`ve done the rest of the scene, and now we`ll pick this up tomorrow.

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

“It all boils down to professionalism, which also means accepting a responsibility for the film.“ she said, adding, “we`re much more professional, we older people who have been in this business for a long time.“

Lillian Gish and Bette Davis (The Whales of August)
Lillian Gish and Bette Davis (The Whales of August)

Outside in the encroaching cold of another sunset, Gish and Sothern, white from the cold and shivering, were preparing to shoot Sothern`s final scene. The crew was rushing to get the final moments of the day`s light, but Gish, apparently noting that the camera angle was not set correctly on her face, stopped everyone short by uncharacteristically speaking up.

Lillian Gish - The Whales of August
Lillian Gish – The Whales of August

“I`m looking up, not down, or else my eyes will look half closed,“ she said, suggesting with a slight nod the correct angle. “Look through the camera,“ she said to a skeptical but attentive and now dutiful camera crew. And with the adjustment made, she looked out at the Atlantic Ocean whitecaps as though she really could spot a whale. And the scene was quickly completed.

Lillian Gish - The Whales of August
Lillian Gish – The Whales of August

“Nobody needs to tell her how to do it,“ whispered one young member of the crew to another.

“She invented it.“

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Cannes, 1987

Cannes, 1987

Back to Lillian Gish Home page