Mainly About Lindsay Anderson (Whales of August) by Gavin Lambert – 2000

  • Mainly About Lindsay Anderson
  • Copyright © 2000 by Gavin Lambert

Lindsay Anderson was the most original British filmmaker and theatrical director of his generation. His films //. . . . Lucky Man!, and Britannia Hospital createda Human Comedy of life in Britain during the second half of the twentieth century and were witty, daring, and often prophetic. This Sporting Life and Lucky Man! made Richard Harris and Malcolm McDowell international stars; The Whales of August provided Lillian Gish, Bette Davis, and Ann Sothern the opportunity to give extraordinary farewell performances.

Director Lindsay Anderson and Lillian Gish at Cannes Festival – 1987

The Whales of August

As Lindsay grew older, the contradictions in the nature of the person became more extreme, and the next film he made reflected them. Its producer, Mike Kaplan, was a friend and admirer of Lillian Gish. During a visit to his family in Rhode Island in 1978, he had seen a play at the Trinity Square Repertory in Providence about two elderly sisters who shared a summerhouse on the coast of Maine. When The Whales of August was produced a few months later off-Broadway, Mike took Gish to see it; he explained that he hoped to secure Bette Davis for the other sister, and Gish agreed to do the film “if you can set it up.” But by the late 1970s the movie career of Bette Davis was winding down—she could only get work on TV—and no Hollywood studio expressed interest in Gish, with or without Davis. It was only in the mid-eighties, when a modestly budgeted movie could recoup its costs on the expanding TV and video market, that a company called Alive Films was willing to back the project. Mike, who began his movie career as a publicity director and oversaw the campaigns for 2001 and Bette Davis had turned down the other leading role, which was also rejected by Barbara Stanwyck and Katharine Hepburn.

Lindsay Anderson directing Lillian Gish in The Whales of August

Then Davis changed her mind—and Gish withdrew. Seven years had passed since she’d seen the play with Mike, and she feared she no longer had the energy for another movie. Fortunately Mike persuaded her otherwise. “I’m affirmative,” she finally said, and so was Ann Sothern, cast in the important role of a neighbor. At the start of shooting, Gish was ninety-two, Bette Davis seventy eight, Ann Sothern seventy-seven, and Vincent Price (replacing John Gielgud, who had originally agreed to play the most substantial male role, but proved unavailable) the baby of the company at seventy-two. Their combined ages prompted Coral Browne, Price’s wife, to suggest that Alive Films should change its name to Barely Alive. In fact, the authentically “golden” years of the three actresses heightened the movie’s reality, as well as creating technical problems. Gish was fairly deaf, and had moments of vagueness; Davis had endured a mastectomy, two strokes, and an operation for hip replacement; and Ann Sothern had difficulty walking, the result of an accident many years earlier. She was playing in a summer stock theatre when a property tree fell on her, fracturing her spinal column and severely damaging the nerves in her legs.

Lillian Gish Ann Sothern Vincent Price and Bette Davis The Whales of August

In The Whales of August, the pace is adjusted to the slowed down, restricted movements of senior citizenry, and the dialogue scenes have a few hesitantly timed moments; but the result is a painstakingly and sometimes painfully truthful record of the resilience as well as the infirmities of old age. None of the actors attempts any kind of disguise or wears makeup to look younger or older, and in the last act of their careers, Gish and Ann Sothern in particular give performances of extraordinary vitality as well as skill. Lindsay recognized from the start that the material was “weak,” and needed a stronger ending. In David Berry’s play, the younger sister (Gish, actually fourteen years older than Bette) decides to leave her dependent but testy blind sibling and “live her own life.” He found this “too reminiscent of the current American cliche of women finding their own way,” and asked Berry to write a new scene that he described as “the only possible solution.” After years of quarreling and mutual resentment, Sarah and Libby finally reach a kind of accommodation, and begin to understand each other’s needs.

The Whales of August

Shot entirely on location in and around a house on an island off the coast of Maine, during September and October 1986, the movie opens with a prologue in black and white. A long shot of the ocean beyond the house is followed by a medium shot of a buoy with a clanging bell, and another of three adolescent girls in long white summer dresses as they run from the house to the edge of the promontory. While they wait for a glimpse of the whales that traditionally surface during August, the camera never moves close enough for their faces to become clearly recognizable. Another shot of the buoy is followed by a shot of it in color, then of Sarah, Libby, and their neighbor Tisha, sixty years later, standing exactly where we first saw them as young girls in the monochrome past.

Lillian Gish – The Whales of August

For all three, it soon becomes apparent, old age means physical decline and a sense of being marginalized. But although both sisters are widowed, Sarah (Gish) finds a degree of consolation and peace in the memory of her dead husband’s telling her, “Passion and truth, that’s all we need,” while Libby (Davis) withdraws into bitterness with “Life fools you, it always does.” At the heart of the film is a relationship between someone who’s come to terms with loneliness, and someone whose loneliness is all the greater because she resents it so fiercely.

Bette Davis – The Whales of August

Tisha, also a widow, and able to walk only a short distance with the aid of a cane, is deeply humiliated when she’s no longer allowed to drive her car. But although fearful of the prospect of a housebound future, she refuses to despair, like the impoverished Russian exile (Vincent Price), who has nowhere to go when his hostess of many years suddenly dies.

Ann Sothern – The Whales of August

The same love that Lindsay brought to Gielgud and Ralph Richardson in Home is evident in his handling of Gish, Ann Sothern, and (as an actress, if not as a person) Bette Davis. He also brought a similar ironic-elegiac mood to The Whales of August, especially in two almost silent scenes where the sisters are alone with themselves and their past. Sarah has kept the telegram informing her of her husband’s death in action during World War II, and she likes to reread it aloud, then gaze at his photograph on her dressing table. Libby clings to a very different memento, and reacts very differently to it. She’s preserved a lock of her hair, cut when she was a young girl, which she passes longingly across her cheek. The touch of lost youth brings a look of terrible rancor to her face; and explains why Sarah, as she tells Trisha, is afraid that Libby has “given up on life.”

Vincent Price Whales of August

One of their recurrent disputes is over a picture window that Sarah wants to add to the living room. It will make the view even more spectacular, she says, but Libby insists that “we’re too old to be considering new things.” In a final scene, she unexpectedly changes her mind. She’ll never be able to see the view, but by imagining the pleasure it will give Sarah, she can break out of her self-imposed isolation. Although performances and direction avoid sentimentality here, they can’t quite achieve conviction in an underwritten scene. But the closing shots are consciously and effectively Fordian, a nod to the end of My Darling Clementine with its two solitary figures in an empty landscape, the schoolteacher watching Wyatt Earp ride off into the West. Arm in arm, the two sisters slowly cross the veranda, and the camera holds on an empty rocking chair after they leave the frame. It picks them up on their way through the overgrown garden to the edge of the promontory, where they stand gazing at the ocean, as we first saw them. The island location of the movie, coincidentally, is less than fifty miles offshore from Portland, the birthplace of John Ford.

Gish dominates The Whales of August with a performance of “passion and truth,” Ann Sothern is richly humorous and touching in a supporting role, but Bette Davis seems more studied and external in contrast, and did herself no favor by choosing to wear a profoundly unconvincing wig. Its long, silvery white hair, as Jocelyn Herbert commented, “looked as if it was made of nylon.” Ironically, the silent-movie star seems more contemporary in style than the star whose career began in talkies. In one of his postcards from Maine, Lindsay described Gish as “mysteriously spellbinding,” and part of the mystery is that, unlike Bette, she never allows you to see the actress at work.

Ann Sothern and Vincent Price – The Whales of August

Lindsay and Ann Sothern also saw the actress at work in other ways. Bette brought her own hairdresser and makeup man, whom she refused to share with Gish or Ann. “In fact poor Bette, who wasn’t well, was a holy terror, crabby and irascible,” Ann remembered. “She was terribly jealous of Lillian because she wanted to play her part.” And their relationship in the movie had its counterpart in Gish’s reaction to Bette’s meanness. “Lillian just shakes her head,” Lindsay noted. ” ‘Poor Bette,’ she says. ‘How she must be suffering. What an unhappy life she’s led.’ He also recorded another parallel with their roles: Lillian likes to repeat her mother’s advice on how best to make one’s way through life. ‘You can get on by being rude to people, but you’ll find things a good deal easier if you treat people well, with kindness and courtesy. ‘ Bette’s mother surely gave her no such counsel. Bette’s impulse is to treat the world and everyone in it with hostility.

“For all her trials and conflicts with Warner Brothers,” Lindsay’s diary continued, “Bette had no relish for freedom and yearned continually for Burbank.” She was not used to going out on location, as she reminded anyone who would listen, because “locations always used to come to me,” and seemed indifferent to “the beautiful seascapes visible without benefit of back projection” beyond the windows. Her most frequent response to any suggestion that Lindsay made was an emphatic “Rubbish!” Occasionally she agreed with a grudging nod, and once announced to the crew: “That’s twice I’ve given in to the director today. I must be slipping.” Finally she provoked Lindsay to say, “You’re not taking over this picture, Bette,” which provoked her to walk off the set and refuse to come back until he apologized. Work stopped for half an hour until, at Mike’s insistence, Lindsay made peace with her. By the sixth week of shooting, another postcard from Maine informed me, “Bette has gone full circle, from suspicion and hostility to paranoia to (proclaimed) friendship and admiration. I think she is essentially MAD.” Gish, by contrast, he found “simple and saintly,” their disagreements few and “unfailingly pleasant.” When they rehearsed her scene with the telegram, she noticed that Lindsay had angled the camera behind the dressing table, leaving her face in three-quarter profile. “You won’t catch the expression in my eyes,” she said.

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

“Mr. Griffith always told me, you have to show everything through the eyes.” Then Lindsay asked if she remembered Whistler’s portrait of his mother, and Gish nodded. “Well,” he explained, “Whistler painted her from exactly the same angle as I’m photographing you. And you can tell exactly what she’s feeling.”

Gish thought this over. “Maybe,” she said finally. “But the Mona Lisa’s more popular than Whistler’s Mother.” Then she played the scene as Lindsay directed, and in spite of Mr. Griffith, managed to show “everything.”

Lillian Gish – The Whales of August

Deafness was Gish’s major problem, as Ann Sothern recalled: “Lillian could remember lines okay, but she couldn’t hear. She worked with some hearing aid, could read lips, and Lindsay communicated with some kind of walkie-talkie mike, feeding her lines. It was difficult, as there was often a long space, which had to be fixed later in the cutting, before she picked up her cue.” And Jocelyn Herbert recalled that she sometimes confused a character in the movie with a character from her own life: “When I showed her the various photos we were going to put on her dressing table, Lillian looked at the face that was supposed to represent a sister who’d died many years earlier, and shook her head.

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

‘That’s not Dorothy,’ she said.” On and off the set, the least problematic of the trio was Ann Sothern. Lindsay had always admired her, and wrote me that she was “great good fun as well.” They evidently relaxed each other, and when Ann discovered that Lindsay knew “just about every popular song ever written, we used to sing together a lot of the time. I’d brought my own cook to the location and he loved to come over and have dinner at my cottage.” She also found him “patient, kind and inspirational with actors. He thought of good things to give you to do.”

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

“Good or bad, I feel we are making movie history!” Lindsay wrote on his final postcard from Maine. He also fulfilled Mike Kaplan’s hope of producing a final tribute to Gish’s unique talent, and in various ways The Whales of August proved a landmark in the career of all three actresses. For Bette, “giving in” to Lindsay was an exercise in self restraint after years of self-indulgence, and her last completed movie did much to restore a declining reputation. (In 1988 she began filming Wicked Stepmother, but illness forced her to withdraw after two weeks. As she played a witch, a plot twist was added to turn her into either Barbara Carrera or a black cat for the rest of the story, and the film was eventually released on video.) But Ann Sothern’s talent was exceptionally unselfish as well as exceptional. In The Whales of August she had one of her best roles, and was as deservedly Oscar-nominated as Gish was undeservedly overlooked.

Lillian Gish and film director Lindsay Anderson

Realizing that Berry’s play was almost totally actor-dependent, and as a movie would need as much visual expressiveness as he could devise, Lindsay turned to two valued colleagues for help. Mike Fash, who gave Britannia Hospital its hard, primary-colored, TV-commercial look, photographed The Whales of August in muted and mellow tones, while Jocelyn Herbert’s art direction created an unobtrusively lived-in look for every room in the sisters’ house. She chose furniture and knickknacks that seemed to have been there for years, rugs that were subtly faded, and in a secondhand store she found an old cardigan sweater that Gish loved, wearing it for several scenes and wrapping herself in it like an element of her character.

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

Bette, of course, refused to accept any suggestion from Jocelyn about her costumes. In spite of his admiration and fondness for Gish, according to Jocelyn, “in a way Lindsay found Bette more intriguing.” As she pointed out, they were both confrontational; and from another angle, Lindsay and Bette, like Lindsay and Gish, were mirror images of each other. At sixty-three, although looking older, Lindsay was on the cusp of old age when he directed a movie about old age, represented at its most generous and tolerant by Gish, at its most cantankerous by Bette. But from his diary notes on the filming and the postcards he wrote me, he never realized that they also represented two sides of himself. He invariably portrayed himself as Gish-like, a model of patience and equanimity, although Mike Kaplan recalled quite a few Bette Davis moments.

Lillian Gish – The Whales of August

Apart from the two weeks when Lindsay had refused to take Mike’s calls, their relationship had been friendly. But when Lindsay arrived on the location, he “bristled with hostility. ‘This is your movie, not my movie,’ he said.” Bette, as Jocelyn remembered, “warned it to be her film,” and to Mike it seemed that the same grudge affected them in the same way: Lindsay was usually thoughtful and kind with the actors. But although Bette was fractious, he seemed to enjoy provoking her, and she threatened to quit several times. And with the others he was occasionally ruthless. He rewrote dialogue at the last moment, which he knew created difficulties for Gish, he kept Vincent Price waiting for several days to play his first scene, and he even upset the wonderfully genial Ann Sothern by refusing to block her first major scene with Gish. Then, typically, he relented and staged it brilliantly. Tension on the small, isolated island, Mike added, was often “extreme,” and seeing the dailies “provided the only relief from the hell of it.” Bette, “still the consummate if egomaniac professional,” was the only actor who came to see them, “and for all her animosity toward Gish as well as Lindsay, had to admit they were good.”

But Lindsay was partly right when he told Mike Kaplan that The Whales of August wasn’t “his” movie. There’s a good deal of Lindsay in it, but also a good deal of Lindsay that’s not in it: the dynamic vision and outrageous humor of his most personal work, and the fact, as Vincent Price said later, that “it’s a dear little story, but not really about anything.”

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

The movie was well received when it opened in New York in February 1988; and in the same week Lindsay’s production of Philip Barry’s Holiday opened (February 15) at the Old Vic in London. Another project that was not “his,” it offered Frank Grimes a promising role, that of the alcoholic brother created by Lew Ayres in Cukor’s classic 1938 film. Mary Steenburgen and Malcolm McDowell, who were married at the time, played the Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant roles, but only Steenburgen was well cast. And in spite of her humor and lightness, the production seemed heavy-handed, with Frank competent in the Lew Ayres part but lacking his charm, Malcolm not at his best, Lindsay no more at ease with the Park Avenue rich than with Chekhov’s landed gentry. At a time when Stallone and Schwarzenegger spelled commercial success, it was sad but not surprising that Lillian Gish and Bette Davis in The Whales of August spelled commercial failure. And not surprising that Lindsay had begun to feel time running out when he accepted an offer to direct a miniseries for Home Box Office in Toronto. “I honestly don’t know if I can do it—not my speed at all—and ever since Whales I have felt profoundly alienated from the whole business,” he wrote me. “So this is a real last crazy venture.”

Admin note: Illustrations are not part of Mr. Lambert’s book.

whales of august – bette davis and lillian gish 1987
Mainly about Lindsay Anderson – front cover

Back to Lillian Gish Home page