The Whales of August (1987)

Director: Lindsay Anderson

Writers: David Berry (screenplay) David Berry (play)

Screen legend Lillian Gish was 93 when she co-starred in this film, making her the oldest actress ever to feature in a leading role. In one scene, Lillian Gish and Ann Sothern are seen overlooking the ocean. Sothern’s character remarks that whales have scarcely been seen since the war due to submarines. In real life, Ann Sothern’s paternal grandfather, Simon Lake, was the inventor of the modern submarine. The film received its New York City premiere on October 14, 1987, Lillian Gish’s 94th birthday. It was first released in France nine weeks earlier. The film cast includes two Oscar winners: Bette Davis and Mary Steenburgen; and two Oscar nominees: Lillian Gish and Ann Sothern. The pleasure of ”The Whales of August” comes from watching how Mr. Anderson keeps his two stars working in unison, though each works by totally different methods.

lindsay anderson lillian gish cannes 1986 - whales

Miss Gish, intuitive like Sarah, appears to be without guile, still something of the silent-screen innocent, but there’s not a gesture or a line-reading that doesn’t reflect her nearly three-quarters of a century in front of a camera. Scenes are not purloined when she’s on screen. Miss Davis is more than up to the competition, which comes to look like harmony. Her elegantly sculptured features rivet the attention. When she barks out an uncalled-for, rudely welcome comment, the familiar voice, an echo from both ”The Little Foxes” and ”Beyond the Forest,” cuts through the stasis, not to overwhelm Miss Gish but to give her something to act with and against. (NY Times)

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Lillian Gish at Cannes Film Festival

The film comes across as little more than a Gish-Davis vehicle — the cast includes Ann Sothern as Libby’s neighbor friend Tisha and Harry Carey Jr. as a handyman who’s also lived on this Maine island for years. It’s not a great story by any means but it’s pleasant enough. But Gish’s performance and sentimental attraction (this is her 105th film in a career spanning the silent and talkie eras) makes her odds-on favorite at next year’s Oscars. And Davis, clocking in her 100th movie, is as feisty and hammy as ever. Fans of her idiosyncrasies will not be disappointed. There’s still that blue-eyed menace in the glare. You expect her to interrupt the scene at any moment to complain about the lights or the director. Or how they don’t make movies like they used to. (Washington Post)

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

Gish draws every ounce of emotion from a lovely scene in which Sarah celebrates her 46th wedding anniversary by having an imaginary conversation with Philip, her long deceased husband. “Forty-six years, Phillip,” she tells him. “Forty-six red roses; forty-six white. White for truth–red for passion. That’s what you always said — passion and truth; that’s all we need. I wish you were here, Phillip.”

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

Another moving sequence is when Libby brushes her face with a lock of her husband’s hair while sitting alone in her bedroom. (CineScene)

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

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Academy screening on Sunday, January 24 1988 at 2.30 PM – 20th Century Fox Little Theatre 10201 West Pico Blvd.

Alive Films present for your consideration:

whales of august - bette davis and lillian gish 1987

whales of august - bette davis and lillian gish 1987 detail bw

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Commenting on what was to be Miss Gish’s last screen performance, in the 1987 “Whales of August,” Vincent Canby wrote in The New York Times: “There’s not a gesture or a line-reading that doesn’t reflect her nearly three-quarters of a century in front of a camera. Scenes are not purloined when she’s on screen.”

lillian d gish 1986 birthday

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1986 – Princess Diana, Miss Lillian Gish and Lindsay Anderson (Whales of August Director) at Cannes Festival

1986 - princess diana, miss lillian gish and lindsay anderson (whales of august director) at cannes festival

The Whales of August & Other Lot (Alive Films, 1987). One Sheet
The Whales of August & Other Lot (Alive Films, 1987). One Sheet

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