This post is humbly submitted to the Shadowplay Late Show Blogathon. I have chosen to write about the final screen appearance of the wonderful Lillian Gish, but this movie is a late or last film for many of the people involved.
“Alas dear ladies, all of this is in the past.” Vincent Price’s elegant Mr Maranov delivers the sad news to his elderly neighbours Sarah Webber (Lillian Gish) and Libby Strong (Bette Davis). He is talking about his heyday, his rarefied life as a Russian noble, before the revolution, before the war, before the coming of sound. Lindsay Anderson’s The Whales of August (1987), announces itself with a whiff of sawdust, and nitrate. It’s a film based on a play, a very quiet and melancholy play, and it opens with something far too gentle to be called a flashback, a monochrome glimpse of three young girls with flowing hair and white dresses excitedly rushing to the shore to catch sight of the ocean’s summer visitors. A glimpse of the silent era, in tribute to the film’s iconic and beautiful star.
Do the whales come to Maine in August any more, now those young girls have lived a lifetime each, separated, and reunited to live in awkward interdependence? That constitutes this delicate movie’s only real note of suspense. Sarah and Libby live the definition of a twilight existence, quietly in a house that is really a summer cottage, although it is early autumn, exposed on a grassy cliff. They brush their long white hair (Sarah’s a has a touch of blonde still, as she can’t quite resist letting Libby know) and dress for dinner in floral and powder-blue chiffon, and low-heeled pumps. It’s a beautiful spot, Cliff Island in Maine, where each evening they can “dine by moonlight” when the twilight floods their parlour. A picture window would make the most of that sumptuous view, and a friendly handyman neighbour (not Price, no fear) offers to install one for the ladies. Libby has doubts, though. Aren’t they too old to make changes? And besides, although she doesn’t like to mention it, Libby is blind. She can no longer see the whales, whenever they may or may not arrive.
Gish was 93 when she made The Whales of August, but preternaturally youthful, in the unique way of a waif who barely grew up. She plays a widow who mourns her soldier husband, and patiently takes care of cantankerous Libby, her older sister (though Davis was 15 years younger, and had one more feature in her, despite the decades of chain-smoking). She lives resolutely in the present, though, lobbying for that picture window and delighting in good food, fresh conversation, and the changing beauty of nature. She still believes the whales will return in August. Davis, who often seemed to delight in complaining about her co-stars, said it was a nightmare to work with Gish, who was all but entirely deaf. Anderson, inevitably, drew a different preference. Gish was an angel to direct, and rebellious Davis more of a headache. “Lillian’s first instinct is to try to give the director what he asks for. Her professional attitude comes from those days with DW Griffith. Bette tries to dismiss the director.” As such, they were perfectly cast as Sarah and Libby.
David Berry wrote the play, and the screenplay too. The play premiered in Baltimore with Kate Wilkinson and Ruth Maynard in 1980. It took five years to raise funds for the film adaptation of this play in which nothing happens but two sisters “sit on their porch and watch the whales in the ocean and discuss the trials and tribulations of their lives”. And by the time it came to be, movie stars including Katharine Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck, Fred Astaire and Paul Henreid had passed. Even Gish and Davis said no at first, apparently. Although the casting of Gish is surely the film’s masterstroke – so gentle, so absolutely antique (if you forget The Night of the Hunter, perhaps), so elegant and with that famously kind and sensitive face. Gish’s Sarah is not relic but a much-loved memento of a lost era, a cinematic family heirloom. Her presence in the film isn’t so much a performance as a blessing. And Davis too, excels in raising the ghost of her famously headstrong “type” and then expelling it with an act of sisterly generosity. Price’s role was taken by John Gielgud on stage, one of Gish’s favourite theatre co-stars. Price, although playing someone from Gish’s era, recalls Davis’s past more. They appeared together just once, in 1939’s The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, but when he perches in Libby’s parlour he could be anyone of her golden-age beaus, most particularly given his sombre face, a Henry Fonda.
If you’re struggling with the chronology of all this, then give up. The play was set in 1954, but the film seems to be set in the present day. It’s so clearly a piece of drama preserved in aspic, and the rules of mathematics, ageing and history don’t apply.
Although there’s a weight of Hollywood history here, Davis and Gish, with their unmade-up faces and pinned-up hair, don’t look a thing like ageing movie stars. Their neighbour Tisha though, that’s a different story. With tight, auburn curls, mascara, powder and a cupid’s bow mouth glossed in pink, Ann Sothern’s Tisha is the movie’s sole splash of glamour and her pert gossip throws Libby and Sarah’s solitary stasis into relief. It was Sothern’s final film too. Sixty years previously she had started out as an extra, playing a chorine in Broadway Nights. Through the 1930s and 40s, often with her red hair bleached blonde she played showgirls, sweethearts and good-time gals with panache and deft comic timing. She moved to television in the 50s and worked like a trouper right up to the end of the 70s. After adding a dash of pepper to The Whales of August she retired, and died in 2001.
It’s Anderson’s final theatrical feature too, and I think it’s the Anderson fans who find it disappointing. There’s no raging against the dying of the light here from the director of If …. and This Sporting Life, no trace of Free Cinema, rebellion or iconoclasm. The Whales of August is Gish’s picture through and through – she’s the sweetest, softest thing in this sweet, soft film. In fact, after a lifetime of being known as the actor who would submit most completely to a director’s vision, Gish and her spirit dominate her final film, which is utterly delicious. The movie premiered in New York on her 94th birthday, 14 October 1987 – what a birthday gift. And after that she never took on a film role again. She died aged 99 on 27 February 1993, having created an impeccable set of film work, lasting 75 years from 1912 right up to this bittersweet morsel in 1987.
One day on set apparently, Anderson complimented his star on her professionalism. “Miss Gish, you have just given me a perfect close-up.” All credit to Davis, who dropped her tough stance just long enough to reply: “She should. She invented ’em.”