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.