The Whales of August


1h 31m 1987
The Whales of August

Brief Synopsis

Elderly sisters try to mend their differences during a summer on the Maine coast.

Film Details

Also Known As
Whales of August
MPAA Rating
PG
Genre
Drama
Adaptation
Release Date
1987
Distribution Company
Alive Films

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 31m

Synopsis

Drama revolving around five unusual elderly characters, two of whom are sisters, at the end of a summer on a Maine island, as they undergo various emotional changes in their lives.

Film Details

Also Known As
Whales of August
MPAA Rating
PG
Genre
Drama
Adaptation
Release Date
1987
Distribution Company
Alive Films

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 31m

Award Nominations

Best Supporting Actress

1987
Ann Sothern

Articles

The Whales of August


The Whales of August gave two film legends parting gifts near the end of their lives: roles that most actresses their age could only dream about, fitting finales to the careers of two of the greatest talents the screen ever produced. Based on a 1981 play by David Berry, the film stars Lillian Gish and Bette Davis as octogenarian sisters spending what may be their last summer together in the family cottage on a remote island in Maine. Producer Mike Kaplan had met Gish years earlier when he worked as a publicist, and when he saw the play he realized it would be an ideal vehicle for the two elderly actresses. He did not even option the play until Gish had agreed to star. In poor health, Davis turned him down initially, but, desperate to work, finally agreed.

Gish, who was famously vague about her birth date, was variously reported to be eighty-eight or ninety years old when the film went into production in the autumn of 1986, but only admitted to eighty-six, claiming she was "as old as the century." Most reliable sources say she was actually ninety-three at the time. In spite her advanced years and two hip replacements, she was remarkably sturdy, and was entirely credible as Sarah (or as Davis pronounces it in the film, in an exaggerated down-east drawl, "SAY-rah"), the younger sister, though she was fifteen years older than Davis. At seventy-eight, Davis had serious health problems. A few years earlier she had been diagnosed with breast cancer and had undergone a mastectomy, then suffered a stroke that left one side paralyzed. She was frail, painfully thin, and walked with a limp, but in spite of her infirmities (or perhaps because of them) she remained imperious, demanding, and difficult. Yet she was still able to summon her strength and turn in a commanding, powerful performance.

The Whales of August was also a late-career high point for two other veterans from Hollywood's Golden Age. Ann Sothern, in a charmingly characteristic portrayal that is at once warm and tart, plays a nosy neighbor; and in a most uncharacteristic but delightful performance, the once-menacing Vincent Price is a courtly, impoverished Russian. British director Lindsay Anderson told People magazine, "When Ann appeared on the set, the whole atmosphere lightened up. She brought her own poker chips and played cards with the crew." Sothern earned a supporting actress Oscar® nomination for her performance. Sothern too had health issues--she had suffered a broken back in an accident. Roughing it during location shooting in Maine was often challenging for the wobbly actresses. Sothern and Gish played one scene standing on a windswept bluff with uneven terrain. Just out of camera range were crew members prostrate on the ground, holding the women's ankles so they wouldn't topple.

A Peoplemagazine profile of Gish published at the time of The Whales of August's release detailed the push-and-pull rivalry between the notoriously volatile Davis and the deceptively gentle Gish. According to the article, Davis demanded, and got, first billing. Gish brushed that off, saying "It's the work I love, not the glory." But Gish could also be slyly passive-aggressive when necessary. As Kaplan noted in an interview, "inside that lace glove is a hand of steel." After one Davis tantrum, Gish commented, "Have you ever seen such a tragic face? Poor woman, how she must be suffering! I don't think it's right to judge a person like that." Gish was somewhat deaf, but seemed to have no problem hearing Sothern or Price when she had scenes with them. But when Davis was being particularly abrasive during their scenes together, Gish would not respond to her cues, complaining she couldn't hear what her co-star was saying. Gish wasn't the only one fed up with Davis's rudeness. When director Lindsay Anderson tried suggesting a line reading or gesture to Davis, she retorted, "That's nonsense!" Three weeks into shooting, Anderson wrote in his diary, "Bette Davis has been so destructive this week, so fatiguing to everyone, that we desperately need a break." The Whales of August was Anderson's first, and as it turned out, his only American film.

For all her temperament, Davis was enough of a pro to (grudgingly) give credit when it was due. One of the most quoted stories from the production of The Whales of August was when Anderson praised a Gish close-up. Davis snapped, "Of course it's good, she invented them!" Davis was the only one of the actors who watched the rushes, and when she saw how well the film was working, she felt more secure and was freer with compliments, calling up Sothern and saying "Ann, I just saw the rushes--it's the nuts!"

Most reviews for The Whales of August had faint praise for the wispy story, but raved about the performances. David Sterritt of the Christian Science Monitor called it "a delicate and humane drama," but found it "not correspondingly original or stirring," However, he added, "Gish is simply luminous....[Davis's] portrayal...is eccentric but suited to the character's own oddities and can be counted as a firm if offbeat success." According to the Washington Post's Rita Kempley, the stars "rise above the tenuous material set before them....Gish, the eternal innocent, and Davis, the enduring shrew, couldn't be better suited to these rare, geriatric roles....Gish's inner beauty still shines through as it did when she was D.W. Griffith's favorite leading lady. And Davis, with her ravaged face, controls a scene as easily as she did 40 years ago... bristling gleefully with anger and lingering vanity."

The Whales of August was Davis's last completed film. She appeared in one more movie, Wicked Stepmother, but was unable to finish it, walking off the film rather than admit she could no longer work. She died in 1989. Gish's final professional appearance was at the world premiere of The Whales of August in October of 1987. She died in 1993, eight months short of her 100th birthday.

Director: Lindsay Anderson
Producer: Carolyn Pfeiffer, Mike Kaplan
Screenplay: David Berry, based on his play
Cinematography: Mike Fash
Editor: Nicolas Gaster
Art Direction: Jocelyn Herbert
Music: Alan Price
Principal Cast: Bette Davis (Libby Strong), Lillian Gish (Sarah Webber), Vincent Price (Mr. Maranov), Ann Sothern (Tisha Doughty), Harry Carey Jr. (Joshua Brackett)(
90 minutes

by Margarita Landazuri
The Whales Of August

The Whales of August

The Whales of August gave two film legends parting gifts near the end of their lives: roles that most actresses their age could only dream about, fitting finales to the careers of two of the greatest talents the screen ever produced. Based on a 1981 play by David Berry, the film stars Lillian Gish and Bette Davis as octogenarian sisters spending what may be their last summer together in the family cottage on a remote island in Maine. Producer Mike Kaplan had met Gish years earlier when he worked as a publicist, and when he saw the play he realized it would be an ideal vehicle for the two elderly actresses. He did not even option the play until Gish had agreed to star. In poor health, Davis turned him down initially, but, desperate to work, finally agreed. Gish, who was famously vague about her birth date, was variously reported to be eighty-eight or ninety years old when the film went into production in the autumn of 1986, but only admitted to eighty-six, claiming she was "as old as the century." Most reliable sources say she was actually ninety-three at the time. In spite her advanced years and two hip replacements, she was remarkably sturdy, and was entirely credible as Sarah (or as Davis pronounces it in the film, in an exaggerated down-east drawl, "SAY-rah"), the younger sister, though she was fifteen years older than Davis. At seventy-eight, Davis had serious health problems. A few years earlier she had been diagnosed with breast cancer and had undergone a mastectomy, then suffered a stroke that left one side paralyzed. She was frail, painfully thin, and walked with a limp, but in spite of her infirmities (or perhaps because of them) she remained imperious, demanding, and difficult. Yet she was still able to summon her strength and turn in a commanding, powerful performance. The Whales of August was also a late-career high point for two other veterans from Hollywood's Golden Age. Ann Sothern, in a charmingly characteristic portrayal that is at once warm and tart, plays a nosy neighbor; and in a most uncharacteristic but delightful performance, the once-menacing Vincent Price is a courtly, impoverished Russian. British director Lindsay Anderson told People magazine, "When Ann appeared on the set, the whole atmosphere lightened up. She brought her own poker chips and played cards with the crew." Sothern earned a supporting actress Oscar® nomination for her performance. Sothern too had health issues--she had suffered a broken back in an accident. Roughing it during location shooting in Maine was often challenging for the wobbly actresses. Sothern and Gish played one scene standing on a windswept bluff with uneven terrain. Just out of camera range were crew members prostrate on the ground, holding the women's ankles so they wouldn't topple. A Peoplemagazine profile of Gish published at the time of The Whales of August's release detailed the push-and-pull rivalry between the notoriously volatile Davis and the deceptively gentle Gish. According to the article, Davis demanded, and got, first billing. Gish brushed that off, saying "It's the work I love, not the glory." But Gish could also be slyly passive-aggressive when necessary. As Kaplan noted in an interview, "inside that lace glove is a hand of steel." After one Davis tantrum, Gish commented, "Have you ever seen such a tragic face? Poor woman, how she must be suffering! I don't think it's right to judge a person like that." Gish was somewhat deaf, but seemed to have no problem hearing Sothern or Price when she had scenes with them. But when Davis was being particularly abrasive during their scenes together, Gish would not respond to her cues, complaining she couldn't hear what her co-star was saying. Gish wasn't the only one fed up with Davis's rudeness. When director Lindsay Anderson tried suggesting a line reading or gesture to Davis, she retorted, "That's nonsense!" Three weeks into shooting, Anderson wrote in his diary, "Bette Davis has been so destructive this week, so fatiguing to everyone, that we desperately need a break." The Whales of August was Anderson's first, and as it turned out, his only American film. For all her temperament, Davis was enough of a pro to (grudgingly) give credit when it was due. One of the most quoted stories from the production of The Whales of August was when Anderson praised a Gish close-up. Davis snapped, "Of course it's good, she invented them!" Davis was the only one of the actors who watched the rushes, and when she saw how well the film was working, she felt more secure and was freer with compliments, calling up Sothern and saying "Ann, I just saw the rushes--it's the nuts!" Most reviews for The Whales of August had faint praise for the wispy story, but raved about the performances. David Sterritt of the Christian Science Monitor called it "a delicate and humane drama," but found it "not correspondingly original or stirring," However, he added, "Gish is simply luminous....[Davis's] portrayal...is eccentric but suited to the character's own oddities and can be counted as a firm if offbeat success." According to the Washington Post's Rita Kempley, the stars "rise above the tenuous material set before them....Gish, the eternal innocent, and Davis, the enduring shrew, couldn't be better suited to these rare, geriatric roles....Gish's inner beauty still shines through as it did when she was D.W. Griffith's favorite leading lady. And Davis, with her ravaged face, controls a scene as easily as she did 40 years ago... bristling gleefully with anger and lingering vanity." The Whales of August was Davis's last completed film. She appeared in one more movie, Wicked Stepmother, but was unable to finish it, walking off the film rather than admit she could no longer work. She died in 1989. Gish's final professional appearance was at the world premiere of The Whales of August in October of 1987. She died in 1993, eight months short of her 100th birthday. Director: Lindsay Anderson Producer: Carolyn Pfeiffer, Mike Kaplan Screenplay: David Berry, based on his play Cinematography: Mike Fash Editor: Nicolas Gaster Art Direction: Jocelyn Herbert Music: Alan Price Principal Cast: Bette Davis (Libby Strong), Lillian Gish (Sarah Webber), Vincent Price (Mr. Maranov), Ann Sothern (Tisha Doughty), Harry Carey Jr. (Joshua Brackett)( 90 minutes by Margarita Landazuri

The Whales of August


The gentle, delicate, reflective drama The Whales of August (1987) brings two film legends together on screen for the first time. Based on the play by David Berry, who scripted the screen adaptation, it is a small, intimate story about two widowed sisters spending the summer together in the vacation home owned by Sarah (Lillian Gish) but sustained by the more affluent Libby (Bette Davis), who is blind and has become bitter over the years. They live in an uneasy co-existence stirred up by Libby's demanding nature and rudeness, perhaps exacerbated by her reliance on Sarah, who dutifully looks after her without complaint. It takes place over a day at the end of the summer season and turns on the smallest of dramas: a picture window that Sarah wants to put in the front room overlooking the ocean but Libby vetoes: "We're too old to be considering new things."

Producer Mike Kaplan optioned the play as a production for Lillian Gish, who he had known since the late 1960s and considered a friend, and Bette Davis, who he saw in the role of the blind sister from the beginning. Gish, who made her film debut in 1912 and starred in some of the greatest and most influential films of the silent era including The Birth of a Nation (1915), was in her late 80s when he first approached her and turned 93 when it was shot in the autumn of 1986. Davis, a superstar of the golden age of Hollywood with two Academy Awards and nine nominations to her credit, initially passed on the project. While Kaplan went looking for another actress (both Barbara Stanwyck and Katharine Hepburn turned him down), he signed his old friend Lindsay Anderson to direct (he was eager to work with Gish) and John Gielgud in the role of Mr. Maranov, the courtly but penniless Russian émigré who survives as a professional houseguest and must find new arrangements when his summer hostess passes away.

"I thought the success of On Golden Pond would have made it easier to raise the money for The Whales of August, '' explained Kaplan in a New York Times profile, but it took five years to find the funding. By that time the 78-year-old Davis, who had survived cancer surgery and come back from a stroke, had changed her mind. While she signed on to the film, Gielgud dropped out due to a conflict and Anderson cast the 75-year-old Vincent Price in his place. While it seemed like an odd choice to many, it gave the versatile veteran of stage and screen an opportunity to display talents he had little chance to showcase since being typecast as a horror actor in the late 1950s. In Anderson's words, "In England, we're not so completely blinkered by Vincent's horror reputation." Filling out the central roles are Ann Sothern (age 77) as Tisha, Sarah's old friend and general island busybody, and Harry Carey Jr. (age 65) in the role of Joshua, the island handyman. The youngest of the five leading actors, Carey was a veteran of John Ford's stock company and the son of silent star Harry Carey, who starred with Lillian Gish in one of her first films, D.W. Griffith's two-reel gangster drama The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912), more than 75 years before. Given the combined ages of the cast, Price's wife Coral Browne quipped that the production company behind the film, Alive Films, should change its name to Barely Alive.

It was shot on location on Cliff Island, off the coast of Maine, in the autumn of 1986, a beautiful but rustic location that proved colder than its summer setting would suggest. It took 45 minutes by boat from the mainland and the winds got to be so strong that, according to Gish biographer Charles Affron, both she and Davis had to be supported just off camera while shooting the film's final image of the sister looking out over the ocean. "Bette kept calling it The Whale of November, because is kept getting colder and colder," remembered Price. "We were really very uncomfortable." It was one more challenge for a cast dealing with the realities of old age and infirmity. Gish was going deaf and couldn't always hear her co-stars (she picked up her cues by reading lips), Davis had overcome a stroke that paralyzed her left side and left her speech slurred, and Sothern had difficulty walking due to a stage injured that fractured her spinal column years before. The steep trails, rocky landscape, and cold winds did not make things easier for them.

Whether by design or not, the roles reflected the personalities of the two legendary actresses. Gish was pleasant and diplomatic and Davis made good on her reputation for being difficult. She was demanding, argumentative, and competitive on and off set. Price had co-starred with Davis almost 50 years earlier in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) and confessed that ''Bette likes me. That doesn't make us bosom buddies, but it keeps us from being enemies." That wasn't the case with Gish, with whom Davis was prickly and unfriendly, or with director Anderson. "Lillian's first instinct is to try to give the director what he asks for," described Anderson. "Her professional attitude comes from those days with D. W. Griffith. Bette tries to dismiss the director.'' She challenged him constantly but Harry Carey observed that those battles "ended in a draw because Lindsay [Anderson] doesn't back down." If Davis was difficult, however (she was "a holy terror, crabby and irascible," as described by Sothern), she was also passionate and engaged. She attended the screening of the dailies every evening (the only one of the main actors to do so) and delivered a delicate performance. And for all her complaining about the cold and the accommodations, she was the last actor to leave the island.

Vincent Canby wrote that the film was "a cinematic event, though small in scale and commonplace in detail. It's as moving for all the history it recalls as for anything that happens on the screen. Yet what happens on the screen is not to be underrated..." There was Oscar buzz for Gish, Davis, and Price but ultimately the sole nomination went to Ann Sothern in the category of Supporting Actress.

It was the last film that Lillian Gish made before her death in 1993 at the age of 99. Davis appeared in one more film, the black comedy Wicked Stepmother (1989), but walked off the set before completing her role. The Whales of August serves as a more appropriate memorial for the actress, who passed away three years after completing production at the age of 81.

Sources:
Lillian Gish: Her Legend, Her Life, Charles Affron. Scriber, 2001.
Mainly About Lindsay Anderson, Gavin Lambert. Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.
Vincent Price: A Daughter's Biography, Victoria Price. St. Martin's Press, 1999.
The Complete Films of Bette Davis, Gene Ringold and Lawrence J. Quirk. Citadel Press, 1990.
Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis, Ed Sikov. Henry Holt and Company, 2007.
"Placating the Stars of 'Whales'," Aljean Harmetz. New York Times, October 22, 1987.
IMDb

By Sean Axmaker

The Whales of August

The gentle, delicate, reflective drama The Whales of August (1987) brings two film legends together on screen for the first time. Based on the play by David Berry, who scripted the screen adaptation, it is a small, intimate story about two widowed sisters spending the summer together in the vacation home owned by Sarah (Lillian Gish) but sustained by the more affluent Libby (Bette Davis), who is blind and has become bitter over the years. They live in an uneasy co-existence stirred up by Libby's demanding nature and rudeness, perhaps exacerbated by her reliance on Sarah, who dutifully looks after her without complaint. It takes place over a day at the end of the summer season and turns on the smallest of dramas: a picture window that Sarah wants to put in the front room overlooking the ocean but Libby vetoes: "We're too old to be considering new things." Producer Mike Kaplan optioned the play as a production for Lillian Gish, who he had known since the late 1960s and considered a friend, and Bette Davis, who he saw in the role of the blind sister from the beginning. Gish, who made her film debut in 1912 and starred in some of the greatest and most influential films of the silent era including The Birth of a Nation (1915), was in her late 80s when he first approached her and turned 93 when it was shot in the autumn of 1986. Davis, a superstar of the golden age of Hollywood with two Academy Awards and nine nominations to her credit, initially passed on the project. While Kaplan went looking for another actress (both Barbara Stanwyck and Katharine Hepburn turned him down), he signed his old friend Lindsay Anderson to direct (he was eager to work with Gish) and John Gielgud in the role of Mr. Maranov, the courtly but penniless Russian émigré who survives as a professional houseguest and must find new arrangements when his summer hostess passes away. "I thought the success of On Golden Pond would have made it easier to raise the money for The Whales of August, '' explained Kaplan in a New York Times profile, but it took five years to find the funding. By that time the 78-year-old Davis, who had survived cancer surgery and come back from a stroke, had changed her mind. While she signed on to the film, Gielgud dropped out due to a conflict and Anderson cast the 75-year-old Vincent Price in his place. While it seemed like an odd choice to many, it gave the versatile veteran of stage and screen an opportunity to display talents he had little chance to showcase since being typecast as a horror actor in the late 1950s. In Anderson's words, "In England, we're not so completely blinkered by Vincent's horror reputation." Filling out the central roles are Ann Sothern (age 77) as Tisha, Sarah's old friend and general island busybody, and Harry Carey Jr. (age 65) in the role of Joshua, the island handyman. The youngest of the five leading actors, Carey was a veteran of John Ford's stock company and the son of silent star Harry Carey, who starred with Lillian Gish in one of her first films, D.W. Griffith's two-reel gangster drama The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912), more than 75 years before. Given the combined ages of the cast, Price's wife Coral Browne quipped that the production company behind the film, Alive Films, should change its name to Barely Alive. It was shot on location on Cliff Island, off the coast of Maine, in the autumn of 1986, a beautiful but rustic location that proved colder than its summer setting would suggest. It took 45 minutes by boat from the mainland and the winds got to be so strong that, according to Gish biographer Charles Affron, both she and Davis had to be supported just off camera while shooting the film's final image of the sister looking out over the ocean. "Bette kept calling it The Whale of November, because is kept getting colder and colder," remembered Price. "We were really very uncomfortable." It was one more challenge for a cast dealing with the realities of old age and infirmity. Gish was going deaf and couldn't always hear her co-stars (she picked up her cues by reading lips), Davis had overcome a stroke that paralyzed her left side and left her speech slurred, and Sothern had difficulty walking due to a stage injured that fractured her spinal column years before. The steep trails, rocky landscape, and cold winds did not make things easier for them. Whether by design or not, the roles reflected the personalities of the two legendary actresses. Gish was pleasant and diplomatic and Davis made good on her reputation for being difficult. She was demanding, argumentative, and competitive on and off set. Price had co-starred with Davis almost 50 years earlier in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) and confessed that ''Bette likes me. That doesn't make us bosom buddies, but it keeps us from being enemies." That wasn't the case with Gish, with whom Davis was prickly and unfriendly, or with director Anderson. "Lillian's first instinct is to try to give the director what he asks for," described Anderson. "Her professional attitude comes from those days with D. W. Griffith. Bette tries to dismiss the director.'' She challenged him constantly but Harry Carey observed that those battles "ended in a draw because Lindsay [Anderson] doesn't back down." If Davis was difficult, however (she was "a holy terror, crabby and irascible," as described by Sothern), she was also passionate and engaged. She attended the screening of the dailies every evening (the only one of the main actors to do so) and delivered a delicate performance. And for all her complaining about the cold and the accommodations, she was the last actor to leave the island. Vincent Canby wrote that the film was "a cinematic event, though small in scale and commonplace in detail. It's as moving for all the history it recalls as for anything that happens on the screen. Yet what happens on the screen is not to be underrated..." There was Oscar buzz for Gish, Davis, and Price but ultimately the sole nomination went to Ann Sothern in the category of Supporting Actress. It was the last film that Lillian Gish made before her death in 1993 at the age of 99. Davis appeared in one more film, the black comedy Wicked Stepmother (1989), but walked off the set before completing her role. The Whales of August serves as a more appropriate memorial for the actress, who passed away three years after completing production at the age of 81. Sources: Lillian Gish: Her Legend, Her Life, Charles Affron. Scriber, 2001. Mainly About Lindsay Anderson, Gavin Lambert. Alfred A. Knopf, 2000. Vincent Price: A Daughter's Biography, Victoria Price. St. Martin's Press, 1999. The Complete Films of Bette Davis, Gene Ringold and Lawrence J. Quirk. Citadel Press, 1990. Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis, Ed Sikov. Henry Holt and Company, 2007. "Placating the Stars of 'Whales'," Aljean Harmetz. New York Times, October 22, 1987. IMDb By Sean Axmaker

Quotes

Trivia

Miscellaneous Notes

Released in United States Fall October 16, 1987

Released in United States October 23, 1987

Released in United States on Video May 1988

Began shooting September 3, 1986.

Released in United States on Video May 1988

Released in United States Fall October 16, 1987

Released in United States October 23, 1987 (Los Angeles)