The Question Of The Picture Window
THE WHALES OF AUGUST (1987)/DIRECTED BY LINDSAY ANDERSON
STREET DATE: DECEMBER 19, 2017/KINO LORBER STUDIO CLASSICS
Over two and a half centuries of combined movie history are present in these 90 minutes of screen time, which alone makes Kino Lorber’s year-end release of 1987’s The Whales of August one of the most significant home videos of 2017. Based on a 1980 play by David Berry, the film stars Lillian Gish and Bette Davis as two long-widowed sisters, Sarah and Libby, who have spent the past 50 summers at the same picturesque cottage, nestled among the sailboats, lighthouses, and islands of Northern Maine. Co-starring Ann Sothern as longtime friend and neighbor Tisha, Vincent Price as exiled Russian aristocrat Maranov, and featuring Harry Carey, Jr. as local handyman Joshua, this quiet drama of “having aged” finds the screen content’s passing of an additional 30 years since the film’s original release unaged, thanks to the legendary presences in front of the camera, and, under the sensitive direction of British director Lindsay Anderson (If…, O Lucky Man), undimmed, due to the dedicated presences behind. Containing the legacy of classic Westerns to musicals to horror films to melodramas, stretching back to the first truly feature films, The Whales of August is not merely a film for just any age, but a lovely, heartfelt drama for the ages.
As open, genuine, and warm as the other is guarded, flinty, and cold, the 80-something sisters Sarah and Libby have supported each other both personally and emotionally after their husbands’ passing many years before. Now blind, Libby relies on Sarah for day-to-day necessities – lovingly suggested by Sarah daily brushing her sister’s long white hair – while Sarah, a retired nurse, remains dependent on Libby’s considerable financial legacy in their native Philadelphia. Having inherited the seaside view from their mother, Sarah’s ownership of the breezy summer cottage allows two elderly women a comfortable and indeed comforting way to spend the hottest months of the year.
In many ways a perfectly complementary companionship, the sisters’ opposing qualities do have their difficulties, however, and the film-length question of how long the sisters can remain together, or if they will eventually decide to separate, forms the underlying drama to their conversations and interactions with others. Their busybody next-door neighbor Tisha, a devoted friend since childhood, offers Sarah a place in her home, which would permit the agreeable Sarah to stay in her beloved Maine year-round. Maranov, a charming but impoverished boarder, displaced by the recent death of another neighbor, may offer the equally open-hearted Sarah late companionship of a different nature, despite the elderly potential couple’s respectively advanced ages. And even brash, distinctly Maine-an fix-it guy Joshua offers a pressure release, for the sometimes unyielding nature of the sisters’ bordering-on bickering relationship, in the form of a home furnishing: a picture window looking directly out onto the Atlantic Ocean from their living room.
Showing the open-ended options life continuously offers, even after much of it has already been lived, The Whales of August connects the endpoint of life back to the very beginning in its evocative title, where the sisters’ father had convinced little Sarah that summer could not end until the great ocean creatures were sighted swimming past the rocky sandcliff outside their house. Film opening on a sepia-tone sequence of Sarah, Libby, and Tisha as young women in white summer dresses, rushing out to the rocks to witness this season-ending tradition (the characters as younger women include Mary Steenburgen as Sarah, Margaret Ladd as Libby, and Ann Sothern’s own daughter Tisha Sterling as Tisha), the switch to color over the same summertime shot of the sisters’ ocean view, signaling the passing of a half century, further shows the unique power of the medium to suggest a human being’s fragile relationship to time.
As concerned with the character of light dappling Lillian Gish’s still bright features as she hobbles down the path between her hydrangea bushes, or the breeze brushing against Bette Davis’s comparatively drawn features as she broods sightlessly on the porch, or the way Ann Sothern’s knowing and tenderly comic smile lightens the sisters’ living room, or even the solicitude with which Vincent Price draws an emerald from a handkerchief kept in the inner recesses of his coat; this sustained drama of achingly beautiful “moments” – Sarah’s anniversary tea with a photograph of her late husband, Libby tracing a locket of her own late husband’s hair across her cheek, Tisha’s warm and funny response to Maranov drawing a courtly cloak around her shoulders, among many many others – proves the mastery of its immortal screen luminaries over the spatial and temporary dimensions of film itself, in what turned out to be many of these performers’ final (or near to final) performances.
The Whales of August comes out on Blu-ray just in time for Christmas, and one certainly can’t imagine a better gift for film lovers. Co-producer Mike Kaplan, whose 25-year friendship with Lillian Gish had been directly responsible for the film, has organized hours’ worth of vintage documentaries – including candid, revealing interviews on-set with the five principle performers and insightful crew interviews with cinematographer Mike Fash, production designer Jocelyn Herbert, and director Lindsay Anderson – as well as recent interviews with the three actresses (Mary Steenburgen, Margaret Ladd, and Tisha Sterling) who briefly played the characters as young women in the film’s opening flashback. Shot on location in Maine (which, parenthetically, is rather hilariously decried as “unnecessary” by studio-loving Ms. Davis in her entertainingly and characteristically testy interview), the oceans, rocks, beaches, and, most of all, the cottage, its stunning garden, and beautifully lived-in interior (again, parenthetically, many of the vintage photographs and furnishings, as revealed by Anderson’s frequent and invaluable collaborator Jocelyn Herbert, were taken from Ms. Gish’s own family collection) are shown to beautiful advantage — by sun-, fog-, and moonlight — in the film’s near-seamless visual transfer, of three eventfully uneventful days in the lives of five elderly people, to high definition home video.
Viewers, or more accurately auditors, who are interested in the genesis and production of the film, and the absorbing anecdotes behind both, are referred to critic Stephen Farber’s film-length audio commentary and interview with co-producer Mike Kaplan, the latter of whose kindness and dedication shines through his genuine affection for both the legendary actors and this wonderful film. Highlighting the essential appeal of the project, the cover image for The Whales of August, taken from the film’s original advertising poster, features finely-illustrated profiles of Bette Davis and Lillian Gish looming large over their cottage, their co-stars, and their director’s credit. Though film fans familiar with, say, Ms. Gish in 1955’s Night of the Hunter and Ms. Davis in 1962’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? may have difficulty imagining two such different performing styles co-existing in the same film, the actress who convincingly pulled a shotgun on Robert Mitchum certainly shares a strength and resolve equal to the actress who served a dead rat to Joan Crawford. That both put aside their considerable differences of personality by film’s end, and take each other’s hand to walk down the garden path towards the ocean and possible whale-sighting, is — in the drama’s context of inexorable aging, time’s passing, and its larger questions of picture windows — almost unbearably moving.
All images used in this review are credited to DVDBeaver, and are taken directly from Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray release.