THE WHALES OF AUGUST is like a Hallmark environment-themed sympathy card for actors. You accept its consideration value, showcasing a pod of legendary screen talent, a vanishing breed (the cast of this 1987 drama have all since gone), think “Well, that’s sweet”, wrinkle brow at the coy writing, dutifully note the ‘tasteful’ framing—clean, spare, inoffensive, bland as oatmeal—and then set it in the recycle stack with the rest of the cardboard, cans and “thanks for being a loyal customer” letters.
Too harsh? Maybe, but Getting Old is no fun, either, and much as one appreciates the game cast members and their honed-by-decades professional efforts, this one, written by David Berry off his play, just rings hollow. Director Lindsay Anderson lets it run for a mere 90 minutes, but I was fidgeting after fifteen.*
Two elderly widowed sisters, one puttering and sweet, the other feeble and cranky, share a summer home on the Maine coast (picture trucks crashing and cranes toppling as guys rush to see this). Dropping by to share tea and opinions are an itinerant Russian ex-pat, a vivacious lifelong girlfriend and a cheerfully noisy handyman. All a bit precious, but what makes it of fleeting interest are the old, distinct and irreplaceable pros: Lillian Gish, sprightly at 93, Bette Davis, the nasty one, of course, at 78, Vincent Price, mellow 75, Ann Sothern, her still plucky self at 77, and Harry Carey Jr., a mere kid of 65.
I found the characters trying rather than interesting, and the artificial dialogue felt leaden and forced. Davis was handicapped by having suffered strokes that played havoc with the left side of her body. Her speech is slightly slurred: the effort shows and her line readings don’t convince. Her physical condition to the side, the prickly, demanding Bête nior personality did convince the crew that she was indeed a handful to work with: this wasn’t a harmonious shoot. Sothern was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, likely more for her career in total and for widespread affection from peers rather than for what she’s given to do here.
What comes off true is the non-fictional, life-lived, real-human-being character etched in the weathered, lined, beautiful faces of these aged, familiar, cherished figures–just looking at them holds more attention and commands greater consideration than anything they’ve been given by the candycane script. For some reason the film played exceptionally well in Tokyo, running for over a year. The gross in the States, meanwhile, was a pittance, $1,338,200.
In flashback: Mary Steenburgen, Tisha Sterling (Sothern’s daughter) and Margaret Ladd. The last film for Lillian and for Ann, next-to-last for Bette.
* I’m no fan of Anderson’s previous movies—if, O Lucky Man (“O When Will It End?)” and Britannia Hospital all bored me into a coma. Yes, I know the guy was an influential critic (code for “no one but other film critics ever paid attention to his opinions”) and that, aside from his movies (most famous being This Sporting Life) he directed 34 stage productions and 22 documentaries. Call me a hairy Yankee brute, but it’s just weak tea, served cold. Each their own…