Synopsis: Two of the greatest motion picture actresses of all time-Bette Davis and Lillian Gish-unite their legendary talents in this beautifully photographed, intensely emotional drama that offers “unexpected and quite marvelous rewards” (The New York Times)!
Libby (Davis) and Sarah (Gish) are widowed siblings who have vacationed for half a century at a seaside cottage in Maine. Now in their eighties, the sisters have unexpectedly arrived at an impasse: While Sarah embraces change and the possibility of romance with a courtly Russian suitor (Vincent Price), the stubbornly bitter Libby rages at the inevitability of death.
As the summer months wane, can Libby and Sarah rediscover the powerful bonds of memory, family and love?
Is it just me, or are Vincent Price’s non-horror films a much lesser draw, a far less appealing proposition? Despite having a sickening amount of his films on DVD, I still have a difficult time motivating myself to watch his more serious films; I can’t recall one that I actually really liked aside from ‘Laura’. I suppose that, since the ones I’ve seen thus far weren’t stellar cinematic offerings, a negative tone has been set.
If I could at least expect earth-shattering productions and performances, then that would be another thing. But my gut feeling tells me otherwise and, thus, some films have languished on my shelf for years, copied from VHS tapes (remember those?) when they were still available from the library. Well, since I have started something lately that I can’t seem to stop, which is cleaning up my shelf of unwatched Price pictures, good and bad, we’re finally getting to them.
The first of which is ‘The Whales of August’.
I knew nothing about this film aside from the fact that this is a late-period Vincent Price picture about old coots ‘anging ’round. That’s it. Other than this, I had the artwork to go by. And it wasn’t terribly inspiring: it looks like it was painted in a high school art class. I suspect that it was made on a very low budget, but this is ridiculous; it screams “cheap cheap cheap” and doesn’t at all inspire one to want to watch it. Heck, you’d half-expect Hallmark Entertainment to do better.
Thankfully, the film limits itself to one location, and most the “action” takes place within three spaces in a summer home. Because of this I got the sense that it would make for pretty good theatre, being all dialogue-based and focusing heavily on the character dynamics. I subsequently checked and it is in fact based on a play (by David Berry) and that, for whatever reason, it was excessively popular in Japan. Interesting.
The film version features silver screen legends Bette Davis and Lillian Gish as sisters living out their late years in a seaside house in Maine. The story takes place over the course of about two days and involves the relationship between the two sisters, with further light being shed on their personalities through their interactions with some of the locals: their friend Tisha, their handyman, and a Russian visitor (played by Price).
I was aghast by some of the performances in this film: Bette Davis sputtered like an jalopy, missing many beats and using the wrong inflections most of the time. By the end, out of frustration, I couldn’t help but imagine a pairing between her and Tommy Wiseau. This would have been a delight. But I kept wondering if ill-health might have played a part: her mouth was twisted, so I wondered if she might have had a heart attack prior to making the film.
It turns out that Davis was very ill in her later years, and suffered four strokes immediately after undergoing a mastectomy. It required much therapy to make a partial recovery – which explains everything. I wished that they had adapted the play to integrate this element into the story, because it would have made it much easier to accept her performance if we thought it was integral to the character. As it stands, though, I could only think of Marlene Dietrich and her ridiculous “acting”; it tainted the experience.
It didn’t help that there were other casting issues, because it simply made me think that they had gotten a weak casting director. For instance, Ann Sothern (who plays Trish in the movie) overdid it on each of her lines and most of her body language; she was like a cartoon character – not funny, but incredibly unnatural. It turned the character into a big oaf – not in the physical sense, but personality-wise, in her lack of subtlety. It was maddening, because I was replaying every delivered line throughout the viewing, clearly seeing how it should have been performed instead.
Lillian Gish, however, was quite good as the patient, friendly and romantic widow taking care of her prickly, blind sister. While there are no doubt stronger performances out there, she was easily the best of the bunch in this film, showing sensitivity and warmth with ease. She was endearing. Vincent Price came in at a close second, effortlessly playing a gentleman from a different time and place who has been getting by on grace and charm for years and now finds himself homeless. His persona is mostly an extension of Price’s real-life character, so he handled this one admirably well.
‘The Whales of August’ is a pleasant enough film, but it didn’t grab me quite like ‘On Golden Pond’ did (in ‘Pond’, Hepburn and Fonda bantered in such an amusing, clever way that it was impossible not to get totally involved with it – despite Hepburn’s own health issues). Unfortunately, ‘Whales’ is so hampered by the actors’ stilted exchanges that it sometimes became difficult to endure. On paper, however, it’s probably pleasant piece. It just didn’t translate as well as it could have.