Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Whales of August

Bette Davis is the star for the day in TCM's Summer Under the Stars, and TCM is finishing off the day with Davis' last completed movie, The Whales of August, at 4:15 AM tomorrow.

Davis, who was just shy of 80 when she made this, plays Libby Strong, the younger sister of Sarah, played by Lillian Gish who was past 90 when she did it. They've been spending their summers for decades in a summer cabin on an island off the Maine coast. But they're both getting old, and Libby has gone blind and wheelchair-bound thanks to a series of strokes. It's to the point where Sarah's daughter (unseen) thinks the two sisters should stop heading up to Maine for the summer. In fact, Libby seems more than ready to die.

Meanwhile, they've got a neighbor in Tisha (Ann Sothern) who is also showing signs of aging in that she's had her driver's license pulled. Of course these folks all know each other well since they've been spending so many summers on the island together. They're about to get a fourth, however. Maranov (Vincent Price, who I think was the baby of the cast at 75) has been going fishing at the shoreline, and when he catches a couple of fish, he offers then to the three women if they'll all have dinner together with him at Sarah and Libby's cottage. It turns out that Maranov doesn't really have a place to stay. In fact, he might not even be Maranov, the Russian émigré.

Back to the relationship of the two sisters, though. They're old an pondering the end of life, and in fact are getting sick of each other to an extent. Libby seems to take delight in making life difficult for Sarah, in fact one of the few things in which she takes delight any longer. Sarah, meanwhile, thinks about the past and her late husband.

That's pretty much all that goes on in the movie. The Whales of August is one of those things that's light on action and heavy on character. I don't know that I would even call it a slice-of-life movie, as it's more of a character study. But it's a movie with four interesting characters, and four darn good performances by the actors playing those players.

Ann Sothern got an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her part, the only one of the four to earn an Oscar nomination. Hers is probably the least developed of the four, although that's fully down to the script and not Sothern's performance. She's quite good as the kind person who doesn't quite want to admit she's getting old in the way the two sisters recognize.

Vincent Price was always a capable actor, having done a fair amount of dramatic work before he became identified with the horror genre. For anybody who only remembers Price from those campy horror films, The Whales of August is a good one to watch at it shows him just how good he could be. He's charming and a bit mysterious, reminiscent of the character he played 40 years earlier in Laura, except that this one has a different provenance and is more prominent.

Bette Davis gets to be mean since her character has the physical infirmities of old age, and Davis does a fine job with it. Supposedly Davis and Gish didn't get along so well, which I suppose would give the meanness a bit more of an edge to it. At any rate, Davis does well portraying somebody who's almost OK with life ending.

Lillian Gish is proably best of all here, though. She's the sweet old woman who gave up a part of her life to take care of her sister, but doesn't seem to show much regret or resentment for it. Still, she does have wistful reminiscences, especially of her late husband.

If you want a little movie without a bunch of CGI and explosions, The Whales of August is definitely one for you. The movie did get a DVD release at some point in the past, but it seems to be out of print. That's a shame, since this is a really worthwhile film.

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