The Whales of August Blu-ray Review: An Actor Lover's Dream

Acting legends Bette Davis and Lillian Gish together for the first (and last) time.
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Two old sisters spend every summer at a little cottage off the coast of Maine.  They love each other, but they are also very different and quarrel constantly.  Libby (Bette Davis) is the youngest, but is in worse health and has gone blind.  She has turned bitter and spiteful.  Sarah (Lillian Gish) is full of life and is kind but can hold her own in verbal sparring with her sister.  Though it is not outwardly stated (and there are a lot of things not outwardly stated), this summer will likely be their last on the island.

It is based on a play of the same name by Dave Berry and also stars Ann Southern as a neighbor and Vincent Price as a Russian expatriate who used to be royalty but now lives on the kindness of strangers.  But let’s be honest here, it is not the script, the beautiful setting, the plot, or even the always wonderful Vincent Price that got this film made, that put people in the seats, or that has now cause it to be released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber.  It is Lillian Gish and Bette Davis that we come to see.

Born in 1893, Lillian Gish became a film star in the silent era starring in such films as Birth of a Nation and Intolerance.  She was a pioneer in film-acting techniques and one of the first actors to recognize the difference in performing on the stage versus performing on film.  Bette Davis was born in 1906 and become one of the biggest stars in Hollywood during its golden age.  Together, they make the sort of superstar duo filmmakers dream about and fans fantasize over.

Alas, the film does not quite live up to those fantasies.  Gish and Davis are wonderful in it, though they both show their age (this would be Gish’s last performance before her death in 1993).  It is the script that lets them down.  The Whales of August wants to be the sort of film that moves you with its writing, that knocks you out with its subtlety, but it never quite gets there.  When nothing much happens in a story, you need the things that do happen, you need the words said and left unsaid, to be of great meaning. Here we have two sisters who verbally spar in delightfully subtle ways, who have bickered over little things for so much of their lives they’ve let it embitter their hearts, but when the reckoning comes, it just didn’t hit as hard as I felt the film wanted it to.

There are some nice moments such as when Sarah sits alone with a picture of her dead husband on their anniversary, talking to him as if he were there.  Confessing her sense of disappointment and anger towards her sister.  Gish’s performance is complex and passionate.  Price is as good as he ever was.  He’s a gentleman with a bit of a crush on Sarah and is used to a certain lifestyle that he's hoping she can help him maintain.  Ann Southern (also her last film) brings a bit of light to the film as a neighbor who has spent many summers visiting with the ladies. Seeing these great old actors in their great old skins performing together is a real treat.  It's a shame that the script doesn’t quite live up to that promise, but it's more than enough to see how great the greats really were.

Kino Lorber's transfer of this film is lush and warm. It's full of green vegetation and the blue ocean.  Each looks nice and natural.  The darker inside scenes are clear as well.  Its a film full of talking and silence and both come through quite well on the audio.

Extras include a 14-page booklet featuring an essay by producer Mike Kaplan, who also does an audio commentary on the Blu-ray.  It's loaded with interviews, including ones during the film’s shoot with all of the cast.  Most of it's pretty dull as Kaplan asks basic promotional questions and gets basic promotional answers, but Bette Davis in her most Bette Davis of ways is having none of that and is clearly annoyed by the whole process.

There are lots of other interviews with the crew and even one with Mary Steenburgen who had the smallest of parts in a flashback but seems to have fond memories of her time on set.  There are also a series of vignettes from Kaplan, an excerpt from Malcolm McDowell’s stage show featuring entries from director Lindsay Anderson’s diary written during the filming of the movie, and a music video from a song inspired by the film.

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