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MOVIE REVIEWS : FAMILY LIFE IN MAINE AND SICILY : 'The Whales of August' Lands Historic Cast, and It's Still a Sparkling Film

October 23, 1987|KEVIN THOMAS | Times Staff Writer

The gathering of Lillian Gish, Bette Davis, Ann Sothern and Vincent Price in "The Whales of August" (at the Westside Pavilion and Cineplex Odeon Fairfax) takes on such a historic aura that it's important that it not overwhelm our consideration of what is an intimate gem of a film.

To their credit, these actors, familiar to generations of moviegoers and television audiences, do not give us star turns but instead form an ensemble under Lindsay Anderson's firm, understated direction. It's not that such indelible personalities lose themselves in their parts but rather are fused with them; somehow they become the people they are so beautifully portraying without our completely forgetting that it's Gish and company we're watching up there on the screen. But that's what being a star is all about.

David Berry's seamlessly graceful adaptation of his 1981 play serves his cast to perfection. In the sepia opening sequence, three young women in turn-of-the-century summer whites excitedly spot some whales off a Maine island. As the screen bleeds to color we discover that the whales, symbols of a vanished past and youthful dreams, are long gone, but that now, sometime in the 1950s, the three women are still there. How could anyone who ever loved the movies not feel a heart-tug when the camera picks up Lillian Gish, now a radiant 94 (or thereabouts), performing the everyday task of hanging out a wash?

Gish's Sarah has for more than 50 years spent many summers with her sister Libby (Bette Davis) in the simple shingled cottage she inherited from her aunt. Sarah lost her husband in World War I, and Libby, also widowed, has been blind for some time. With uncomplaining patience Sarah has waited on the often imperious and irritable Libby, but she's beginning to wonder how much longer she'll be able to cope with her sister's increasing bitterness. Their vivacious old friend and neighbor, Tisha (Ann Sothern), tries to console Sarah.

To create Sarah and Libby, Berry drew upon childhood summers spent with his great-aunts, one of whom was blind, and in them one can see all the elderly sisters in one's own family or acquaintance. We can also see in Sarah and Libby the shifting dependencies within any relationship. For all the dignity and worth that "The Whales of August" imparts to older people, it is not so much about being old as it is about the choice constantly facing all of us at any age: whether to embrace life and try to live it to the fullest, as Sarah does, or to turn our backs on it in resignation, as Libby does.

Anderson, the distinguished British director best known for "This Sporting Life" and "If . . . , " captures the leisurely rhythms of the sisters' daily lives. "The Whales of August" is by no means a filmed play but a richly evocative motion picture. Also a noted film historian, Anderson has acknowledged the influence here of one of his heroes, John Ford, who was himself a native of Maine. The Ford influence is evident in the film's feeling for its rugged landscape, as enduring as its people, and also in its poignant farewells and the endless vistas of cinematographer Mike Fash (whose interior shots catch the burnished glow of the patina of solid, well-cared-for antiques). There's an appropriately brave, elegiac mood to Alan Price's spare score.

Not since "The Night of the Hunter" (1955), in which Gish played a kindly, protective grandmotherly woman courageously defying the insinuating evil of Robert Mitchum, has she had so major and rewarding a role on the screen. She carries it off with a star's authority--and with that aura of deceptive fragility and irresistible femininity that has served her so well for three quarters of a century.

Davis, looking as slight and pale as an ivory figurine, unsparingly makes the ravages of her recent illnesses work for her character while showing us that all the sharpness and fire remains beneath the deliberately dulled eyes and careful movements. This parchment-dry portrayal is one of Davis' most crisp and disciplined performances. Her Libby is not an ingrate, despite her tartness, but rather a woman who has given up without realizing fully the consequences of having done so. Julie Weiss' costumes for Libby are a marvel, at once homespun looking yet smartly tailored, indicative that Libby has more wealth and sophistication than her sister.

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