I remember wisecracking when Lindsay Anderson’s The Whales of August came out in 1987 that it starred “the dinosaurs of film,” and while that may sound disrespectful, it’s also the truth—and a large part of the reason that this unassuming movie works as well as it does. The movie’s two stars—Bette Davis and Lillian Gish—and the two primary supporting players—Ann Sothern and Vincent Price—brought a collective age of 251 years to the film. But it was and is more than that. They represented something of the collective history of film. The 94-year-old Gish, in fact, had a career that reached all the way back to the very beginning of narrative cinema as we know it. And when Lindsay Anderson chose to make this reflective work, he had to have realized that a good deal of the resonance of its simple drama would come from the baggage such iconic stars would bring to the film. In the case of Gish, it even added to the surprise of the scene in which she “talks” to the portrait of her late husband.
Those coming to the film with memories of Anderson’s Mick Travis trilogy are in for a surprise, because this is a far different work than If …. (1968), O Lucky Man! (1973) and Britannia Hospital (1982). This is a small-scale film, a character study of two aged sisters—played by Gish and Davis—spending what is perhaps their last summer in a cottage on an island off the coast of Maine where they used to watch the whales pass by in the month of August. The action takes place over the course of a day and is largely confined to the cottage, so don’t expect much in the way of pyrotechnics—except in the acting. Is it a great film? Probably not, even if it has a sense of Bergman about it. But it is a worthy film that affords the viewer a rare chance to see some fine acting by stars the like we’ll not see again.