The Whales of August

Movie Information

The Hendersonville Film Society will show The Whales of August at 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 18, in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community, 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville. (From Asheville, take I-26 to U.S. 64 West, turn right at the third light onto Thompson Street. Follow to the Lake Point Landing entrance and park in the lot on the left.)
Genre: Drama
Director: Lindsay Anderson
Starring: Bette Davis, Lillian Gish, Ann Sothern, Vincent Price
Rated: NR

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.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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4 thoughts on “The Whales of August

  1. I’m too lazy to access imdb, but wasn’t this Vincent Price’s last film? If so, it was a wonderful end to a legendary career.


  2. Chip Kaufmann

    Actually Vinny still had 7 more credits to go with the most notable being the Inventor in Tim Burton’s EDWARD SCISSORHANDS (1990).

  3. Ken Hanke

    No, that’s usually considered to be EDWARD SCISSORHANDS (an even better end), though I believe there was some voice work and maybe a TV movie appearance after that.

  4. Tantris

    Actually, the collective age of the 4 actors in the film should totaled up to about 327 years.

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