Saturday, February 23, 2013

Legendary Actresses in a Forgotten Film

I have long wanted to see the film "The Whales of August," released in 1987. That might raise a few eyebrows among my friends and regular readers of mine, as my dislike of newer films, coupled with love of Hollywood's Golden Age, film noir, and black and white photography is well known. But since the film stars two screen legends—Lillian Gish and Bette Davis— (and this turned out to be Lillian's final film at age 93; she lived to be just short of 100), I really wanted to see it.

Here is the Internet Movie Data Base page on it. Wikipedia also has a more detailed account of the film. My sister pleasantly surprised me with a video of the film this weekend, and we just sat down to watch it.

It did not disappoint. Even at their age and Bette's obvious infirmity from having suffered a stroke, both screen legends turned in yet another legendary performance. The film was deeply touching, as they portrayed elderly sisters having what might be their last summer together at the family home on the Maine seacoast. Old memories—painful and pleasant—intrude, old hurts and disappointments between the sisters arise, but it all gets warmly worked out at the end. And the end of the film leaves you with quite a lump in your throat.

I do have one issue. It frankly infuriates me that the Academy never recognized either Lillian or Bette for this film. They should have gotten Oscars, if for anything their decades upon decades in the motion picture industry. In fact, one story from the movie's filming had someone mention to Lillian that she had done a great closeup. Bette quipped, "She should. She invented them!" But the Academy ignored the film, and I'd say most people today don't know anything about it. Sad.

If you have not seen "The Whales of August," I recommend it highly, and that is significant praise for a late 1980s film. I normally won't watch anything made past 1955. But the main actors—also including Vincent Price and Ann Sothern—come from my favorite era of moviemaking, so that made up for the color film and the dating. The performances didn't disappoint. And while I in general tend to dislike "message" films, this one sent a good one to provoke some thought—the issues of aging and the things the elderly in our society face as they get older. Even the internal reflections, including wistfulness, missing ones who have passed on, keeping old traditions, holding on to independence, worry over loved ones who are more infirm than you. Wow. It is an incredible film, and well worth the 90 minutes to watch it.

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