The Whales of August [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray A - America - Kino Lorber
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (22nd December 2017).
The Film

Adapted by David Berry from his own stage play, The Whales of August was the penultimate feature of director Lindsay Anderson (If…) and actress Bette Davis (All About Eve) as well as the last film of Lillian Gish (The Birth of a Nation), but a film about loss, aging, missed opportunities that showcases one spry yet frail actress and another more infirm manages to foreground the love that exists in this codependent relationship in which there is a line between making allowances for the other's attitudes and speaking up so as not to be eclipsed by the other. For the last fifty years, sisters Libby (Davis) and Sarah (Gish) have made their family's summer cottage their vacation residence. The rest of the time, Sarah has been taking care of her blind sister at Libby's home in the city in the absence of the latter's estranged daughter. This summer, however, things seem to be different as Sarah is worrying that Libby is becoming senile and that the no longer has it in her to take care of her sister. Despite the urgings of longtime friend Tisha (A Letter to Three Wives's Ann Sothern) to find Libby a carer or to put the burden on Libby's daughter, Sarah insists on going about things as usual out of a sense of obligation because her older sister cared for her after her husband's death. Fond reminiscences of the past that used to pass the time weigh heavily as Libby fixates on the inevitability of death and Sarah tries in vain to cheer her up since the dead for her are a source of comfort for the memories they have left behind. Libby's negativity becomes more pronounced in the presence of visitors – among them handyman Joshua (The Searchers' Harry Carey Jr.) – and most pointed in the presence of the island's Russian royal Mr. Maranov (Laura's Vincent Price) who seems poised to sweep Sarah off her feet with the possibility of a late in life romance. The young versions of Libby, Sarah, and Tisha seen in the sepia prologue are played by Margaret Ladd (The Friends of Eddie Coyle), Mary Steenburgen (Time After Time), and Tisha Sterling (Coogan's Bluff) respectively. The house's owner Frank Pitkin appears early on in a cameo as a fisherman (played in the flashback by construction coordinator Mike Bush.


Kino's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.85:1 widescreen Blu-ray is a nice improvement over the single-layer DVD edition, with more picture information on the left and bottom of the frame, skin tones of the characters that are appropriately pallid without the yellow-orange tinge bleeding in from the magic hour exteriors, and an improved sense of depth in the ravishing landscape shots of the island. While not touted as a brand new scan, it appears to be more recent vintage than the one used for the DVD edition and is a pleasing rendition of the film.


The sole feature audio option is a clean-sounding DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track (rare for a mid-to-late eighties theatrical release but not unheard of) of a mix which privileges vocal performances over sound design and scoring. Optional English SDH subtitle are also provided.


The film is accompanied by an audio Commentary by producer Mike Kaplan (Short Cuts), moderated by film critic Stephen Farber in which Kaplan reveals that the project was motivated by his desire to see Gish in a starring role for modern audiences and seeing a performance of the play (as well as sighting the Rhode Island school piece of artwork utilized for the play's poster which motivated the added prologue) and that he had met Anderson while working with Warner on O Lucky Man!. When asked about the rivalry between Davis and Gish, Kaplan minimizes it compared to some of the second-hand accounts over the years while also sticking up for Davis whose "built-in drama" he suggests was a result of having to fight for roles from the very beginning. "Peer Talk" (72:58) is a BBC programme of raw interviews from September 1986 with stars Davis, Gish, Price, Sothern and Carey Jr. Price suggests that the theme of the film is not aging but loving, Gish is asked to compare filmmaking today to the very beginning of cinema, Sothern recalls the transition from singer/dancer to actress, Carey Jr. compares working with John Ford (Stagecoach) to Anderson, and Davis proves much more fiery and less frail than in the film, as well as very confrontational. "Behind the Camera" (28:35) is a special of raw September 1986 interviews with director Anderson, cinematographer Mike Fash whose - whose association with Anderson goes back to Britannia Hospital - and production designer Jocelyn Herbert (Ned Kelly). A trio of interviews with the actresses who played the young Libby, Sarah, and Tisha are also included in which the actresses acknowledge that there was actually little for them to do despite the memorable shoot.

In the interview with actress Mary Steenburgen (13:49), the actress recalls meeting Anderson through her then-husband Malcolm McDowell (the star of Anderson's If...), meeting Gish before the film when she honored her at AFI, meeting Davis through her friendship with Roddy McDowall who was known for his dinner parties in which he paired young and Old Hollywood talent as seating partners, and chatting with Price about his old horror movies. The interview with actress Margaret Ladd (12:27) finds her recalling her childhood friendship with producer Kaplan and appearing with Gish previously in A Wedding, while the interview with actress Tisha Sterling (15:46) finds her discussing the opportunity to play her own mother as a younger woman, Sothern acting on location with her back injury, and reading from her own autobiography a chapter on the making of the film which is as much about her as her mother. The interview with executive producer Shep Gordon (5:43) is shorter because he was not involved in the production on location but recalls the film premiering at Caanes and Gish not only agreeing to go but asking him to track down her cousin and invite her; that cousin turning out to be Diana, Princess of Wales, who turned the premiere into a royal visit. A series of short video vignettes - "Mike Kaplan Vignette 1: Bette Davis" (1:46), "Mike Kaplan Vignette 2: Cab Ride" (3:27), and "Mike Kaplan Vignette 3: Cliff Island" (1:49) - are self-explanatory while "Never Apologize: Malcolm McDowell on Lindsay Anderson" (9:42) is a video recording of McDowell's spoken-word performance which premiered at Cannes in 2006 which addresses the royal visit, his friendship with Anderson, and visiting the set while his then-wife was on the shoot. Sterling performs the song "You Can Never Tell" penned by Kaplan (5:53) which was not included in the actual film despite the title being the final line of the film. The back cover mentions the inclusion of the film's theatrical trailer but it is not present, although a limited edition 16-page booklet by Kaplan is included.



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