Saturday, April 10, 2010

Bette Davis Month: The Whales of August (1987)

Bette Davis' second-to-last film is a treasure trove of old Hollywood stars, with Davis and Lillian Gish as a pair of elderly sisters living together on the Maine coast. Ann Sothern (who was nominated for an Oscar for her role), Vincent Price and Harry Carey Jr. play their neighbors in a movie almost completely devoid of incident. There are small tiffs between the sisters, but for the most part this could very well be titled Old Ladies Having Tea: The Movie. The actors do a lovely job of conveying the quiet reflection of old age, though, and I appreciated that a movie about seniors didn't feel the need to create false drama with deaths or terminal illnesses.

Davis plays Libby, the cantankerous, blind sister to Gish's calmer, more gentle Sarah, and the effort of her performance after recovering from a stroke is obvious in her labored speaking and lopsided smiles. Still, it's appropriate for the character, and Davis brings her trademark ferocity to the role even through the extra effort required to get her lines across. She may look gaunt and frail, but once she opens her mouth, that voice is unmistakable. Gish and Price are warm and affectionate, and Sothern does indeed steal all her scenes as the sisters' loudmouthed longtime friend (this was the final film for both Gish and Sothern).

Based on a play, the movie is a little stagy at times, with its small number of characters and single location, and some of the dialogue does go around in circles. But it's a pleasant, effective showcase for these actors in their later years, the kind of thing that these days would be made with Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, and would be just as enjoyable, and just as inconsequential.

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