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Screen and Screen Again: Bette Davis in The Whales of August

Bette Davis first cast her spell over me when I was about twelve. A local Oregon TV channel showed Jezebel, William Wyler’s 1938 romantic drama of the Old South, and I was mesmerized immediately. Davis was never more attractive onscreen; she also demonstrates an amazing ability, in just seconds, to transform her face from something youthful, vibrant and womanly into a hard- and old-looking mask. It’s almost as if she’s changing color before our eyes.

In the years that followed that early encounter with Davis, I saw as many of her vintage movies as I possibly could. I loved her nervy boldness, so often laced with moments of imaginative subtlety. There were certain things she would do, and it was sometimes difficult to articulate just exactly why I found them so effective. In The Letter (1940), I never tire of watching the way she attempts to put up a proper, ladylike front to her husband (Herbert Marshall) and her attorney (James Stephenson) during the long narrative in which she recounts how she came to shoot her lover; in the breakfast scene early in The Little Foxes (1941), she tells us everything we need to know about Regina Giddens’ thwarted ambitions by the way she pushes her plate away and says to the servant, “Cal, the grits is cold.” Her command of physical life offered many surprises: look at the way she throws herself across the desk following the shooting of the villainous Teck (George Coulouris) in 1943’s anti-Fascist drama Watch on the Rhine. In The Catered Affair (1956), she lets us see Aggie Hurley’s lifetime of pent-up frustration by the way she leans against the wall turning off a bedroom light, or by the ferociously deliberate manner with which she brushes her hair during a bedtime confrontation with her husband (Ernest Borgnine). Later on, in lesser, campier movies like Dead Ringer (1964), she can occasionally summon profound moments of emotional truth.

As time went on, however, that changed. She gave the defining performance of her career, as the gloriously self-obsessed Broadway star Margo Channing in All About Eve (1950), and mysteriously, abruptly, flattened out as an actress, becoming strident and mannered and monotonous. There is little of value to find in her work throughout the 1950s, and perhaps even less in the 1960s, following her spectacularly funny and inventive performance in 1962’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

In most of the films that followed, her timing and vigor appeared to have deserted her, and she seemed hamstrung by her own sense of self-importance.

But she did deliver one last impressive piece of work, in 1987’s The Whales of August, directed by Lindsay Anderson, and recently, I viewed it again on Turner Classic Movies.

I saw The Whales of August when it was initially released in theaters. This delicate story of two elderly sisters, Sarah (Lillian Gish) and Libby (Davis), playing out a lifetime of both closeness and resentment at their cottage on an island off the coast of Maine was too low-key to generate much box-office return. At the time, I felt that it was Gish’s show all the way. When I saw it again recently, it was clear to me that I’d been wrong. The movie belongs to Davis, who only a few years before had been stricken with both cancer and a stroke, and it permits her to show us one final time the artistry she still had at her disposal.

David Berry’s screenplay, based on his stage play, is a Largo-tempo study of two siblings who are temperamental opposites, and it examines the ways in which this opposition both divides them and makes them more dependent on one another. When the film opens, Sarah’s husband Joshua has been dead for forty-six years; Libby’s husband Matthew is also long gone. But Sarah and Joshua’s marriage was a love affair; Libby and Matthew were not affectionate with each other. Libby is also estranged from her daughter, Anna. As Sarah putters endlessly about their cottage, making breakfast, compulsively tidying up, working on oil paintings in the garden, Libby makes fun of her. Libby would rather be at her house in Philadelphia. Sarah counters that it’s too hot in Philadelphia. “I like the heat,” snaps Libby. “It keeps you from being so busy.” As Sarah begins her summer ritual of creating stuffed animals to donate to a local fair, she tells Libby, who is blind, that this year she’s making Koala bears. “They live up in the trees,” says Sarah, “and they won’t come down if there are too many people around.” “Very sensible of them,” Libby replies. They discuss a local friend who is seeing someone following the death of his wife. Libby approves: “The late Mrs. Mayhew could have taken the booby prize at any cattle show.” (Here, and elsewhere, Davis shows that her ability to land laugh lines is undiminished.)

Libby is someone who can find solace, albeit a bitter kind of solace, only in isolation. Any degree of intimate interaction with anyone else pulls to the surface her lifetime of resentment and disappointment. When a visitor arrives, whether it is an impoverished and opportunistic neighbor, Mr. Maranov (Vincent Price), who claims to be the nephew of a Russian Grand Duke, or the sisters’ childhood friend Tisha (Ann Sothern, whose performance has wit and energy, even though it sometimes has the whiff of community theater acting), Libby puts on her dark glasses and folds her arms, turning away from the conversation to make her point. Here, and throughout the film, Davis’s command of the physical life of her character is still powerful. When Libby finds a lock of Matthew’s hair that she has put away, and takes it out and brushes it against her face, her entire being seems paralyzed by excruciating emotional pain. She knows that her increasing bitterness and constant need for help are driving Sarah away, yet she feels powerless to do anything but hang on to the contemptuous behavior she has exhibited all her life. It’s the known quantity, and it’s what’s unknown that terrifies her most.

But we also embrace Libby’s point of view. She has a cut-through honesty that Sarah lacks, and senses instinctively, as Sarah does not, that Mr. Maranov is a fraud and a user. (“I have spent my life visiting friends,” he admits, and Libby makes it clear that he cannot expect to find a safe haven with them. We feel the depth of Libby’s sadness as Sarah insensitively prattles on about unearthing their old family stereopticon, and with its slides that Libby can no longer see.

There’s a beautiful moment at the film’s end, when Sarah tries to assure Libby that she’s really no trouble to her; the way in which Davis slightly turns her head away, her face collapsing in sadness, the impact is overwhelming, because Libby knows her sister is lying. It shows us that Davis’ remarkable gifts were still there, that she was filled with grace notes just waiting to be cued by the right conductor.

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  1. Beautiful piece, Brian. Once again, I have several more movies to add to my list! Keep them coming.

    • Thanks Marty. I am in NY right now and it’s too cold to do much other than watch TCM, so I’m sure there are more titles right around the corner!

  2. This film did not grab me at the time of its original release, but reading your post makes me think I should reconsider and see it again.

  3. I love this film. It has recently been made available on Blu-ray, so hopefully a whole new generation of movie lovers can discover it.

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