Sometimes the saga of a film’s production is more interesting than the film itself. In the case of The Whales of August (1987) the movie is as every bit as good as its colorful backstory. That’s why the new Special Edition from Kino Lorber is well worth your time. Producer Mike Kaplan has gone the extra distance to find interviews and behind-the-scenes footage shot during filming on location in Maine, conducted new interviews and shared his own vivid memories of making this lovely picture with director Lindsay Anderson and a once-in-a-lifetime cast: Bette Davis, Lillian Gish, Ann Sothern, Vincent Price, and Harry Carey, Jr. Gish was 93 when she worked (without complaint) on the harsh, windy location, playing a woman who cares for her blind sister, Davis (then 78). Sothern and Price are longtime friends of the characters and Carey is the local handyman in this superb ensemble. David Berry adapted his own play for the screen.
Critic Stephen Farber talks to Kaplan on a commentary track, while the producer shares some of his best anecdotes on camera. There are new interviews with the actresses who played younger versions of the elderly characters: Mary Steenburgen, Margaret Ladd, and Tisha Sterling, the real-life daughter of Ann Sothern whose memories are candid and especially poignant. (Sothern earned an Oscar nomination for her performance, which she hoped would lead to other offers. They never came.) Steenburgen’s then-husband Malcolm McDowell is seen in an excerpt from his one-man show about the spiky director Lindsay Anderson aptly titled Never Apologize.
For me, the highpoint of the disc is a grimly hilarious interview shot during production with Davis, who refuses to give a polite reporter a single satisfying answer to his (admittedly mundane) questions. She seems to enjoy torturing the poor man and finally cracks a half-smile as the conversation comes to a close.
On a personal note: I was at the Telluride Film Festival when this movie debuted. Harry Carey, Jr. told me that he asked Miss Gish to sign a copy of her autobiography, which she did, writing that it was nice to have worked with “the Carey boys.” She costarred with Harry Carey, Sr. in 1912 and his son 75 years later!
Lindsay Anderson, with whom I had corresponded, eagerly asked if his newest film might earn a four-star rating in my Movie Guide. (Almost—I gave it ***1/2)
If you’ve never seen it, The Whales of August is a jewel, and if you haven’t revisited it in the thirty years since its release, this jam-packed BluRay from Kino Lorber is a must.