The Whales of August (1987)

R | 90 mins | Drama | 16 October 1987

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HISTORY

While it is not explicitly stated in the film, the action takes place in 1954, according to a 23 Nov 1986 LAT article.
       Producer Mike Kaplan first saw David Berry’s play, The Whales of August, in 1981 at the Trinity Square Repertory theater in Providence, RI. Kaplan believed the play would make a great starring vehicle for Lillian Gish, whom he met in the late 1960s while working as a publicist on The Comedians (1967, see entry). An article in the 22 Oct 1987 NYT stated that Kaplan did not option Berry’s play until Gish agreed to star. As announced in a 30 Apr 1984 DV item, Sir John Gielgud was initially cast in the role of “Mr. Maranov,” before Vincent Price took over the role.
       Bette Davis turned down the role of “Libby Strong” in 1981, but changed her mind sometime later.
       Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Paramount Pictures, Twentieth Century Fox, and Warner Bros. Pictures all passed on the project before Alive Films came onboard to produce and distribute, according to a 24 May 1986 Screen International item. The $3 million budget was financed by Embassy Home Entertainment, in exchange for “worldwide video and shared foreign theatrical rights.”
       The characters “Sarah Webber” and Libby Strong were partly based on David Berry’s great-aunts, one of whom was blind, as stated in the 23 Oct 1987 LAT review. The screenplay marked Berry’s feature film writing debut.
       Principal photography took place over eight weeks in fall 1986, on Cliff Island in Casco Bay, off the coast of Portland, ME. The aged actors were housed in ... More Less

While it is not explicitly stated in the film, the action takes place in 1954, according to a 23 Nov 1986 LAT article.
       Producer Mike Kaplan first saw David Berry’s play, The Whales of August, in 1981 at the Trinity Square Repertory theater in Providence, RI. Kaplan believed the play would make a great starring vehicle for Lillian Gish, whom he met in the late 1960s while working as a publicist on The Comedians (1967, see entry). An article in the 22 Oct 1987 NYT stated that Kaplan did not option Berry’s play until Gish agreed to star. As announced in a 30 Apr 1984 DV item, Sir John Gielgud was initially cast in the role of “Mr. Maranov,” before Vincent Price took over the role.
       Bette Davis turned down the role of “Libby Strong” in 1981, but changed her mind sometime later.
       Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Paramount Pictures, Twentieth Century Fox, and Warner Bros. Pictures all passed on the project before Alive Films came onboard to produce and distribute, according to a 24 May 1986 Screen International item. The $3 million budget was financed by Embassy Home Entertainment, in exchange for “worldwide video and shared foreign theatrical rights.”
       The characters “Sarah Webber” and Libby Strong were partly based on David Berry’s great-aunts, one of whom was blind, as stated in the 23 Oct 1987 LAT review. The screenplay marked Berry’s feature film writing debut.
       Principal photography took place over eight weeks in fall 1986, on Cliff Island in Casco Bay, off the coast of Portland, ME. The aged actors were housed in cottages on Cliff Island, and limited to a six-hour workday, while crewmembers traveled to set by boat, from another island. According to an item in the Oct 1987 issue of Life, Lillian Gish was believed to be ninety-four years old at the time of shooting, although she claimed to be eighty-seven. Gish struggled with her hearing, and often required director Lindsay Anderson to repeat other actors’ lines for her. Although she played Gish’s older sister, Bette Davis was seventy-eight years old at the time of production, and had recently recovered from a stroke. Davis was said to be standoffish toward Gish, often refusing to speak to her, until the latter days of shooting.
       Producers arranged screenings for cast and crew of the following films featuring principal cast members: The Wind, starring Lillian Gish (1928, see entry); All About Eve, starring Bette Davis (1950, see entry); Lady, Be Good, starring Ann Sothern (1941, see entry); The Raven, starring Vincent Price (1963, see entry); and Wagon Master, starring Harry Carey, Jr. (1950, see entry). As a gift to the actors, and to commemorate their historic collaboration, Mike Kaplan commissioned a cast portrait from caricaturist Al Hirschfield, as noted in the 15 Mar 1988 HR.
       According to a 2 Dec 1986 HR brief, the film came in under budget. Post-production took place in London, England.
       The film premiered at the Coronet Theatre in New York City on 14 Oct 1987, as noted in a 21 Oct 1987 Var brief. The after-party at the Plaza Hotel celebrated Lillian Gish’s birthday that day, and raised money for the March of Dimes. A festival premiere took place at the Women in Film festival, as noted in a 28 Oct 1987 Var item. Alive Films was reportedly unhappy with the way the picture was presented, partly because Women in Film’s invitations incorrectly billed Lillian Gish above Bette Davis. When asked why she did not attend the event, Davis claimed she had already done enough publicity.
       Critical reception was warm. Ann Sothern received her only Academy Award nomination for the film, for Best Actress in a Supporting Role, and Lillian Gish tied with Holly Hunter for the National Board of Review’s Best Actress award. Gish and Davis were jointly awarded Best Performer of 1987 from the U.S. Council of Film Organizations, according to a 13 Feb 1988 Screen International brief, and the film won first prize in the 1988 National Media Owl Awards for television and films about aging, as noted in the 5 Apr 1988 DV.
       The Whales of August marked the final feature film appearances of Lillian Gish and Ann Sothern.
       End credits include thanks to the following individuals and organizations: Frank Pitkin and Carolyn Lockwood; Fred Caruso; Polly Pitkin Ryan; James Frasher; Mary Kane; Betty Bringolf; Dick Lea; Judith McKone; Miriam & Ned Reiner; Sheila Joyce; Merry Watson; Scott Dyer; Joanna Ney; Coley Mulkern; Johanna Von Tiling; Bob Howard; Ruth Mistark; George Lair and the Hope Island Club; Lionel Plante and Associates; Shelley Creditor; Boston Light & Sound; HMI Lights; The Red Shed; F.O. Bailey; Nelson Rarities; Octavio’s; Paul’s Market; Paint Pot; Jim & Mary Alice Reilly Antiques; Casco Bay Lines; Skilin’s Nursery; The Steamer Trunk; and the people of the island. End credits also include the acknowledgments: “The Trinity Repertory Company, Providence, R.I., presented the premiere of The Whales of August in 1981. Its New York premiere was given by the WPA Theatre in 1982”; and, "The Arthur Godfrey Show excerpt courtesy of CBS Inc.” More Less

GEOGRAPHIC LOCATIONS
SOURCE CITATIONS
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Daily Variety
30 Apr 1984.
---
Daily Variety
5 Apr 1988
p. 12.
Hollywood Reporter
2 Dec 1986.
---
Hollywood Reporter
15 Mar 1988.
---
Life
Oct 1987.
---
Los Angeles Times
23 Nov 1986
Calendar, p. 22.
Los Angeles Times
23 Oct 1987
Calendar, p. 1.
New York Times
16 Oct 1987
Section C, p. 3.
New York Times
22 Oct 1987.
---
Screen International
24 May 1986.
---
Screen International
13 Feb 1988.
---
Variety
13 May 1987
p. 23, 137.
Variety
21 Oct 1987.
---
Variety
28 Oct 1987.
---
CAST
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION TEXTS
An Alive Films Production
with Circle Associates Ltd.
a film by Lindsay Anderson
Made in Association with Nelson Entertainment Inc.
DISTRIBUTION COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Prod mgr
1st asst dir
2d asst dir
2d 2d asst dir
PRODUCERS
Assoc prod
Exec prod
WRITER
Scr
based on his play
PHOTOGRAPHY
Dir of photog
1st asst cam
2d asst cam
Chief lighting tech
Best boy elec
Elec
Key grip
Best boy grip
Still photog
Spec photog
Grip and lighting equip
Cam
ART DIRECTORS
Prod des
Art dir
Art dir
Asst art dir
Art dept coord
FILM EDITORS
1st asst ed
SET DECORATORS
Set dec
Const supv
Prop master
COSTUMES
Miss Davis' costumes by
Cost des
Ward supv
Ward asst
MUSIC
Mus arr and cond by
SOUND
Sd mixer
Boom op
Sd ed
Dubbing mixer
Dubbing asst
VISUAL EFFECTS
MAKEUP
Make-up artist
Hairstylist
Miss Davis' make-up
Miss Davis' hairstylist
Miss Davis' hairstylist
PRODUCTION MISC
Prod coord
Scr supv
Prod accountant
Asst prod accountant
Dir's amaneunsis
Asst to the prods
Prod office asst
Prod asst
Prod asst
Transportation coord
Caterer
Craft services
Island facilities coord
Security coord
Post prod facilities
COLOR PERSONNEL
Developing and printing
Col grading
Col prints and opticals
SOURCES
LITERARY
Based on the play The Whales of August by David Berry (production date undetermined).
AUTHOR
DETAILS
Release Date:
16 October 1987
Premiere Information:
New York premiere: 14 October 1987
New York opening: 16 October 1987
Los Angeles opening: 23 October 1987
Production Date:
September--October 1986
Physical Properties:
Sound
Color
Duration(in mins):
90
MPAA Rating:
R
Country:
United States
Language:
English
Passed by NBR:
No
SYNOPSIS

Aged sisters Sarah Webber and Libby Strong spend late summer in Sarah’s seaside home in Maine. Both widows have spent the past thirty years taking care of each other. However, now that cantankerous Libby has lost her eyesight, she requires Sarah to do all the cooking and cleaning. Sarah is agreeable and happy to keep busy, but sometimes loses patience with Libby’s bickering. With Sarah’s permission, a Russian neighbor named Mr. Maranov fishes in her cove. Maranov runs into Tisha Doughty, Sarah’s neighbor and longtime friend, who offers him her condolences over the death of his friend, Hilda, with whom he has been staying. In the afternoon, Sarah paints in the garden. Libby interrupts her, demanding a walk. When she learns that Sarah has invited Maranov to dinner, Libby calls him a “fraud,” and accuses her sister of being too accommodating. Libby reminds Sarah that their father once convinced her that whales were responsible for the change in seasons. Sarah laughs, but cannot remember. She remarks that she would like to have a picture window installed in place of two smaller windows that look out onto the ocean, but Libby argues they are too old for new things. Later, Tisha stops by for tea. Sarah confides that Libby has been acting strangely and talking about death. Tisha suspects she might be going senile. Tisha and Sarah walk to the promontory to look for whales. Tisha recalls fighting over binoculars when they were younger, and swears she saw submarines surface around the time of World War II. Maranov joins Sarah, Tisha, and Libby for tea. Libby acts rudely toward him and refuses to eat his fish at dinner. He escorts ... +


Aged sisters Sarah Webber and Libby Strong spend late summer in Sarah’s seaside home in Maine. Both widows have spent the past thirty years taking care of each other. However, now that cantankerous Libby has lost her eyesight, she requires Sarah to do all the cooking and cleaning. Sarah is agreeable and happy to keep busy, but sometimes loses patience with Libby’s bickering. With Sarah’s permission, a Russian neighbor named Mr. Maranov fishes in her cove. Maranov runs into Tisha Doughty, Sarah’s neighbor and longtime friend, who offers him her condolences over the death of his friend, Hilda, with whom he has been staying. In the afternoon, Sarah paints in the garden. Libby interrupts her, demanding a walk. When she learns that Sarah has invited Maranov to dinner, Libby calls him a “fraud,” and accuses her sister of being too accommodating. Libby reminds Sarah that their father once convinced her that whales were responsible for the change in seasons. Sarah laughs, but cannot remember. She remarks that she would like to have a picture window installed in place of two smaller windows that look out onto the ocean, but Libby argues they are too old for new things. Later, Tisha stops by for tea. Sarah confides that Libby has been acting strangely and talking about death. Tisha suspects she might be going senile. Tisha and Sarah walk to the promontory to look for whales. Tisha recalls fighting over binoculars when they were younger, and swears she saw submarines surface around the time of World War II. Maranov joins Sarah, Tisha, and Libby for tea. Libby acts rudely toward him and refuses to eat his fish at dinner. He escorts Tisha home and promises to return in the early evening. When he leaves, Libby mentions Sarah’s dead husband, Phillip. Sarah reminds her that tomorrow marks her and Phillip’s wedding anniversary. Libby recalls that Sarah and Phillip were more affectionate toward each other than Libby and her late husband, Matthew. Retreating to her bedroom for a nap, Libby retrieves a box of mementos from her dresser. She pulls a lock of hair from an envelope and rubs it against her face. When Sarah asks Libby to change into a new dress for dinner, Libby refuses, stating that Maranov is not her guest and there is no need for him in the house. Libby took care of Sarah for fifteen years after Phillip died. Sarah counters that she spent the next fifteen years looking after Libby, so they are even. They agree to stop bickering, and Sarah comments on how different their personalities are. Maranov arrives early to filet the fish. Sarah and Libby change into dresses, and join him at the dining room table. Sarah asks Maranov to tell Libby about his early life in Russia, when he was a nobleman. He presents a photograph of his mother at the Winter Palace in 1910, and reveals that, when the empress died, his mother gave him her jewels. He is still in possession of the last jewel, an emerald, which he shows to Sarah. Libby wants to know where Maranov plans to winter, and warns him not to expect to stay with her and Sarah. Maranov assures Libby that he has learned to expect nothing in life. Libby retires to her room, while Maranov and Sarah watch the sun set on the front porch. Sarah apologizes for her sister’s behavior. Maranov admits he has always relied on friends for a place to stay. She admires his freedom, and asks if he believes that a person can outlive their time. Maranov tells her no, then thanks her for a lovely evening, and goes home. Sarah changes once more, into a blue dress, and pours herself a glass of wine. She lights candles and talks to a photograph of Phillip, wishing him a happy anniversary. Just then, Libby awakens from a nightmare and tells Sarah that something was coming for both of them. Sarah responds that Libby can choose death if she wants, but life is not over for her. The next morning, Libby insists that her nightmare was very real. She worries that Sarah plans to leave her. Sarah admits she might stay in Maine, instead of returning to Libby’s home in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for the winter. Libby asks Sarah to brush her hair. She intends to have her daughter, Anna, arrange for a companion in Sarah’s absence. Sarah obliges Libby by telling her that her hair is as white as their mother’s was. Libby boasts that she has always had beautiful hair. Tisha stops by with a realtor who expresses interest in Sarah’s house, which was built by Sarah and Libby’s aunt. Sarah becomes offended when the realtor asks to look upstairs, and sends him away. After he leaves, Sarah assures Libby she has been a good sister. Their handyman, Joshua, arrives to retrieve his wrench. Libby informs him that they want a picture window installed. Sarah is pleased by her sister’s change of heart. Libby asks Sarah to walk her out to the promontory. She wants to know if Sarah sees any whales, but Sarah says they have all gone. Libby responds, “You never can tell.” +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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