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The Whales of August (1987) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

sarah libby tisha maranov

Principal social themes: aging, end-of-life issues, disabilities

Alive Films. PG rating. Featuring: Bette Davis, Lillian Gish, Vincent Price, Ann Sothern, Harry Carey Jr., Frank Grimes, Frank Pitkin, Mike Bush, Margaret Ladd, Tisha Sterling, Mary Steenburgen. Written by David Berry based on his play The Whales of August . Cinematography by Mike Fash. Edited by Nicolas Gaster. Music by Alan Price. Produced by Mike Kaplan and Carolyn Pfeiffer. Directed by Lindsay Anderson. Color. 90 minutes.


The Whales of August is a quiet, elegiac character study of two elderly widows, sisters who have spent their summers in a house overlooking the ocean on a Maine island. One of them, blind and cantankerous, expects to die in several months, while her sister wants to concentrate on enjoying life as long as she can.


The film opens at the turn of the century as three young ladies, Sarah, Libby, and Tisha, hold a vigil on a cliff near their summer home to watch for passing whales that make an appearance every August. They excitedly take turns watching through a pair of binoculars. The scene shifts forward half a century to August 1950, and all three women are elderly widows. Sarah (Lillian Gish) looks after her sister Libby (Bette Davis), now blind, in their summer home, while their friend Tisha (Ann Sothern) now resides on the island year round. Sarah is finding it increasingly difficult to care for Libby, who has become cantankerous, opinionated, and very bossy. Sarah also wonders if her sister is becoming senile. Instead of returning home to Philadelphia, Sarah is considering an offer to move in with Tisha and get a paid companion to care for Libby. Mr. Maranov (Vincent Price), an elderly Russian emigre, asks permission to fish along their shore front, promising to share his catch with them. Handyman Joshua Brackett (Harry Carey Jr.) stops by to work on their plumbing. Sarah is interested in his suggestion to install a picture window overlooking the ocean, but Libby rejects the idea, saying they are too old to make any changes. She says that she expects to die soon.

Tisha informs them that Hattie, another elderly island resident, had just died. Maranov had been her guest, and now he needs a new place to stay. When Maranov brings them their fish, Sarah invites him to return for dinner. Libby insists that she will not eat the fish, so Sarah agrees to substitute a pork chop for her. She is upset that Sarah invited Maranov for supper. Maranov arrives with a bouquet of handpicked flowers, and Sarah lights candles at their dining room table, but after their meal, Libby makes it clear that Maranov would not be welcome as a guest in the house. Sarah and Maranov pause to watch the moonlight on the ocean as he prepares to leave. She asks if he might return the next morning, to join her in her vigil for the whales. Kissing Sarah’s hand, he graciously declines, not wanting to upset Libby again. Later that evening, Sarah celebrates her forty-sixth wedding anniversary by herself, sitting at a table with a glass of wine, flowers, and a photograph of her late husband. Libby has a nightmare in which Sarah has abandons her. When she tries to talk again about death, Sarah insists that they talk about life instead.

The next morning, Tisha stops by with the realtor who is going to sell Hattie’s house. She thought that Sarah might be interested in putting her summer house on the market, but Sarah says she plans to keep it. Libby is in a more mellow mood and apologizes to Sarah for being so blunt with Mr. Maranov. When Joshua stops by, Libby tells him to install the picture window that Sarah wanted. Sarah then walks Libby down to the cliff, telling her sister there is no sign of any whales. Libby replies that it is possible they might still appear as the film closes.


Lillian Gish was ninety-three when she appeared in The Whales of August , making her the oldest actress to appear as the lead in a feature film. Bette Davis was seventy-eight, Vincent Price was seventy-five, and Ann Sothern, who received an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actress for her role, was seventy-seven. The entire production was shot on location on Cliff Island, off the coast of Falmouth, Maine. The production values of the film were high, featuring gorgeous cinematography, first-class performances, and a poetic script by David Berry, based on his stage play. Yet some reviewers criticized the picture for being slow moving and plotless, missing the point that the film is a reverie about aging and the end of life. The heart of the film is the dialogue between Lillian Gish and Vincent Price as he takes his leave of her after supper. She asks if he believes a person can live too long? He replies it is not possible, even when she insists they have outlived their time. “One’s time is all one’s time, even to the end,” he responds, comparing each moment of life to an elusive treasure like the moonbeams that dance across the waters. Each of the characters of the film represents a contrasting attitude toward aging. Sarah is “busy, busy” with housework, hobbies, and entertaining friends. Libby is reclusive, brooding, and bitter. Tisha is resigned to her increasing limitations but remains positive in attitude, and Maranov tries to savor each moment for whatever transitory delights he can find. Each of them is sustained to a great degree by their memories. Libby insists that memories never fade, but Sarah insists that they do. Libby’s blindness, although central to the story, is not overplayed. It even provides a moment of gentle humor. When Tisha handpicks a bunch of berries to share with her friends, Libby greedily scoops handfuls out of the bowl. Noticing this, Tisha quietly moves the container, and the next time Libby reaches for them, she grabs only empty air.

The relationship between Libby and Sarah is a complex one. For example, Sarah owns the house, but Libby appears to make all the decisions. Sarah does not mind deferring to her on these matters or the choice of programs to hear on the radio, but she is upset by her negativity and pessimism. Libby’s nightmare seems to dispel some of her gloom. When she insists that the picture window be installed, it seems a reaffirmation of life. Her last line in the film also reflects this attitude, as she holds out hope that Sarah may yet see the whales.

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