Sunday, October 4, 2020


Watching Lindsay Anderson’s shameless The Whales of August (1987) is like being in a mausoleum. But the more energetic scenes are akin to rummaging around in the attic of the Haunted Mansion. This mĂ©lange of codgers — Lillian Gish and Bette Davis and Vincent Price and Ann Southern and Harry Carey Jr. — is rather ghoulish; the script drones on and on about the past, and before long you’re not entirely sure whether you’re looking at the actors in real time or at newsreel footage of dead movie stars. I kept expecting a Eugene O’Neill play to erupt at some point, with recriminations and accusations and booze late into the night, but the only thing that really happens is that the floors creak.

I don’t remember whether there were any whales, but Vincent Price catches some fish, though God knows how, considering that he doesn’t appear to have the coordination to cast his line into the surf without falling off the rocks. I’ve read that many old stars, from red giants like Barbara Stanwyck and Joel McCrea to white dwarfs like Fred Astaire to black holes like Shirley Booth, were asked to take part but turned it down. Why would an old fart whose movie career is a distant memory return to the screen in this — an adaptation soaking in formaldehyde of a play that embalms its characters before they’re laid out on the coroner’s table?

Silver treasures. Gish and Davis
What is an actor at any stage of life supposed to do with lines like “Photographs fade, but memories live forever”? The dialogue is all mothballs and tea rose: “I have once again been set adrift.” — “Oh, I’m sorry, Mr. Maranov.” — “Oh, you needn’t be, my dear. I have often been adrift, but I have always stayed afloat.”

A little later, the on-screen embalming is stiffer than ever: “Do you think one can live too long?” — “Life can never be too long.” — “Even if one outlives one’s time?” — “One’s time is all one’s time, even to the end. You see out there, how the moon casts its silver treasures along the shore? There is a treasure that can never be spent.”

Sic transit Lillian and Bette.

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