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‘The Whales of August’ (NR)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 13, 1987

They could have used Captain Ahab in "The Whales of August" -- to harpoon the oversized performance of Bette Davis. But for Lillian Gish no such weapons are needed. Next to Davis' Orca, she's a graceful goldfish.

Adapted by David Berry from his play and directed by Lindsay Anderson, "Whales" visits with two sisters, Sarah and Libby, who have lived together for 60 years. Their husbands are long gone, and the whales that used to appear at summer's end are also a thing of the past. All they have is each other.

Sarah (Gish), a generous woman devoted to her cranky (and blind) sister, wants to build a window with an ocean view. She also receives visits from a recently bereaved -- hence available -- Mr. Maranov (a very respectable Vincent Price). Libby doesn't like the window idea or Mr. Maranov. Both women have decisions to make.

The film comes across as little more than a Gish-Davis vehicle -- the cast includes Ann Sothern as Libby's neighbor friend Tisha and Harry Carey Jr. as a handyman who's also lived on this Maine island for years. It's not a great story by any means but it's pleasant enough.

But Gish's performance and sentimental attraction (this is her 105th film in a career spanning the silent and talkie eras) makes her odds-on favorite at next year's Oscars. And Davis, clocking in her 100th movie, is as feisty and hammy as ever. Fans of her idiosyncrasies will not be disappointed. There's still that blue-eyed menace in the glare. You expect her to interrupt the scene at any moment to complain about the lights or the director. Or how they don't make movies like they used to.

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