The film was shot on location on Maine's Cliff Island. The house still stands and is a popular subject of artists on the island. This was the final film directed by Lindsay Anderson and the final film roles by Lillian Gish and Ann Sothern.
The Whales of August tells the story of two elderly widowed sisters near the end of their lives, spending a summer in a seaside house in Maine. The surroundings cause them to recall their relationship as young women, and the summers they had enjoyed there in the past. They reflect on the passage of time, and the bitterness, jealousies and misunderstandings that slowly festered over the years and kept them from establishing a true closeness in their relationship.
Libby, played by Davis, is the elder and the more infirm of the two sisters, and her nature has become bitter and cold as a result. Sarah, played by Gish, is the younger sister, a softer and more tolerant character, intent on nursing her sister through her discomfort and trying to breach the gulf that has grown between them. The resentment that Libby so clearly displays to her stifles Sarah's every attempt at making a friendly overture towards her, and Sarah cautiously retreats from her.
Maranov (Price) is an expatriate from Russia who has recently lost the friend that he has been living with. Tisha (Sothern) is a vivacious lifelong friend who provides common sense, fun and laughter, and is the catalyst for some of the sisters' conversations and revelations. In flashbacks, actresses Margaret Ladd, Mary Steenburgen and Tisha Sterling (Sothern's real-life daughter) play respectively Libby, Sarah, and Tisha as young women.Bette Davis as Elizabeth Mae "Libby" Logan-Strong
Lillian Gish as Sarah Louise Logan-Webber
Vincent Price as Nicholas Maranov
Ann Sothern as Letitia "Tisha" Benson-Doughty
Harry Carey, Jr. as Joshua Brackett
Frank Grimes as Mr. Beckwith
Margaret Ladd as Young Libby
Tisha Sterling as Young Tisha
Mary Steenburgen as Young Sarah
Frank Pitkin as Old Randall
Mike Bush as Young Randall
The film's producer, Mike Kaplan, saw the play performed by the Trinity Repertory Company while he was visiting Rhode Island on family business. Kaplan, who had met Lillian Gish many years earlier when he was a publicist involved in The Comedians (1967), decided immediately that the role of Sarah Webber was a role that would introduce new generations of filmgoers to the great talent of the "First Lady of American Film", who had begun her film career in 1912. This was to be the final film role for the 93-year-old Gish.
As opposed to the original stage production, the film made it possible to showcase stars who were the age peers of the characters. Actors and actresses of a certain age and stature were contacted to see whether they were both interested in and physically capable of playing the roles. Many screen greats were approached to play a role but demurred because they suffered from various infirmities, e.g., Shirley Booth, Barbara Stanwyck, Fred Astaire and Paul Henreid. Gish and Davis themselves were somewhat infirmed — Davis had recently recovered from several strokes which inhibited movement on the left side of her body, and Gish was somewhat hard of hearing. Ironically, Gish, playing the younger sister, was fifteen years older than Davis. Other greats turned down the producers' overtures for other reasons, e.g., Joel McCrea, Frances Dee, Katharine Hepburn and John Gielgud. Even Davis and Gish turned down the parts more than once before being persuaded to star in the film.
This film marks a reunion between Bette Davis and Vincent Price, after 48 years, having last appeared on screen together in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939).
Gish and Davis did not get along during the filming — Davis demanded top billing on the picture — an act of commercial aggression Gish found appalling. Gish remarked of it, "Oh dear, I just can't deal with that sort of thing. I don't care what they do with my name. If they leave it off, so much the better. It's the work I love, not the glory." Davis would get leftmost billing, which was considered optimal, with Gish's name slightly higher. Gish recalled that Davis rarely spoke to her or looked at her, except when the script required. Though Gish was hurt, she was sympathetic due to Davis's illness. "That face! Have you ever seen such a tragic face? Poor woman! How she must be suffering! I don't think it's right to judge a person like that. We must bear and forbear." For her part, Davis was frustrated with Gish missing her cues, “Miss Gish was stone deaf. She couldn’t have heard the cues if I’d shouted them through a bullhorn.” However, Gish admitted she actually had little trouble hearing her cues, but invented a subtle version of the silent treatment due to Davis's mistreatment of her. When Bette spoke a line, Gish would often look puzzled and gently protest: "I just can't hear what she's saying." Whereupon, while Davis sat seething, Anderson would repeat Davis's line in a ringing voice, and Gish would instantly pick up her cue and continue the scene.
Berry, Lindsay Anderson (the director), the cinematographer, a location scout, and Kaplan traveled by water taxi to several islands in Casco Bay searching for a location that would provide the necessary ambiance and ocean vistas for the film. In the end, the film was shot on Cliff Island a few miles down the Bay from the site of Berry's family cottage on Peaks Island from where, in fact, the characters and story were drawn. The film's premiere in New York City on October 14, 1987, was followed a few weeks later by a State of Maine premiere in Portland, Maine, which was attended by both Berry and Kaplan.
Reviews for The Whales of August were mixed to positive. The plot and script was seen as underwhelming, with its major redeeming quality being the starring roles of Gish and Davis. On the review site Rotten Tomatoes out of 14 critics, 63% of them gave the film a positive review, with an average score of 6.2 out of 10. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film 3 out of 4 stars.
Although the film starred two preeminent Classical Hollywood actresses in what would be near to their final film roles, it was not a substantial commercial success domestically. Upon its release, it was widely tipped that either Davis or Gish would be rewarded, if not for their performances in this film, but for their longevity, with Academy Award nominations, but neither actress was nominated. Sothern received the only Academy Award nomination of her career, for Best Supporting Actress, while Gish received the National Board of Review Award for Best Actress. The film was screened out of competition at the 1987 Cannes Film Festival, which Lillian attended and got a 10-minute standing ovation.
The film proved immensely popular in Tokyo, running for a full year there. David Berry authorized several stage productions in Japan after the film premiered in Tokyo in 1987, the most recent being in 2005. Authorized stage productions have been presented overseas in several countries including Russia, Greece and Great Britain.