This essay first appeared in Film Comment.
When ANN SOTHERN was asked during the filming of The Whales of August, in 1986, how she compared her career to that of her two iconic costars, Lillian Gish and Bette Davis, she said, "Well, they are the queens and I suppose I'm a movie princess." But both movie queens held the princess in the highest regard and displayed it in ways that reflected their different natures. When Davis learned that Sothern was cast as Gish's best friend "Tisha," her immediate response was: "She's a good actress -- she could steal the picture." (The remark was prescient: alone among the cast, Ann Sothern would be nominated for an Oscar the following year.)
In the prior two years, Davis had recovered from three major illnesses and was riddled with hurt by her daughter's tell-all bestseller. Her life became consumed with the production; she was the only actor to attend dailies; she committed everyone's part to memory, and she relished the company gossip. She also had a disorienting telephone habit of hanging up once she'd made her point, without goodbyes or waiting for a response. After dailies she would call Sothern, whom she knew from their Hollywood years, and say, "Ann, just saw the dailies. You were terrific" -- then slam the phone down.
Gish and Sothern met on the summer cottage set on Sothern's first day of filming, about three weeks into the shoot. Ann had always admired Lillian and was thrilled to meet her; Lillian immediately responded to her buoyancy. Their first work together was supposed to be a short greeting, but as the weather dictated constant changes, director Lindsay Anderson shifted the schedule to a key scene: their walk lo and return from the end of the peninsula, called " the point," where the two girlhood friends reminisced about the days when the whales came and they would gather ambergris on the shore.
The scene was a character-revealer for both, and physically demanding besides. Lillian had recently recovered from a hip operation; Ann used a cane, the result of a terrible 1975 accident during a performance of Everybody Loves Opal when heavy scenery fell on her back, broke it, and severed most of the feeling in her legs. Ann was a bit surprised by the scene change and said, "Oh, no, is this what we're doing first? I'm rusty." Lindsay responded, typically: "Nonsense, my dear, you'll be fine. Just do it."
It was a gorgeous Maine day. The walk to the point was about 50 yards through thigh-high brush. Most of the dialogue took place at the edge, where the ladies stopped, and on their return to the porch where Davis was sitting and rocking. Lillian steadfastly led the way with Ann following. After their second take and while the cameras were being repositioned, the wind began blowing from the bay. Lindsay ordered two gaffers to lie prone in the brush to steady Ann and Lillian against the increasing gusts by firmly holding their ankles. They looked down and smiled at the supporting hands, repeated the dialogue for several takes, then prepared for the return.
As the wind velocity grew it became apparent we'd get only one take on the return, if that. I was also concerned about the danger of the backwind blowing them over. They both insisted on making the try, with more trepidation on Ann's part because of her disability. The take began, the gusts intensified, and Lillian, determined to make it happen yet recognizing the potential pitfalls, turned to Ann as they were walking and said, "Just hold on to my apron strings."
Ann held on to Lillian's apron as they finished the scene. When Lindsay yelled "Cut," Ann burst into hysterical laughter at what had just happened -- the smaller, older Gish pull-walking her through the bushes. Lillian turned to Ann, hugged her, and said, "We made it!"
Because of the actors' ages and to conserve their resources, we filmed on a five-day schedule ending promptly at 6. Filming and lighting changes inevitably consumed the workday, so promised rehearsals fell by the boards.
Ann Sothern discusses filming The Whales of August:
Ann had two key dialogue scenes: the first involving the loss of her driver's license revealed at an afternoon tea with the entire cast (Gish, Davis, Vincent Price, Harry Carey Jr.); the second, with Gish alone, where "Tisha" asks "Sarah" (Gish) to live with her should her sister "Libby" (Davis) become too difficult. The scene also contained Whales' biggest laugh, a variation on Harry Truman's "The buck stops here," delivered by Ann.
It was a complex scene, with emotions ranging from deep revelations to precise comic timing. Most of the dialogue emanated from Sothern. The action took place around the dining room table, compounding the camera moves as the changing water was seen through the windows. Ann had discussed the need to block and rehearse this scene to determine her exact movements and the scene's pacing. Lindsay had reluctantly agreed. Ann appeared on the set at 3 p.m. to begin rehearsing with Lillian, but other shooting ran on to 6. At that point Lindsay went over to Ann to assure her that everything would be worked out the following morning before filming. Ann was visibly upset.
Lillian Gish, at 93, was playing the largest film role any actor her age had ever undertaken, and was finishing the fifth week of her most demanding work in years. Instinctively sizing up the situation, and although she'd been on the set since early morning, she turned to Lindsay and asked beguilingly, "Aren't we rehearsing Ann's scene now?''
Lindsay walked toward cinematographer Mike Fash and his crew, and for the next 90 minutes the first and only advanced blocking and rehearsal period during The Whales of August was completed. Gish and Sothern then walked out together to their waiting cars.
For relaxation and privacy, the actors had their own Winnebagos, but these were situated on a baseball field about a quarter-mile from the cramped location house. So between scenes the ladies often stayed on the set, removing themselves as best they could from the crew working around them.
Bette Davis had commandeered the set's only private spot, "Libby's bedroom" which opened onto the cottage's living area and from which she could watch the company action. When she was there, the room was filled with a dense mixture of cigarette smoke and kerosene, blasting from the heaters she turned on at full force. This was Bette's space whether the door was open or closed.
The door was closed on Sothern's first day of filming. Ann and Lillian lined up for their opening positions behind the porch door preparing to walk to the point, we suddenly became aware of an unexpected presence that seemed to materialize out of thin air. She reminded me of a character from a Bette Davis film, the mysterious sister in the home Monty Woolley overwhelms in The Man Who Came to Dinner, the slight woman who flits down the stairs to present Woolley with a present, only to quickly disappear.
The unexpected presence was, of course, Bette, handing Ann a single red rose, her welcoming gift on her first day. Surprised at Bette's sudden, wraithlike appearance, Ann said, "Well, hello Bette, thank you." Davis turned without speaking and went to her bedroom as Gish and Sothern began their walk.
It was an uncharacteristic and genuine tribute.
The New York Times cited WHALES as "One of the Best Films of the Century." It will be a TCM Premiere on Wednesday, March 25, at 10:00 PM (ET).
Mike Kaplan, who produced The Whales of August, is completing a feature documentary on Ann Sothern, The Sharpest Girl in Town.