The Whales of August

Having recently been catching up on the long, historic career of Bette Davis, I was looking forward to watching one of her last films, “The Whales of August.” In the film, Bette Davis and Lillian Gish play elderly sisters. Bette’s character, “Libby” is blind and her sister “Sarah” (Lillian Gish) cares for her and maintains the home they share.

This film shed a very positive light on aging. Seniors were depicted as independent and able to care for themselves. They helped each other instead of relying on younger friends, family or caregivers. I wish I saw more of this in television and advertising. The only other media depiction of seniors I’ve seen that comes close is the “Golden Girls” where the women support each other through life’s events. However, even one of the characters on the Golden Girls, (Sofia), is cared for by a younger, though senior aged, daughter.

“The Whales of August” depicts seniors as active (walking, cleaning, cooking, maintaining health and wellbeing, visiting friends, paining oil paintings and arranging flowers). The characters blend their past, present and futures in healthy ways as they hold onto and honor traditions, but still find enjoyment the present and find future events to look forward to.

What was also notably different in this film was the way the characters embraced aging. Blind Libby asks her sister if her hair was as white as a swan. When her sister says she believes it is, Libby comments that she’d always had beautiful hair. I cannot recall any film or media character embracing age so gracefully. The two sisters in the film also dressed up for company and took great pride in the care of their hair. They did not complain about their age, appearance, or life. While I do not see this as being realistic for many, as many people have real problems to contend with, I do see it as a model for enjoying life.

By not focusing on the negatives (not once does Libby complain she is blind or cannot see what others are discussing - photos, jewelry, flowers, ocean view), there is more time to focus on the positives or approach things a new way. For instance, blind Libby is able to feel the flowers, jewelry, or sunshine, and hear a description of the photographs. She even agrees to the installation of a picture window in their living room, though she won’t be able to see out of it herself. She comments on how nice the day feels by the warmth of the sun coming in through the window. Libby depicts a woman who is perfectly content with these filtered observations, and I imagine the lesson to viewers is to enjoy interacting with others regardless and not feel sorry for oneself.

Anderson, L. (Director), Berry, D. (Writer). (1987). The Whales of August. [DVD]. USA: MGM.

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