October 26, 1987 12:00 PM

Nothing much happens. Two elderly sisters-one blind, the other her caretaker—await summer’s end at the Maine cottage where they’ve vacationed since childhood. They putter, garden, reminisce, squabble and have a stranger in for dinner (don’t worry, he leaves early). That’s it for action. And yet this movie leaves you in thrall. The reason is simple: The sisters are played by Lillian Gish and Bette Davis. Stop a minute and savor those names. Gish, now 91, is an enchanting actress whose career spans the history of the film industry, beginning in the silents with D.W. Griffith. Davis, 79, remains the feistiest of movie queens, a hell-raiser for over half a century. This is Davis’ 100th film, Gish’s 105th. They could have played monuments and turned Whales into a premature memorial service. Instead, under the rigorous direction of Lindsay (If; O Lucky Man!) Anderson, the actresses have decided to dig in and act, keeping their characters recognizably life-size. Old age is no golden pond of sentimentality for these tough old birds. They’re too busy duking it out, held together by a frayed family bond. As the sightless, selfish Libby, Davis barks orders, knowing that her sister Sarah depends on her financial support. As Sarah, Gish answers a gentle “Yes, dear” and stubbornly does exactly as she pleases. The summer house (during the rest of the year they live in Philadelphia) is hers to control, the view of the sea hers alone. Gish has never been as forceful or funny; here is the performance of a lifetime. And Davis, though visibly frail after suffering a stroke, hasn’t banked a bit of her emotional fire. In one scene the sisters recall their late husbands and talk about sex with a spirit that strips the years away. Their beauty, forged from passion and intelligence, endures. Okay, the movie drags at times. David Berry, adapting his 1980 play for the screen, hasn’t removed all the stagey claptrap. The whales of the title, one fears, are indeed meant to symbolize lost youth. (Mary Steenburgen and Margaret Ladd play the young Gish and Davis respectively in flashback scenes.) And there are other contrivances, such as introducing a girlhood chum, a handyman and a Russian gentleman caller. If it were not so much fun seeing veterans Ann Sothern, Harry Carey Jr. and Vincent Price turn up in these roles, the device might be more damaging. But the leading ladies transcend the film’s failings. Gish and Davis, magnificent and moving, should have Oscar seeing double. Just sit back and behold. (No rating)

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