Sometimes, seeing two films in a short period of time can lead to fascinating insights and comparisons that would otherwise not have presented themselves. I just saw Lawrence of Arabia (1962) in a movie theater on a large screen (thank you, RIT student John Dugan for letting me know this was happening) and saw The Whales of August (1987) at home. I don’t think I could have arranged a greater contrast in films if I’d planned it.
Lawrence is considered the greatest epic ever filmed, and I can’t disagree with that. It’s certainly of its time, with music that is far more dominating than in today’s films, with a scope that is beyond most filmmakers, and with a stately pace that rewards the patient but might test the attention span of many modern folks. This may be one of the great “they don’t make ‘em like they used to” films of all time. If someone wants to see a great big fat epic film, this is the one. But try to see it on the largest screen possible. It’s meant to overwhelm, and it did this past week.
I’d last seen Lawrence on the big screen after its restoration in the late ‘80s, and seeing it in 70mm back then was unlike anything I’d ever seen before; I felt as if I could walk out of my seat and into the image. This time it was presented in digital, but the newest restoration was still glorious, and the film presented a master course in cinematography by Freddie Young (Oscars for this, Doctor Zhivago and Ryan’s Daughter, but also cinematography for the original Goodbye, Mr. Chips; 49th Parallel; Ivanhoe; Mogambo; Lust for Life; The Inn of the Sixth Happiness; and Nicholas and Alexandra, to name a few.) This was likely Young’s and director David’s Lean most beautiful and expressive work before Lean’s becoming self-conscious about it.
This is also the film that many claim to contain the best performance not to win an Oscar, and some consider Peter O’Toole’s work here the best performance by any actor in any film. That’s subjective, of course, but the performance hasn’t aged over the years, and is as enigmatic and confident as ever. Alec Guinness’s performance as an Arab used to bother me, but the great actor (Oscar for Bridge on the River Kwai and fame for playing Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi in some popular space opera) was made to look the part, and clearly brought his considerable skills to creating a believable character. What surprised me was how over-the-top-yet-missing-the-mark Anthony Quinn was. Of course a Mexican actor playing an Arab was a stretch, but Guinness showed how the lack of background didn’t have to be an impediment to a believable performance. Quinn chewed up all the scenery in sight, and kept popping out of the fabric of the film. But it’s Lean’s and O’Toole’s film, and if the post-intermission (yes, there was an intermission) part of the film doesn’t quite add up to the first half, it’s still a must-see for everyone interested in what film can be. Look around and find out when it’s coming to a movie theater near you, and then don’t let anything get in the way.
The opposite of Lawrence is the delicate, lighter-than-air The Whales of August, which simply floats on the screen until it fairly evanesces by the end credits. It’s known for being the last film of legendary Lillian Gish at the end of her 75-year career in film, as well as Oscar-nominated Ann Sothern. It was also the second-last film of stroke victim Bette Davis, and one of the last films of Vincent Price. It’s a quiet chamber piece, with basically 3.5 characters. Gish and Davis play two sisters, one soft and kind and one edgy and attitudinal (guess which actress plays which). It was Sothern who got the supporting actress Oscar nomination, and she is fine if still held to a rather small part. Gish is lovely and doesn’t miss a beat, ever the consummate professional. She’s nearly lighter than air. Davis, of course, provides the cynicism and holds the drama down to a jaundiced realism before (spoiler alert) she decides that there is more to live for.
Price’s character is interesting, as he brings in the pre-Soviet Russian aristocracy into a New England context, and helps to pull the film out of its possibly too-constricted place and historical moment. His character was originally scheduled to be played by Alec Guinness, who would have connected this film to Lawrence of Arabia and would have added another texture to the film. But Price is surprisingly effective, bringing a soft Continental touch to his character, who has been physically unmoored due to the death of his dear female friend. The dialogue and acting around his attempts to investigate if Gish’s character might be his new dear friend is subtle, polite, and moving.
The film will always be remembered as Gish’s final effort (at age 93), the end of a 75-year film career. But a few other notes of interest add some delightful context to the film. Ann Sothern’s daughter plays her as a young girl, and Oscar winner Mary Steenburgen plays the young Bette Davis in that same short segment in the beginning of the film.
When you want to be rolled over with drama, beauty, sound, and scope, try Lawrence. If you need a quiet, lovely, and soft film experience, join Gish in her final performance. Both films are historic, and ring two very different internal bells.