‘The Great Lillian Hall’ Review: Jessica Lange Is Incandescent As Legendary Stage Actress Facing Dementia

I am a sucker for movies about Broadway and those who spend their lives in the theatre. Of course the crown jewel of the genre is the Oscar-winning All About Eve, but there are so many others including 1933’s Morning Glory which won a young Katherine Hepburn her first Academy Award, as well as its rarely seen remake, 1958’s underrated Stage Struck. Ginger Rogers did a good one, too: Forever Female. The list goes on and on and now includes a stellar new entry, The Great Lillian Hall which gives the great Jessica Lange a challenging role worth her talents.

Premiering on HBO May 31, just barely under the wire for Emmy consideration, Lange’s performance as a stage legend facing dementia should send chills down the spine of any other contenders for Lead Actress in a Limited Series or Movie this season. This veteran star simply knocks it out of the park. Lange herself is coincidentally currently trodding the boards on Broadway in Mother Play, another great showcase for her talents that recently won her the NY Drama Critics Award as well as a Tony nomination.

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In this HBO film she stars as Lillian Hall, an actress about to embark on a new production of The Cherry Orchard. The whole production depends on her star power, so there is concern when during rehearsals she is increasingly having trouble remembering lines. So much so that the play’s sympathetic but worried director David (Jesse Williams) and frantic producer Jane (Cindy Hogan), who is especially concerned about her cash cow, insist that Lillian see a doctor. That is where she gets the bad news. She has a form of dementia that is only going to slowly get worse.

Basically she is in a state of denial, but does reluctantly agree to the doctor’s demand she take a test in the office. With shaking hands, Lillian resolutely fails but then tries to cover up, even from her daughter Margaret (Lily Rabe) and ever-faithful assistant and longtime friend Edith (Kathy Bates), the latter of whom basically runs her life. Edith knows her so well she is the first to figure out the truth, but Lillian powers on, even as hallucinations of her late stage director husband keep popping into her head.

Every now and then she has heartfelt conversations about life and theatre with her next door neighbor Ty, played by Pierce Brosnan, who adds his own level of charm to a role that doesn’t demand much more than simply being Pierce Brosnan.

There is much time spent watching the production of Cherry Orchard take form with a leading lady who is becoming increasingly worrisome. Director Michael Cristofer, a Pulitzer Prize and Tony winner for 1977’s The Shadow Box, as well as the author of several other plays and an actor himself, really knows his way around this theatrical world and manages to build a surprising amount of suspense around the question of if Lillian will even make it to opening night. So even though the production is perceived to be nothing without its star attraction they do get the stand-by ready to appear. Will she have to go on instead?

The strength here is that Lange never goes the easy route with this portrayal. She really imbues her with the sense of disbelief this could be happening to the great Lillian Hall, who seems to be a person not aware of life’s clock ticking.

An early scene sees her accept a phone call from the head of the Tony Awards telling her they want to present her with a life achievement award, something she can’t quite compute.

“How old do they think I am?,” she asks Edith.

“About 106,” comes the deadpan retort.

Bates is terrific as always, really nailing the persona of someone who is always there through many decades, but is also a genuine friend, especially when she comes up with a hearing device in order to deliver Lillian her lines.

Rabe, whose theatre credentials go back to being the daughter of the late Jill Clayburgh and playwright David Rabe, is perfectly cast here as the daughter who fights against the idea that she was always second to her mother’s love of theatre. She gets a fiery emotional scene confronting her mother about why she was not told about her condition, and she delivers it authentically. I also was amused by Hogan’s grasp of what it is to be a producer in the crap shoot of staging Broadway plays.

Lange, by the way, is wonderful in interpreting Lyuba, the woman she plays in The Cherry Orchard. So much so that one might hope she takes it on for real one day.

Producers are Bruce Cohen, Steven Rogers, Scott Thigpen and Marie Halliday.

Title: The Great Lillian Hall

Distributor: HBO

Release Date: May 31, 2024

Director: Michael Cristofer

Screenplay: Elizabeth Seldes Annacone

Cast: Jessica Lange, Kathy Bates, Lily Rabe, Pierce Brosnan, Jesse Williams, Cindy Hogan

Running Time: 1 hour and 51 minutes

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