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Jessica Lange Dazzles in HBO Film

Jessica Lange Dazzles in HBO Film

Jessica Lange is perfection as the fictional actress Lillian Hall, known for decades as a revered star of the theater. During rehearsals for her starring role in The Cherry Orchard, she is having unusual difficulty memorizing her lines, and before long learns that the cause is early dementia. Despite that ominous theme, The Great Lillian Hall is a lovely tribute to life in the theater, with all its personal compromises, and a showcase for Lange, who deftly shows the character as a vulnerable woman and also displays the distinct style of Lillian the bravura actress.

Lillian is such a star that she is the key to the box office in the Broadway revival of Chekhov. The film’s trajectory takes her through rehearsals, and in and out of her personal life as she grapples with her diagnosis, in a plot driven by the question of whether she’ll make it to opening night. In rehearsals, Lillian at first delivers her lines with a fluttery theatricality and wavery voice but we see her performance deepen over time.

The Great Lillian Hall

The Bottom Line

Brava, Jessica.

Release date:  Friday, May 31
Cast: Jessica Lange, Kathy Bates, Lily Rabe, Jesse Williams, Pierce Brosnan, Cindy Hogan
Director: Michael Cristofer
Writer: Elisabeth Seldes Annacone

1 hour 51 minutes

Off stage, she is still performative but less theatrical, full of bravado as she swans through her privileged life. But she is also full of fears and insecurities about aging, and has visions of her husband, a theater director and the love of her life, who passed away years before. Lange makes the different parts of Lilian seamless, as well as touching.

And she is surrounded by a cast in first-rate form. Kathy Bates plays Edith, Lillian’s irreverent longtime assistant. Bates makes the character colorful but real, brusque yet with evident deep affection for her friend. Lily Rabe is Lillian’s daughter, Margaret, reluctant to admit how neglected she felt as a child while her mother was devoted to the stage. Pierce Brosnan plays Ty, a neighbor who conveniently has a terrace adjacent to Lillian’s. That proximity is a contrivance, just as their late-night conversations about life and aging are a bit too on the nose. But Brosnan’s charm lets the actors get away with it. Jesse Williams goes beyond what the screenplay gives him in bringing to life David, the sympathetic, bright-young-thing director, who tries to salvage the play and help Lillian. And Cindy Hogan sharply plays Jane, the impatient, practical producer who is ready to fire her.

The film is best in its early stages, when it is at its most tough-minded. In one extraordinary scene that shows Lange’s intelligent, subtle choices, Lillian is forced by David and Jane to go to the production’s doctor, where she fails a memory test. Her hands shake as she tries to fold a piece of paper according to instructions, and she knows she’s in trouble. She almost weeps but doesn’t, and instead stares ahead stoically. When the doctor asks if she’s OK, she answers calmly, “Well I am pretty far from OK but I’m trying to formulate a plan.” When Lillian later receives the diagnosis of dementia, she tries to hide it, but Edith finds her prescription pills and knows what’s up.  

Eventually, and not surprisingly given the story, the film sometimes crosses a line from fierce honesty into sentimentality. A scene in which Lillian and her daughter sing “Mockingbird” together, remembering the song as a lullaby from Margaret’s childhood, really does seem calculated to milk the emotions, and lands as inauthentic. But it’s also surprising that such easy sentimentality is relatively rare here.

Lange and Rabe get a predictable Big Acting yelling, crying scene, with Lillian in the hospital justifying her choice not to share the diagnosis with her child to protect her, and Margaret angrily sobbing, “I’m your daughter!” But in that scene the groundwork has been established and the emotions feel earned.  

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The film is smoothy directed by Michael Cristofer, who has continued to act, most recently in the current series Fallout, but may still best known as the author of the Pulitzer Prize winning 1977 play The Shadow Box. He makes The Great Lillian Hall thoroughly cinematic despite its ties to theater. It includes brief black-and-white sequences throughout, in which the characters individually talk to an off-screen interviewer. Some of those scenes are truth-telling, others simply a bridge to the next scene, and they carry an elegiac tone even though Lillian herself is interviewed. They are extraneous but elegantly woven in.

Simon Dennis’ cinematography keeps the film visually lively, from the black-and-white interludes to the red overlay on a dream of Lillian’s or a transition via the beautiful pink-purple of a flowering tree in a park.

As bracing and satisfying as it is to see Lange deliver snippets of The Cherry Orchard, Elisabeth Seldes Annacone’s screenplay leans too hard on the parallels between Lillian and the play’s heroine, Lyuba, who is about to lose her orchard and her home. As we see Lillian in the part, the lines we hear are pointedly chosen to echo her off-stage reality. “For once in your life you must look the truth straight in the face,” the student Petya tells her. At the play’s end Lillian stands on stage and looks out for one last time at “my house, my youth,” just after a conversation with Edith has made it explicit that Lillian’s true home is the theater.

There is a tinge of nostalgia here for the glories of the past, notably when Lillian recalls what her husband said about the theater. “Carson used to call it eternity in a moment,” she says, offering an unobtrusive off-screen echo. Annacone’s aunt was the legendary theater actress Marian Seldes, who also suffered from dementia and who late in life married the writer and theater director Garson Kanin. Lange’s portrayal does not evoke any particular actress, yet the similarity between the names Carson and Garson seems fond and is unmistakable.

When Lillian is offered a Tony for Lifetime Achievement, she asks Edith “How old do they think I am?” and Edith snaps back “By now a hundred and four.” Lange herself seems in her prime, expertly anchoring a film that is heartbreaking, yet joyful in its embrace of life and art.  

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