Review: Jessica Lange gives one of her best performances in 'The Great Lillian Hall'

"The Great Lillian Hall" stars Jessica Lange in one of her finest performances.

May 31, 2024, 4:04 AM

Starring the great Jessica Lange in one of her best performances—and that's really saying something— "The Great Lillian Hall," now on HBO/Max, is essential viewing for those eager to see what acting can be at its transcendent, transfixing finest.

Lange plays Lillian Hall, an acclaimed stage actress now in rehearsal for the Broadway opening of "The Cherry Orchard," the 1904 Chekvov play about Madame Lyubov Ranevskaya, a Russian aristocrat forced to sell her family estate before it's auctioned off to pay her debts.

What Chekhov considered a comedy, audiences saw as tragic. What you'll see in "The Great Lillian Hall" is both. In rehearsal, Lillian laughs about forgetting a few lines until X-rays from a mandatory medical visit reveal what looks like sugar sprinkled over her brain.

A scene from "The Great Lillian Hall."
Courtesy of HBO

The sprinkles are Lewy bodies, proteins that build up in areas of the brain, resulting in a form of dementia that will cause memory loss, functional decline, tremors and hallucinations that quickly move from temporary to permanent. No cure. Even denial can only last so long.

Lillian's support system includes a daughter (Lily Rabe) she's neglected since childhood, the living memory of her late theater director husband (Michael Rose), a neighbor (Pierce Brosnan) she flirts with on her Manhattan terrace, and her long-time, long suffering assistant Edith (Oscar winner Kathy Bates, magnificent as usual) whose tough love she truly needs.

Of course, the lifeline Lillian needs most is the theater. She gets sympathy from her young Turk director (Jesse Williams), but only cold impatience from her producer (Cindy Hogan), who'd fire Lillian in a heartbeat if the play's box office wouldn't crater instantly.

Until sappiness invades, there's a bitchy "All About Eve" snap to the dialogue by Elisabeth Seldes Annacone, whose late aunt, the stage legend Marian Seldes, also suffered from Lewy body dementia but never lost the courage to look truth straight in the face.

It's lucky that skilled director Michael Cristofer, the Pulitzer-winning playwright of "The Shadow Box," has a welcome allergy to mawkish sentiment. Self pity does nothing for Lillian's life and Cristofer follows her path with bracing grit and grace.

A scene from "The Great Lillian Hall."
Tina Rowden/HBO

Better yet, Cristofer has Oscar-Emmy-Tony winner Lange, radiant and riveting at 75, giving her all to a film that sees acting as a selfish but still noble profession. From Blanche in "Streetcar" to the drug-addicted Mary Tyrone in "Long Day's Journey Into Night," Lange has acted in many of the classic parts attributed to Lillian, a role Lange wears like a second skin.

With an earpiece connected to a microphone Lillian wears on stage, Bates finds humor and heart in the way Edith hides backstage to whisper a forgotten line. No happy ending is promised or delivered. The earpiece is a short-term fix at best. But Lange makes sure the nurturing spirit of theater to create "eternity in a moment" resonates from first scene to last.

Unlike the fallen noble woman in "The Cherry Orchard," who looks greedily on the past that represents her lost youth, Lange lives gloriously in the present. She's now on Broadway giving a Tony nominated tour de force in "The Mother Play," ever eager for the next challenge to catch eternity in a moment.

"The Great Lillian Hall" is Lange's latest master class. Sit back and behold.

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