“The Great Lillian Hall”: Will Dementia Stop the Show?

The Great Lillian Hall is a new HBO Max film about an acclaimed theater actress (the great Jessica Lange) who faces a diagnosis of Lewy body dementia.

Notably, writer Elisabeth Seldes Annacone loosely based her script on Marian Seldes (1928-2014), her late aunt who had the same disorder and was also a stage legend.

Peter Travers, ABC, describes Lillian’s current life and the cast of characters around her:

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.

Pete Hammond, Deadline: “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.”

(See my previous post “An Unmarried Woman” for a sense of Jill Clayburgh‘s work.)

Where does Lillian go from here? Christian Zilko, Indiewire: “…(I)f she can’t memorize lines anymore, she faces the possibility of losing her life’s work without anything to show for it. So against the advice of her doctors and family, she decides to put everything she has into rehearsals with the hope of taking the stage one last time.”

See the trailer below:

Selected Reviews

Elisabeth Vincentelli, New York Times: Besides its elegant handling of the parallels between Lillian’s character and her own life, the movie’s most interesting gambit is the way it breaks from the lazy habit of portraying stars as narcissistic, destructive monsters…(S)he is also capable of kindness and loyalty, along with a pleasurable wit.”

Brian Lowry, CNN: “…(T)he film doesn’t turn over new ground but nevertheless yields poignant moments, primarily in the interplay between Lange – a fierce lioness in winter, hungry for one more curtain call – and Bates, who could play this part in her sleep and still makes the most of it.”

Owen Gleiberman, Variety: “There are a couple of scenes that tap into the agony of dementia (and Lange, at those moments, is powerful), but ‘The Great Lillian Hall’ is mostly a feel-good movie about using acting to turn the lemons life hands you into a grand illusion of lemonade.”

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