Producers: Bruce Cohen, Steven Rogers, Scott Thigpen and Marie Halliday   Director: Michael Cristofer    Screenplay: Elisabeth Seldes Annacone   Cast: Jessica Lange, Kathy Bates, Lily Rabe, Jesse Williams, Pierce Brosnan, Cindy Hogan, Michael Rose, Keith Arthur Bolden, Tenz McCall, Jonathan Horne and Clayton Landey    Distributor: HBO/Max

Grade: C+

Jessica Lange’s performance deserves the titular adjective of this made-for-streaming movie about an aging actress confronting the initial signs of dementia, but the film doesn’t.  Inspired by the life of Marian Seldes, the screenwriter’s aunt, and directed with decorum but little flair by Michael Cristofer, “The Great Lillian Hall” is affecting but affected.

Lillian Hall is a grande dame of the theatre rehearsing a Broadway revival of Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard, in which she plays Lyubov under the direction of young flavor-of-the-month David (Jesse Williams).  When she begins forgetting lines and blocking movements, sympathetic David assures pragmatic, hard-nosed producer Jane (Cindy Hogan), who’s deeply concerned and considers replacing her, that she’ll come through in the end. 

But a doctor (Keith Arthur Bolden) Jane insists she consult brings Lillian terrible news.  She attempts to keep the truth secret, even from her long-time assistant Edith (Kathy Bates), her daughter Margaret (Lily Rabe) and her agent (Clayton Landey).  But her condition grows worse: she gets lost as she walks the city, and experiences startling, if comforting, apparitions from her dead husband Carson (Michael Rose), who’d directed her on stage many times and remains a bulwark for her.  Meanwhile her colleagues onstage evince camaraderie, but also concern.

Lange’s performance is at times over-the-top, but its histrionic tone feels appropriate in this context, and there’s no doubt that it carries the film, which is essentially a character study of a celebrated star in the twilight of her career and understandably reluctant to accept it.

But the script all too often chooses to go down fairly predictable paths.  Margaret has long felt that her mother gave more attention to her work than to her, and believes that even now she isn’t being sufficiently generous financially, reluctant as she is to cover the orthodontic needs of her granddaughter Finn (Tenz McCall) or to understand the professional difficulties of Margaret’s husband George (Jonathan Horne), a struggling artist.  Margaret will also be angry that Lillian doesn’t share her medical condition with her.  Edith has the same reaction, refusing, when she finds out, to go through again what she did with her father (though of course she relents in the end).

The conversations with Carson are a theatrical staple, as are those with a live person, Lillian’s neighbor Ty (Pierce Brosnan), a retired theatre man and still active libertine with whom she conveniently shares a high-rise patio.  A dapper fellow always ready with a colorful bit of stage dialogue, Ty serves as a sort of periodic palate cleanser from the more serious goings-on, though there’s more than a little worldly wisdom in his semi-cynical witticisms.

Then there’s the contrivance of having a documentary film crew preserving the rehearsal process for posterity, and periodically inserting black-and-white clips from the interviews they’re recording into the narrative.

But more ostentatiously theatrical than even these are the sequences drawing a correlation between Lillian and the poignantly dotty Chekhov character she’s striving to embody in the frequent rehearsal sequences.  It’s a device that’s both overdrawn and lovely, thanks to the pastel-colored stage set production designer Ina Mayhew has devised (along with the creamily colored costumes Emilio Sosa has provided for the cast), and to editor Joseph Krings’s smooth transitions from the real world scenes to those on the boards.  Cinematographer Simon Dennis captures it all in images that possess, not inappropriately, a slightly artificial texture, while Mac Quayles’s score likewise carries a slight air of fantasy.

All of which fits a tale which inevitably leads to an opening-night finale that’s more than a mite unrealistic in trumpeting a message of sheer determination and grit winning over encroaching mental impairment.  It’s the ending viewers want, of course—cheering family and friends reacting enthusiastically to Lillian’s triumph (though one must wonder whether even the most supportive audience would find “The Cherry Orchard” as uproarious as this).  And while the thought might not occur to most viewers, the notion that Lillian could repeat the process eight times a week even for a limited engagement seems quite implausible. 

And yet the magisterial character of Lange’s performance makes one willing to suspend disbelief, at least until the credit roll ends.  She endows Lillian with the indelible magnetism of a towering Tennessee Williams creation—an Amanda Wingfield or Blanche DuBois.  All those surrounding here are excellent as well, with Bates bringing an especially incisive fierceness to Edith and Brosnan agreeable panache to Ty, but like everyone else they’re playing in an orchestra of second fiddles to her.