Monday, June 17, 2024

Jessica Lange Could Be Surprise Best Actress Winner at Emmy Awards in “Lillian Hall”


Without any provocation from HBO, I did just watch “The Great Lillian Hall,” directed by Michael Cristofer and starring Jessica Lange, Lily Rabe, and Kathy Bates. It’s written by Elisabeth Seldes, whose aunt was the great Tony award winning theater actress, Marian Seldes. The story is loosely based on Marian’s life when she was in her final play, “Deuce,” with Angela Lansbury. (They were each fed their lines through ear pieces.)

Apparently, “The Great Lillian Hall” is a last minute entry from HBO/Max in the Limited Series/TV category. Variety has it listed there as a potential nominee but includes none of its cast. After watching it tonight, I’d say nominations are in order for Jessica Lange — if not a win — as well as Rabe and Bates.

In many ways, “Lillian Hall” feels like an old fashioned tear jerker. But Cristofer and Seldes keep it aloft with some interesting beats. And the actresses give the kind of performances — Lange and Bates — that got them Oscars.

A backstage Broadway saga, “Lillian Hall” is about a great actress at the end of her run. She relunctantly comes to accept that she has dementia while rehearsing a production of “THe Cherry Orchard.” Jesse Williams plays her director, Pierce Brosnan is her artist friend with whom she shares a balcony at her Central Park South aerie. Bates is her Girl Friday, and Rabe is her neglected daughter.

There used to be a place for movies like “The Great Lillian Hall” on network TV– CBS in particular. But those days are long gone. In the past HBO eschewed this sort of thing for edgier material, but I guess with “Hacks” and “Sex and the City” this film is a good fit.

Lange is actually on Broadway right now, and Tony nominated for “Mother Play.” So how meta is all this? As her mind deteriorates, Lillian keeps seeing and talking to her dead husband, the love of her life. You can’t help thinking of Lange’s late partner, Sam Shepard. Same thing Rabe, who plays the put upon daughter. Her mother was the great late actress Jill Clayburgh. There’s a lot going on here.

All three actresses – Lange, Bates, Rabe — are sublime. Lange gives Lillian unexpected nuance. She could have made this a melodrama, with Lillian at her hoariest. Instead, Lillian is a little more clued in than anyone thinks. Lange interjects a welcome wittiness.

Bates is a national treasure, of course. And Rabe is a severely underused player both on peak TV and in film. Brosnan is very attractive furniture (it’s just nice to see him). There are a few of the cliches we expect in this story of thing. But Lange is so compelling as Lillian Hall, she really does, to use another cliche, give a master class. I can’t believe that any TV Academy voter who sees this won’t vote for her. Considering that HBO doesn’t have a lot going on this Emmy season, I’d think they’d be all over this one.

Nominations voting begins June 13th for members of the Television Academy.

Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman began his Showbiz411 column in April 2009 after 10 years with Fox News, where he created the Fox411 column. His movie reviews are carried by Rotten Tomatoes, and he is a member of both the movie and TV branches of the Critics Choice Awards. His articles have appeared in dozens of publications over the years including New York Magazine, where he wrote the Intelligencer column in the mid 90s and covered the OJ Simpson trial, and Fox News (when it wasn't so crazy) where he covered Michael Jackson. He is also the writer and co-producer of "Only the Strong Survive," a selection of the Cannes, Sundance, and Telluride Film festivals, directed by DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.

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