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“The Great Lillian Hall” is not afraid to embrace its classicism; had it been made in the 1940s, it would have starred Bette Davis. Like many of the best golden-age melodramas, this HBO film fully commits to both unabashed emotion and a complicated female lead, a role filled by Jessica Lange with a finely tuned mix of showmanship and nuance.

Lange’s Lillian Hall is a theater grande dame playing the charismatic matriarch in a Broadway revival of Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard.” She is on shaky ground, suffering from memory lapses that affect the rehearsals, but she stubbornly, proudly soldiers on. Even after some devastating news, Lillian keeps refining her performance, both in life and onstage. (What we glimpse of the production made me want to see Lange, who is currently starring in “Mother Play” on Broadway, actually tackle “The Cherry Orchard” next.)

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. Lillian certainly loves being the center of attention, and she can blithely wound her beleaguered daughter (Lily Rabe) and her dedicated personal assistant (Kathy Bates). But she is also capable of kindness and loyalty, along with a pleasurable wit. “I haven’t decided what age I am,” she tells her doctor (Keith Arthur Bolden), “but I’m not that old.”

Even when she is at her most irritating, Lillian has a lock on the devotion of those around her. You may well join the fan club, too.

The Great Lillian Hall
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes. Watch on Max.

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