The Great Lillian Hall: Is the Movie Based on True Events?

‘The Great Lillian Hall’ narrates the story of the titular character who is emblematic in Broadway, having had a long and successful career. Lillian is a subject of adoration for everyone involved in theater and is known for her unrivaled dedication. While rehearsing for her next Broadway production, Lillian begins to forget her lines and soon discovers that she is having an onset of dementia. Having never missed a single performance in her life, regardless of the circumstances, Lillian struggles to come to terms with the possibility of being left out of what could be her final play.

Directed by Michael Cristofer, the drama film paints a poignant picture of Lillian’s fight against herself and others for a final chance to do what she loves. She looks back at her life and legacy, tries to make amends with her daughter, and asks friends to remind her who she truly was. The vivid and heartfelt portrayal of Lillian’s journey generates questions about the possibility of a real story behind the HBO movie.

The Great Lillian Hall is Loosely Inspired by Tony Award-winner Marian Seldes

‘The Great Lillian Hall’ is not based on a true story, but the movie does have a few unmistakable parallels with the life of screenwriter Elisabeth Seldes Annacone’s aunt, the prolific stage actress Marian Hall Seldes.  To be clear, the movie is not a biopic, but Lillian Hall’s character, legacy, personality, relationships, and illness bear stark similarities with Seldes.

Born on August 23, 1928, in Manhattan, New York, Marian Seldes was renowned for her talent, dedication, and contributions to the world of theater. Seldes’ illustrious career spanned over six decades, during which she graced the stages of Broadway with her unforgettable performances. Just as Lillian Hall is shown to have never missed a performance, Seldes acted in every single Broadway show of Ira Levin’s ‘Deathtrap,’ for which she got featured in the Guinness Book of World Records as the “most durable actress.” She garnered critical acclaim and numerous accolades for her roles in iconic productions such as ‘A Delicate Balance’ and ‘The Dinner Party’ among others.

For her impeccable contribution to the field, Seldes was presented with the Tony Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010. It appears that not only her professionalism and love for theater but also her personal relationships and struggles with dementia are recreated in ‘The Great Lillian Hall.’ In the film, Hall’s daughter says, “My mother, the theater, they were inseparable; there wasn’t really room for anything else.” The relationship between Seldes and her own daughter, Katharine Claman, seems to have a similar history. Katharine was raised by Seldes after the actress divorced her first husband, Julian Claman. “She could be terrifying,” she said in the documentary, ‘Marian.’

Katharine added, “If you displeased her, she would go silent. And now she is silent forever.” She confessed that their troubled relationship cast a shadow over her mourning of her mother. Seldes’ battle with dementia in her later years parallels Lillian Hall’s struggle with memory loss in the movie. The actress was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in her final years, a devastating turn of events that deeply impacted her and those around her. The portrayal of Lillian’s poignant journey as she grapples with her illness and reflects on her legacy resonates with Seldes’ own experiences, adding further authenticity to the film.

A short documentary was made on the life of Seldes, which began filming before the onset of her illness. Named ‘Marian’ and directed by R.E. Rodgers, it was met with vehement criticism from those close to Seldes, calling it “abusive, scabrous, and grisly.” Other critics seemed to find the work well-balanced and focused primarily on her life in theater. In ‘The Great Lillian Hall,’ we see a camera crew and director interviewing Hall before her diagnosis of dementia, possibly referencing the documentary crew who interviewed Seldes.

When Seldes began to forget and decline in health, she reportedly met with an accident in her apartment, falling and breaking her shoulder while preparing to depart for her friend Angela Lansbury’s performance in ‘A Little Night Music.’ Her lifelong commitment to her art form can be summarized with what happened next. It has been reported that she picked herself up, traveled to the theater, and watched the entire play with a broken shoulder. In the documentary, the actress openly discusses her thoughts and feelings on the encroaching illness. “I always believed the future will be as beautiful as the past, which you know I love,” she said. “But I cannot say that to you honestly anymore. I’m afraid of the future.” Marian Seldes passed away on October 6, 2014, at the age of 86.

Jessica Lange, a theater legend and a real-life Broadway star, portrays Lillian Hall in the film. The character was earlier slated to be played by Meryl Streep but was ultimately taken on by Lange. ‘The Great Lillian Hall’ is a heartfelt fictional work that bears resemblances to Marian Seldes’s life. Through its vivid portrayal of Lillian’s journey, the film tells its own story while using personal experiences as a jumping-off point.

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