Review: Art and romance go hand in hand in the beguiling ‘Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story’
Retired film researcher Lillian Michelson talks about one of the most challenging projects she worked on.
Nowadays, closing-credit scrolls on Hollywood movies can run upward of 10 minutes, with every executive, caterer and cashier who came within shouting distance of the production name-checked. It wasn’t this way back in the Golden Age, or even during the heady rush of the New Hollywood era. And as Daniel Raim’s captivating documentary “Harold and Lillian” makes clear, the legions of uncredited craftspeople and sources of inspiration included key contributors to some of the American movie industry’s most enduring creations.
The delightful duo at the center of Raim’s film are storyboard artist Harold Michelson and researcher Lillian Michelson, whose 60-year marriage began in 1947 and ended with Harold’s death at age 87. Subtitled “A Hollywood Love Story,” the doc chronicles not just their mutual adoration and respect, but also Hollywood’s love for them, and the joy they derived from their work. Their personal story is no less fascinating than their experiences working on hundreds of movies, together and separately — among them “Spartacus,” “The Birds,” “Full Metal Jacket” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.”
You might want to check your auteur theory at the door; there have been few more potent examples of the below-the-line group effort that movie-making entails. That image from “The Graduate” of Dustin Hoffman, framed by Anne Bancroft’s seductively angled leg? Harold Michelson dreamed it up, along with hundreds of other visual ideas that served as blueprints for art directors, production designers, cinematographers and editors as well as directors. Frame-by-frame comparisons between finished films and Michelson’s storyboards provide powerful evidence of those sketches’ significance.
Raim, who previously profiled production designer Robert Boyle (“North by Northwest”), a contemporary of Harold’s, organizes his new and archival material with a casual flow that echoes the down-to-earth warmth of his two terrifically witty subjects. While he puts no particular stylistic stamp on the proceedings, Raim takes a savvy creative leap by commissioning storyboards from animator Patrick Mate, one of the movie-biz colleagues interviewed for the film. Mate’s spirited drawings, which recall Harold’s charcoal-and-ink renderings, augment a lovely selection of home movies and old photographs to illustrate the Michelsons’ recollections, especially the new interviews with Lillian, which form the film’s narrative backbone.
It was soon after his service in World War II that Harold, a gifted artist, took a chance on Hollywood. From struggling apprentice illustrator he became an in-demand storyboard artist and eventually an art director and production designer, twice nominated for an Academy Award. Lillian took a chance on him, following him out to the coast from Miami to elope, determined to show his disapproving family that a “poor orphan” could build a good life with their nice Jewish boy. Having grown up in tough circumstances that she declines to detail, the elegant Lillian, who retired in 2010, has a scrapper’s resilience.
Her doggedness proved essential to her work as a film researcher on Hollywood lots, as filmmakers Danny DeVito, Mel Brooks and Francis Ford Coppola attest. The Goldwyn library that she began working in as a volunteer and which now bears her name (and resides at the Art Directors Guild, after numerous moves around town) was, in the words of production designer Rick Carter, an “alchemist’s lab” for artistic inspiration. It also employed an unconventional filing system; David Lynch gets a shout-out for the care he took to return books to their proper shelves. But Lillian’s quest for information stretched beyond the library’s walls: She picked the brains of everyone from retired drug lords (for “Scarface”) to old ladies on Fairfax (“Fiddler on the Roof”).
Through it all, Lillian and Harold were true partners, supporting each other’s work in the fullest sense while raising three sons, one of them autistic. (Her characterization of the painfully benighted approach to the condition in the ’50s is as damning as it is succinct.) On the evidence of Raim’s film, they did indeed build a good life together, weathering challenges and setbacks over six decades, with Harold’s whimsical and sometimes saucy cards and letters charting the passing years.
If they were unsung in the public eye, they were legendary within the business; their fans at DreamWorks named the king and queen in “Shrek 2” after them. With “Harold and Lillian,” Raim gives these perfectly matched behind-the-scenes stars the spotlight they’ve long deserved.
‘Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story’
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica; Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena; Laemmle Town Center 5, Encino
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