Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story

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Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

Harold and Lillian Michelson are not known in the lexicon of Hollywood notables. Not known, that is, to the average movie bear. But, to the people that actually make the movies we have loved, the dynamic duo was responsible for the success of the many films they worked on, together or separately. In an industry where marriages come and go, theirs is “Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story.”

As a person who loves film and the art of filmmaking, I was shocked that I did not know about this industry-iconic, behind-the-scenes couple who influenced the films they worked on far more than ever perceived. Harold made his fame as an illustrator, storyboard artist, production designer and art director - the filmmakers obligingly give us dictionary definitions of these and other terms used – while Lillian, an avid reader since a child, became a research historian for many great films, studios and directors.

Everyone thinks that films are made by directors, cinematographers, writers and actors but never really think about the many folk who work quietly behind the camera. Anyone who stays at the theater through the credit roll will see the titles and names of all the people who had a hand in the making of a film. Grip, bestboy, cameraman, set designer, makeup artist, costume designer and the rest get their due, even if just for a brief moment of credit. Harold and Lillian’s contributions, though, are anything but brief.

Writer/director Daniel Raim assembles a collection of interview subjects that include Danny DeVito, Mel Brooks and Francis Ford Coppola, all of whom sing the praises of the Michelsons. The extensive use of excerpts from the many films they worked on – “The Ten Commandments,” “Ben Hur,” “Spartacus,” “The Birds” and “The Graduate” are just a few – and the couple’s home movies help contribute to this extensive look into decades of film craft.

But, when you come right down to it, what the film is all about is succinctly described in the title. This is a true love story of a remarkable couple that we never, until now, heard of before. The reason why their marriage defied Hollywood convention and lasted 60 years? According to Lillian, it is the “shared experience” of their lives. Not a bad reason. I give it an A-.

When Harold Michelson returned from WWII, he thought his younger sister's 17 year-old friend Lillian a smarty pants, but it wasn't long before he proposed, asking her to move from Miami to California with him.  Looking for an avenue for his drawing talent, Harold soon found work as a story board artist.  Years later, Lillian began to volunteer at a Hollywood research library, their work informing each others for sixty years in "Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story."

Writer/director Daniel Raim probably wasn't trying to dynamite the auteur theory in his beautifully constructed documentary, but seeing Harold's story boards for such films as "The Graduate" and "The Birds" is a startling reminder of just how many people contribute to the making of a film, even those, as in Michelson's case, who go uncredited.  Raim's enchanting documentary is a treat for both film lovers and romantics.  Someone should snap up the story of Harold and Lillian's marriage for a feature film.  Heck the story boards are already done!

Harold and Lillian Michelson may not be known to most film goers, but they have long been regarded as invaluable resources within Hollywood ("Shrek 2's" King Harold and Queen Lillian are an homage to them).  One of the first anecdotes we hear comes from Mel Brooks, who tells of how Howard suggested putting actual white balls on the heads of his "Spaceballs" characters (Brooks had planned on regular helmets), one of the comedy's signature visual puns.  His storyboards for the scene of John Huston falling against a giant flag on a skyscraper in "Winter Kills" is so striking, one wishes for their very own prints.  Lillian theorizes (the two are shown separately in interviews, the lively Lillian still with us) that it was Harold's experiences in the glass nose of his WWII bomber planes that shaped his cinematic eye, and indeed we see that Harold didn't stop with camera angles, even noting which lens to use.  It was decades before Harold's contributions were finally realized for what they were when Dalton Trumbo hired him as his production designer for 1971's "Johnny Got His Gun."  He would later be Oscar nominated for "Star Trek: The Motion Picture."

Lillian, too, was responsible for the historical and cultural accuracy of such films as "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," "Full Metal Jacket" and "Reds," although she says her favorite film to research was "Rosemary's Baby."  When Lillian was asked about Jewish women's underwear in the 1890's, she solved the absence of reference material by hanging out at Canter's Deli to chat with older customers.  In 1969, when Lelia Alexander, the woman Lillian volunteered for, was retiring, she suggested Lillian buy the library.  Lillian couldn't afford to, but convinced Harold to borrow from his life insurance policy and moved to the American Film Institute.  Later Francis Ford Coppola brought her and her reference works to his Zoetrope Studios, where she became its beating heart, her library its social hub (of the many famous people who hung out there Lillian's remembrance of Tom Waitts is the funniest - 'Everything that came out of him sounded like a police confession').  Her Rolodex is pictured, someone noting it was the size of a tire.  Lillian would move twice more, first begging for space at Paramount after Zoetrope's bankruptcy, the being courted by Dreamworks Studios.

Throughout their rich and rewarding professional lives was their marriage, Raim illustrating it in three phases with Harold's humorous chalk and ink drawings. Better even than those are the numerous handmade greeting cards Harold presented to Lillian over the years.  Lillian shows us them gathered together in the personal book one of their children created, another priceless bit of creativity one wishes would be published commercially.  But family life wasn't all sunshine.  We hear about the sexism Lillian faced when 7 months pregnant while working for the phone company she was told she was 'an affront to the eye' and fired.  Seeking treatment for her autistic son in the 1960's, she was told by doctors she was a 'refrigerator mom. She had her share of struggles with Harold as well, who went into a deep depression after shattering his leg when the set he was standing on collapsed.  It was Lillian who drove through the alps in a snowstorm to get Harold's spirits up by getting him back to work (on "Cross of Iron").

Harold Michelson passed away in 2007, but Lillian's still going strong, albeit in a Hollywood retirement home.  Daniel Raim's loving tribute is essential for any fan of cinema.

Grade:  A-
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