A thoroughly researched and fantastically told story about two of the unsung heroes of Hollywood, Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story tracks the careers and love story of Harold and Lillian Michelson, whose names rarely appeared in the credits of movies but whose input into some of the most famous films of all time is undeniable.
Harold was one of the great storyboard artists of all time, providing guidance and shot suggestions for films by everyone from Hitchcock to DeMille to Mike Nichols, who used Harold’s sketch of Dustin Hoffman positioned in the bend of Anne Bancroft’s leg in The Graduate, and the image became iconic almost immediately. Director Daniel Raim (who previously made a short and feature—Something’s Gonna Live—about production designer Robert Boyle) provides many side-by-side comparisons between Harold’s original artwork and the nearly identical finished film. Of course, in the 1950s and ’60s, quite often storyboards were destroyed so that directors and cinematographers didn’t have to admit that some of their best ideas about camera angles and composition came from storyboard artists. But Harold seems to have a sizable collection of this work, and his understanding of perspective, lenses and the dimensions of a space made for fairly incredible work on such films as The Ten Commandments and The Birds.
Lillian became one of Hollywood’s top researchers and built up an unprecedented library and Rolodex of contacts that helped her get visual images for writers, production designers, directors, costumers, and anyone else who needed cues on time- or place-specific films. The film goes into detail about the lengths she went to to find out background on Latin American drug kingpins while working on Scarface. Testimonials on her contributions come from everyone from Mel Brooks, Francis Ford Coppola, and family friend Danny De Vito (who executive produced the doc).
But in addition to the parade of professional accomplishment, Harold and Lillian details their relationship that began in Florida, turned into a long-distance relationship highly contested by his family in particular, and finally a marriage of two struggling but creative souls who became the secret weapons of the film industry. He went on to become an Oscar-nominated (and fully credited) production designer, while she and her enormous library became part of two new studios—Coppola’s Zoetrope and Spielberg’s DreamWorks.
I especially adore this documentary because it’s not about people whose accomplishments are well documented. In some cases, director Raim had to do some real digging to find material and images of Harold on set, on those rare occasions when he worked closely with directors, or in isolation, when the filmmakers didn’t want any direct contact with his department. The interviews with the couple are charming and quite honest as they discuss the hardship of raising an autistic son or their struggles to make ends meet or a terrible on-set accident that Harold suffers that keeps him out of work for months and led to excessive drinking. The Michelsons lived lives that were different every day, sometimes quite exciting, but often mundane and unappreciated, except by those in the know, and this film captures all facets of their worlds, with the help of some fantastic interstitial storyboards by artist/animator Patrick Mate. Even those of you that aren’t deep-cut oriented when it comes to movies, the humanity of the Michelsons’ life and the dedication to their respective crafts are universal in their appeal. Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story is appealing to both cinephiles and people who love a great romance.
The film will screen at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Friday, May 26 at 2pm; Sunday, May 28 at 2pm; and Tuesday, May 30 at 6pm.