Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story is crackerjack. It is dynamite.
Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story is what the boys in marketing used to call a human interest story. In the short span of 100 minutes, writer/director Daniel Raim offers an overview of American and film history while passing along nuggets about love, endurance, parenthood and the life philosophies people acquire when they live long, accomplished lives. The subjects of this documentary are Harold and Lillian Michelson and their 60-year marriage in a town and industry known for shortening the lifespan of the most committed relationships. They are called a “power couple,” their power being decency and generosity in a town and industry (yes, I used it again) typically devoid of both. To quote James D. Bissell, renowned art director and friend of the Michelsons: “Your best friend in Hollywood is someone who will stab you in the face.”
First, a comment about the documentary as a form: perhaps no genre of film has been more invigorated by and suffered more from the democratization of the tools of filmmaking than the documentary. Anyone or anything can be somebody’s subject, but those subjects are often less than engrossing than expected. Yet these documentaries garner enough general interest that they are kickstarted or gofundme’d and find some form of distribution. They clog the Netflix queue or the recommended list on Amazon Prime. One can be forgiven a sense of exhaustion upon seeing a heretofore unknown couple on screen and hearing how special they are. Not everyone can be special. But in this instance, Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story is crackerjack. It is dynamite.
The Michelsons’ story spans decades, from Miami Beach to Los Angeles, from the old studio system to the shrinking of the mainstream studio outlets in 2010 when Lillian retired. After his service in World War II, Harold returned to Miami and was drawn to one of his sister’s friends, the charismatic and feisty Lillian. He wanted to take her to Hollywood to start a life, promising to make a living through his art. Lillian accepted, and they would stay connected through long letters while Harold found them a place to live and a vocation. She joined him, they married and, after some hard times, Harold found work at Columbia Pictures as an apprentice draftsman, where he trained to be a storyboard artist.
The role of the storyboard artist during pre-production is to interpret a script from words into images with or without the input of the director. “They want your ideas,” says Harold, and the first film he worked on as a full-time storyboard artist was Cecil B. de Mille’s The Ten Commandments. Harold created shots with charcoal, ink and paper and turned them in to the art director. Months later he was shocked to see so many of his drawings turned into live actions shots. Moses parted the Red Sea in a black and white sketch, then superimpose Charlton Heston doing the same thing from the exact same angle in Technicolor. de Mille received all the credit and had no contact with Harold.
The old studio system had a firm caste system. Once it broke up, the directors Harold worked with were more generous. Who is responsible for the iconic shot from The Graduate? You know it without a description – Dustin Hoffman centered in the triangle created by Anne Bancroft’s bent leg. That would be Harold Michelson. His filmography is extensive and includes stints with Hitchcock, Mike Nichols, Sam Peckinpah and Billy Wilder as their illustrator and storyboard artist. He worked as art director with Mel Brooks on Spaceballs, James L. Brooks on Terms of Endearment and created the look of Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
While Harold worked creating some of the greatest images in the history of American cinema, Lillian was raising their three sons. Bored and restless, she wanted some work of her own. Harold happened on an opportunity for her. While browsing the research library at Columbia Pictures, he got to talking to the librarian and asked if she needed a volunteer. She did, and Lillian showed up immediately. An avid reader brimming with wit and intelligence, she proved an asset. Art departments generally strive for visual fidelity when creating the costumes and sets for a film. The reference library contained books and materials where production designers and art directors could find the authenticity they sought. It also had Lillian, who had gained renown as a person who could procure any information one might need no matter how obscure or nefarious. She bought the library when her predecessor retired. The library moved from Columbia to the American Film Institute to Francis Ford Coppola’s short-lived Zoetrope studio, then Paramount, Dreamworks and, finally, the art director’s guild. Her contribution to film has been immeasurable and the library continues to exist today.
But what really makes the movie shine is the relationship between Harold and Lillian. Their story is told through on-camera interviews, the extensive letters they sent each other and the poems and cards Harold made her on birthdays and holidays. There’s a real honesty about the joys and trials required to make a marriage last for 60 years. This isn’t a Disney fable. They faced financial difficulties, a child with special needs, a severe accident to Harold that kept him out of work for a year, a depressive episode and Harold’s failing health later in life. Lillian consistently refers to them as a team. They kept each other stimulated in their life and work, supported each other unconditionally and reigned each other in when necessary. “You must have common experiences,” advises Lillian, if you’re going to survive the daily tensions of raising a family.
The movies are our common experiences. At their best they can broaden us a little and alter our way of seeing the world. Together Harold
and Lillian Michelson worked on hundreds of movies, deceptively challenging our collective perception. They influenced the visions of the men who received all the credit. We are their unwitting legacy. Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story is their testament, a sketch of two lives well lived. They deserve your attention. Go take the studio tour of their wonderful life.