Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story (2015)



HaroldandLillian.com - #HaroldandLillian

“They were the heart of Hollywood.” – Bill Krohn, film critic

Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story (2015) will have its US premiere today at DOC NYC. From director Daniel Raim and executive producer Danny DeVito comes a touching and informative documentary that tells the story of Harold Michelson, a storyboard artist and production designer, and Lillian Michelson, a film researcher. This dynamic duo worked in Hollywood for over half a century helping to create the films that we know and love today. This documentary is about their extraordinary work, their collaborations with each other over the years and their long and fruitful marriage.

Never heard of Harold or Lillian Michelson? That’s a wrong that this documentary is trying to right. Even though Harold and Lillian worked on countless films with studios such as Columbia, Paramount, Zoetrope, MGM and DreamWorks and were responsible for some of the most iconic images in movie history, their work often went uncredited. But people in the film industry knew Harold and Lillian well and relied upon their extraordinary talents. This documentary is not only about the love Harold and Lillian had for each other but the love Hollywood had for them.

Lillian and Harold Michelson (Source)
“It starts with Harold and Lillian being a loving couple. They truly were people who together created art.” – Rick Carter

Harold and Lillian met in 1945 when Lillian was just 17 years old. Harold’s artistic skill was discovered while he was in the Air Force during WWII. Lillian grew up in an orphanage and read books to escape. Both developed their unique talents at a young age and brought them to Hollywood when they moved there in 1947. It started when Harold became a storyboard artist at Columbia completely by chance. An executive at the studio asked him if he was the artist who drew a particular piece. Harold said yes, even though it wasn’t really his. He was desperate for the job the executive was offering him and this got his foot in the door. The rest is history. In an interview the good-natured Harold reflected on the incident and hoped the real artist didn't wind up selling insurance. During this time, Lillian supported Harold as a housewife and mother to their three sons. However she wasn’t content with that role and pursued her own career in the industry as a film researcher; a job well-suited to a woman with a big imagination and a love for books. And so began two long and productive careers in Hollywood.

“Harold’s brain was the best computer there was.” – Tom Walsh

To create his storyboards, Harold drew with a combination of charcoal and ink. He had an extraordinary talent to make the unreal look real. He knew how to put a scene together in such a way that it would convey a certain message on screen. Harold could see what the camera saw and directors, including Alfred Hitchcock, acknowledged Harold’s talent for perspective. Even though Harold was nominated for two Oscars, a lot of his work has gone unrecognized. Storyboards were often destroyed because they were not deemed important or directors didn't want it known how much they depended on these artists for their work. In Harold's case, some of his storyboards survived and are showcased in the documentary.

A film researcher’s job is to “stimulate the filmmaker’s imagination and creativity.”

Lillian's pride and joy was her research library which she lovingly referred to as her fourth child. She started her career as an apprentice to Lelia Alexander who then sold her library to Lillian. The research library grew over the years and moved from studio to studio. It lived at Paramount, Francis Ford Coppola gave it a home at Zoetrope and it finally moved to DreamWorks. Lillian would work with art directors, production designers and writers and her visual research would guide filmmakers in picking the right props, costumes, furniture, automobiles, etc. for the movie. Lillian was feisty, curious and very well-connected.

Alfred Hitchcock, Harold Michelson and The Birds. Original sketch featured in Harold & Lillian. (Source)

Harold and Lillian often collaborated together and Lillian's research would guide Harold in developing his storyboards. They also worked on projects independently. The documentary looks closely at a number of the films they worked including The Ten Commandments (1956), Ben-Hur (1959), Spartacus (1960), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? (1966), The Graduate (1967), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Johnny Got His Gun (1970), Fiddler on the Roof (1971) and Scarface (1983). I loved the story of how they worked on The Birds (1963) with Alfred Hitchcock and in the documentary you can see Harold's storyboard juxtaposed with actual shots from Marine (1964). You know that iconic shot from The Graduate (1967) where Dustin Hoffman is framed by Anne Bancroft's leg? That was Harold's idea! And you can thank Lillian for the period accurate underwear in Fiddler on the Roof and for putting her life at risk interviewing drug lords for Scarface.


Harold and Lillian in bed with The Graduate (Source)

“They were like two peas in a pod.” – Danny DeVito

Raim's documentary also explores the Michelson's marriage with all of their ups and downs. We learn about their autistic son Alan, the dark period in Harold's life after an accident put him out of commission and the sweet hand-written and hand-drawn cards Harold would create for Lillian for every birthday, anniversary and holiday. Harold passed away in 2007 and Lillian is still with us. In the documentary we see archival footage from past interviews with Harold, lots of home videos and extensive interviews with Lillian Michelson who was very much a part of the project.

We also hear from a variety of industry folks. Talking heads include Mel Brooks, Danny DeVito, Francis Ford Coppola as well as a variety of production designers, art directors, film historians and storyboard artists. During their careers Harold and Lillian nurtured new talent and developed bonds with other artists. It's clear how much love Hollywood had for them.

Lillian and Harold Michelson (Source)

Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story is a charming tale that will move you to tears. This fine documentary shows a deep love for its subjects with a bit of whimsy added in. I loved all of the moments we get with Lillian as she tells us their story and it breaks my heart that Harold is not by her side. The use of original storyboard like illustrations by Patrick Mate to depict moments in the lives of the Michelsons is an inspired and entertaining touch. I'm a sucker for well done documentaries about interesting people and this film fits the bill. I'm not going to lie, I was a sobbing mess by the end. This is a documentary with a lot of heart and I was really moved by the story.

This is a must see for any film buff. Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story premieres tonight at DOC NYC fest. I hope it will screen in other cities, especially Boston! For more details, check out the Harold and Lillian Facebook page or follow the #HaroldandLillian hashtag on Twitter.




A special thanks to Emma Griffiths PR for giving me an opportunity to review this documentary.

Update: Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story has been acquired by Zeitgeist Films and is scheduled for a theatrical release in early 2017!

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