Film Review: Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story

There has never been a better doc about filmmakers than this one, which sheds important light on what goes into the visual aspect of any movie.
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For anyone who still wholeheartedly subscribes to the auteur theory—i.e., the belief that the director primarily is responsible for the vision and total effect of any film—I present the case of Harold and Lillian Michelson, and the utterly wonderful film Daniel Raim has made about them. 

One of the very best documentaries ever made about movies, Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story tells the mesmerizing tale of this supremely cinematic couple—he, a storyboard artist and later art director, and she, a researcher—whose work has been a vital part of some of the Hollywood’s most important films, among dozens of others. It was Harold, working closely with Alfred Hitchcock—at his express behest—who sketched the iconic images of those momentarily resting, ominous Birds and their vicious attacks, as well as the indelible framing of Dustin Hoffman by Anne Bancroft’s leg in The Graduate, to name but two examples of his original images forever implanted on our minds.

Harold passed away in 2007, but Lillian endures, going to work every day at the research library she has maintained, which is in its fourth home now, at DreamWorks. Using her own distinct filing system, she handily takes care of all filmmaker requests for background information, be it vintage ladies’ underwear for the “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” sequence in Fiddler on the Roof (gleaned from an old lady she met at a Jewish restaurant in L.A., who even drew her a pattern for them), to the lifestyle of a drug lord for Scarface. In the case of the latter, as this impishly delightful lady recounts, she drew upon her underworld connections and was invited to go to Bolivia to see it all for herself firsthand. She was raring to go until Harold brought her to her senses, reminding her that she was a mother of three sons.

One of those sons was born autistic, one of the many challenges the two faced in their personal life, which began when they fell in love, over the strenuous objections of his mother—he, a pilot returning from World War II in which he had flown on 60 bombing missions over Europe, and she a virtual orphan, just 17 years old. Lillian states that she thinks it was Harold’s sitting in the cockpits of planes, peering through bomber sights, which gave him the unique visual perspective that translated into sketches of exact movie angles for scenes that were closely followed by the directors he worked for.

The Ten Commandments (yes, the parting of the Red Sea—that was Harold), Ben-Hur, Spartacus, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, West Side Story, Chinatown, Star Trek, Dick Tracy, Mommie Dearest—the list of films on which they worked, with Harold graduating to the role of production designer in 1971 with Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun, is nigh-endless and jaw-dropping in its scope. If nothing more, this film is an invaluable tribute to and record of the work of the art director, so often completely unsung or even noticed, except in big historical pageants or sci-fi/fantasy epics.

An impressive list of admirers—Mel Brooks, Francis Ford Coppola, Danny DeVito, as well as fellow industry artists like production designer Richard Sylbert—offer affectionate, resonant reminiscences of the couple, so universally beloved in Tinseltown that Shrek 2 named its king and queen after them. Neither of them ever got much in the way of onscreen credit, which discloses an ugly industry secret: Their contributions, while invaluable, remained clandestine, owing to what can only be described as supremely overweening directorial hubris. It was never Harold’s intention to do more than merely suggest visual ideas, and he was invariably surprised to see them carried out to the letter.

As important as the account of their achievements is, however, that “love story” subtitle is key, for that truly is what this film is, in a very lovely and touching way. It’s a stirring tribute to the lifelong partnership of two fierce individuals who, while merely going to their daily jobs, managed to seriously affect what is still the most vital art form of our time. The film’s leitmotif is the succession of charming cartoons Harold drew to illustrate moments large and small in their lives. I have rarely seen any movie, fact or fiction, that was quite so suffused with love—movie love and human love—as this one.

Click here for cast and crew information.