Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story is a joyous much-needed documentary about marriage, the film industry, and the glorious stress of making visuals come to life onscreen.
I am late to the party. I have been meaning to see this film for nearly a year and I just saw it this week and it made by day if not my week. It is so rare to find a film about a production designer at all, let alone one this good. A lot of people forget it takes a village to make a film and these unsung heroes put everything into their craft often at the expense of their marriage or family life- but not Harold and Lillian.
Harold and Lillian makes a point of starting from the beginning of their marriage. Two people who barely know each other come together for various reasons- a crush, spite from being judged from the others family, and a way out of what could have been a boring existence in Florida. When Lillian moves to California at Harold’s request, they are basically strangers. It is because of this that Harold works incredibly hard to make Lillian feel comfortable and to get a job that can support them both. For me this is why the film works so well. Their marriage is the bond that holds life itself together during all the hard times that the film industry provides in spades. I want their marriage.
After years of illustrating in the army, Harold stumbles upon a job in a studio art department and history is made. He goes onto work with many of the greats including Alfred Hitchcock, Mel Brooks, and Stanley Kubrick as a storyboard artist and later a production designer on Star Trek.
Meanwhile, Lillian is at home raising babies including her autistic son who needs more care and attention. This again could have torn them apart but somehow made them stronger. Later, Lillian finds time to start volunteering at film research libraries at different studios until one day the opportunity to buy one falls into her lap. Her fate is sealed and she becomes the foremost film researcher and film historian of her time.
I don’t want to spoil the film too much more than I already have so I’ll leave it here. The film is told with various old and new interviews, archival footage, film footage, and even some animation to make vivid some of their more adventurous stories over the years. I think Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story is a well crafted look at the work-life balance of a creative duo whose work inspired not only their friends and family but the world at large through the films they helped bring to life.
Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story Synopsis
Movie fans know the work of Harold and Lillian Michelson, even if they don’t recognize the names. Working largely uncredited in the Hollywood system, storyboard artist Harold and film researcher Lillian left an indelible mark on classics by Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg, Mel Brooks, Stanley Kubrick, Roman Polanski and many more. Through an engaging mix of love letters, film clips and candid conversations with Harold and Lillian, Danny DeVito, Mel Brooks, Francis Ford Coppola and others, this deeply engaging documentary from Academy Award®-nominated director Daniel Raim offers both a moving portrait of a marriage and a celebration of the unknown talents that help shape the films we love.
Who was Harold Michelson?
Harold Michelson was an American production designer and art director. In addition, he worked as an illustrator and/or storyboard artist on numerous films from the 1940s through the 1990s.
After serving in World War II, Michelson became an illustrator for Columbia Pictures before being traded to Paramount Pictures, where he worked as illustrator and storyboard artist on The Ten Commandments, among other films. He then worked as a storyboard artist on Ben-Hur for MGM and Spartacus for Universal Pictures.
Throughout the remainder of the 1960s, he worked as either illustrator or storyboard artist on such classic films as West Side Story, The Birds, Cleopatra, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate. During the 1970s, he was an illustrator for films like Fiddler on the Roof and Cross of Iron; in the 1980s, he worked on Firestarter and The Cotton Club and was a visual consultant on the 1986 remake of The Fly.
He would go on to serve as art director on several films, and also began working as production designer with the 1971 Cannes Film Festival Jury Grand Prize-winning film Johnny Got His Gun, all the while continuing his career as an illustrator and storyboard artist.
Michelson worked on two films for Mel Brooks, first as production designer on History of the World: Part I and later as art director for Spaceballs. Michelson’s other art direction credits include the films Mommie Dearest, Planes, Trains & Automobiles and Dick Tracy.
Who is Lillian Michelson?
Lillian Michelson was the leading Hollywood archivist and researcher for film and television from the 1960’s to the aughts. She worked in several Hollywood research libraries until she was able to buy one of the studio library collections and created her own library which was housed at Dreamworks for a long while. That library is now housed with the Art Directors Guild Local 800.
Lillian is considered “the dean of film research,” and has contributed to hundreds of classic American movies in her own right, including The Birds, Fiddler on the Roof, Chinatown, all the Rocky movies, Annie Hall and Manhattan. From period dramas to crime thrillers, Lillian’s tenacity, research ability, and acquaintances on both sides of the law contributed to the authenticity of hundreds of films. Most of her work is uncredited.
She was born in 1928 and raised in Florida, later moving to California to be with Harold Michelson, whom she later married. They remained married until his death in 2007 at the age of 87.
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Have you seen Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story? Are you familiar with Harold and Lillian Michelson’s work? As always, I’d love to know your thoughts in the comments below.
Rose Lagacé | @artdepartmental