VIFF 2016 Review: Harold And Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story

harold-lillian

Film researcher Lillian Michelson and storyboard artist/set designer Harold Michelson are the subject of the documentary Harold And Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story.

Yes, we know too much about Hollywood couples. Harold and Lillian Michelson are a couple that won’t come to most people’s minds. Nevertheless they’re worth knowing in Harold And Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story.

Harold and Lilian Michelson were a power couple in Hollywood, but a couple the masses never knew. Those in Hollywood not only knew them, they wanted them for their movies. Harold was a storyboard artist who drew the images for most of Hollywood’s best movies from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s continuing into the 80’s.The start of his legend began with The Ten Commandments and led to even bigger films like Ben-Hur, The Apartment, Cleopatra, The Birds, Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf, The Graduate, Catch-22, Fiddler On The Roof, Hair, Spaceballs, and ending with 2003’s Duplex. Harold was also a set designer for Star Trek: The Movie (for which he received his first of two Oscar nominations), Terms Of Endearment, Spaceballs and Dick Tracy.

Lillian Michelson was a film researcher. Her research helped contribute to films like Fiddler On The Roof1941, Reds, Scarface and Rain Man to name a few. Her research was very intense as she would go searching about all information related to the place and time of the story including as far as what people would wear in a certain time. One example of how far she’d go for her research: Lillian even interviewed an actual drug lord from Colombia for Scarface. She was that fearless. She even owned a library full of research materials for films she worked on: a library she would constantly have to fight for a space to have it all kept.

Harold and Lillian were also a dedicated couple who kept a solid marriage for 60 years. Harold was well to do but Lillian was raised an orphan. The age gap of 11 years didn’t stop Harold from taking a liking to her and they married in 1947 when Harold was 28 and Lillian was 17. Harold decided to pursue life as a storyboard artist in Hollywood after returning from the war. An Army Sargent saw the drawings Harold drew of the war and thought he would make an excellent artist. Lillian had nothing really to lose as her first pregnancy cost her a telephone company job; this happened during a time women didn’t have the right to sue for their job back. Lillian would mother three children including an autistic son. Harold was frequently away at work and this caused friction in their marriage. Lillian, bored with motherhood, found an opportunity to become a film researcher and the rest is history. Their marriage was strong and committed and went through the ups and downs until Harold died in 2007. Lillian retired in 2010 and now lives in a Hollywood retirement home.

This documentary is a mix of things. This film mixes the love of Harold and Lillian with their accomplishments in Hollywood. It takes you into what they achieved in film and fits it with the films they were a part of. Sometimes you’re led to think they helped make the film’s greatness. The film tells of the times where they were getting their start in the business: Harold having to spend time as an apprentice in the Hollywood system before his rise and Lillian chasing an opportunity because of the limited chances for women at the time. This film also tells the stories of their own lives where they had to both play spouse and parent, including a parent to an autistic son. We also see how Harold would take his storyboard illustration style he used for his Hollywood books and include it in his own personal diary of his marriage and family life in all its triumphs and struggles.

It’s interesting how when you watch this film, you learn how much these two are responsible for some of the best films to come out of Hollywood. You’d be shocked to see how many films Harold was a storyboard illustrator for: Ben-Hur, The Graduate, The Birds, Cleopatra, Fiddle On The Roof, Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf, etc. You often feel he helped make that era of Hollywood. Learning about all the films Lillian did research for starting with Fiddler On The Roof, and most notably Scarface and Rain Man, you not only develop an appreciation for her too but her profession. The words of gratitude from such big names like Danny De Vito, Mel Brooks and Francis Ford Coppola leave you convinced they may have been the best ever. Even learning about all the research materials she had and continuously fought have a space for, you feel it deserves its own permanent library.

Kudos to Danial Raim for making a very intriguing, very entertaining documentary. This is the third documentary he directed, wrote, edited, produced and cinematographed. This documentary finally exposes Hollywood’s best kept secret in both the films they made and the love they had. However I will admit there are some areas where I felt the editing could have been done better. Most of the time, it goes from the story to the movie they created to the people they worked with in the right order. Nevertheless there are times when the order doesn’t seem to go right. Rare in the film but noticeable. I personally feel this would be a good film to release at the box office. However I’m a person who’s interested in some of the stories of Hollywood movies past. It’s hard to know what exactly makes for a documentary that has what it takes for a box office release. Even those nominated for the Oscars and win don’t exactly explain it all. I think this documentary is best for channels like B.C.’s Knowledge Network or TCM.

Harold And Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story is more than just a story about a Hollywood couple. It’s also a film that gets you understanding their behind-the-scenes jobs and leaves you thinking they were the best ever in their professions.

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