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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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Elizabeth Taylor 1932-2011

I’ll start by asking a series of questions. When you think of the term movie star, who comes to mind? Or what comes to mind? Is it their captivating looks? is it their ability to epitomize fame and fortune? Is it their ability to win crowds to the big screen time after time? Is it a presence that captivates the audience in their seats? Or is it their ability to do great acting time and time again? Do the standards of those that deserve the term movie star change over time? Or are the standards of a movie star timeless? When you think of the term movie star, how many from the past deserve that title? How many current actors deserve to have such a title bestowed upon them?

On Wednesday morning, we lost one who deserved to fit the term movie star in any or possibly every definition of the term. Her name was Elizabeth Taylor. She’s possibly one of the last of a breed that fit the term movie star as we know it to a tee. She had the looks, she lived large in more ways than one, she was able to attract crowds to the theatres and grab hold of their attention, and she knew how to give wonderful acting performances time after time.

Her acting career started early. She was discovered and signed on by both MGM and Universal at the age of ten. She had a great career as a child actor in gems like Lassie Come Home and Jane Eyre but it was her performance in 1944’s National Velvet that was her signature turn as a child actor. She was also successful in making a transition to adult actor almost immediately when she starred in 1950’s Father Of The Bride. Her career as an adult actress would accelerate starting with her role in 1956’s Giant opposite Rock Husdon and James Dean. She would then be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress four years in a row starting with 1957’s Raintree County opposite Montgomery Clift, 1958’s Cat On A Hot Tin Roof opposite Paul Newman, 1959’s Suddenly, Last Summer opposite Montgomery Clift and finally a Winner for 1960’s Butterfield 8 which she acted opposite then-husband Eddie Fisher. In 1960, she became the highest paid actress in Hollywood and more starring roles continued, including for 1963’s Cleopatra, 1967’s The Taming Of The Shrew and her second Best Actress Oscar winning role in 1966’s Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? Soon after, the movies she starred were flopping and her bankability faded. It wouldn’t stop her from acting in movies, television and stage. Her last movie role was in 1994’s live-action version of The Flintstones. Immediately after, she announced her retirement from films.

She also had one-of-a-kind winning looks. Her looks were definitely that of a movie star. Even at a young age, you knew she had a face for the screen. The smooth face and glowing violet eyes. You could tell in her earlier moviesthat she had the looks. Even in adolescence, she matured with grace and beauty and would have the looks perfect for Hollywood’s Golden Age. She also knew how to live the glamorous life. She was always seen with the most glamorous dresses and was renowned for her huge collection of jewelry including huge diamond rings and diamond necklaces. She even launched two fragrances in the 1990’s.

She also had the ability to be the subject of much publicity, both while active in her acting career and after. She was known for her eight marriages to seven husbands: starting with hotel mogul Conrad Hilton and ending with Larry Fortensky. Her relationship and eventual marriage to Eddie Fisher made headlines because it interfered with his marriage to Eddie Fisher. She married Richard Burton twice over a period of twelve years. Only her marriage to Michael Todd lasted until his death. She was known for her weight gain battles, frequently lampooned in Joan Rivers’ standup comedy material. She had well-publicized substance abuse battles that included a stay at the Betty Ford Clinic where she met her final husband Larry Fortensky. Her friendship with Michael Jackson also made tabloid headlines. Fact: she is the godmother of Michael’s two oldest children. She also battled constant health problems and they would always make for good tabloid copy. She broke her back five times and had two hip replacements. She also battled life-threatening illnesses like a brain tumor, two bouts of pneumonia and numerous heart problems. 

Despite her life of luxury and her questionable relationships, she was also one who knew how to use her celebrity to attract a cause. She supported AIDS causes starting in 1984 when they were not popular but became more active after her friend actor Rock Hudson died of the disease in 1985. She founded or co-founded two major AIDS charities and promoted major AIDS fundraising events. He also devoted herself to many causes relating to Israel and Zionism. She herself converted to Judaism in 1959. She would use her celebrity for many fundraising events and for awareness for the causes she believed in. In turn, she has been awarded humanitarian awards during her life. She was even named a Dame in 2000.

When she died on Wednesday, many believe we lost the last great movie star of Hollywood’s Golden Era. Although that’s disputable, we did lose a one-of-a-kind. She had the picture perfect looks for Hollywood but she delivered solid acting every time. What mistakes she made in her personal life, she made up for in her charm and grace. She lived every inch of the definition ‘fame and fortune’ but was still in touch with what was happening in the world. Many leading ladies came before her and many have come since but she will never be equaled. Elizabeth, we’ll miss you.