Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 05/12/17 04:57:58

"Telling a behind-the-scenes story with the loving couple's tools."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Like the world in general, the world of film is built on people like Harold and Lillian Michelson, folks who are good something that contributes to the success of a larger undertaking, do it for a long time, and similarly put in the effort to have good lives when they get home from work. Even when their contributions are, in fact, important parts of highly-visible successes, telling their stories can be hard - it's technical on the one hand and expected on the other. Lucky for us, this couple made friends with good storytellers, who have brought their shared life story to the screen in a way that, aside from being charming, highlights their importance.

Both Harold Michelson and Lillian Farber grew up in the Miami area, with Harold meeting his kid sister's best friend after returning from World War II. It wasn't a match Harold's parents approved of, so they decamped to California, where Harold started out as a background artist who, when given a chance to work on storyboards, had an innate sense of what the camera would see. They had three children, and when they reached school age, Harold recommended that the head of MGM's research library take the restless Lillian on as an apprentice. It eventually became her library, moving with her from one studio and institution to another until she retired from DreamWorks in 2010.

Harold became a production designer during that time, a more high-profile way to put his artistic talents to use, but it's his time as a storyboard artist that forms the framework for director Daniel Raim's movie in more ways than one. Filmmakers from executive producer Danny DeVito to Francis Ford Coppola talk about how crucial his work was, pointing out that Harold had a knack for recognizing perspective and what specific cameras would pick up that made it much easier to visualize the final product, and then going further to point out that certain crucial bits of framing in The Graduate, including the famed under-the-leg shot, first appeared in his boards. This isn't used to diminish director Mike Nichols's work; ultimately going with that shot was his decision, as was doing the work on-set to make it effective on screen. Instead, it demonstrates that this process is a lot less top-down than many people imagine. It's something hinted early on when the on-screen definition of Lillian's work is "discovering facts to stimulate filmmakers' imaginations", showing how what makes a movie comes from a number of sources.

Still, there's no escaping how powerful a tool those storyboards are, something Raim demonstrates by not just juxtaposing Harold's work with scenes from movies ranging from The Birds to Throw Momma From the Train, but by using storyboards that could have been made for a non-documentary version of this movie to keep it from being an endless string of interview footage broken up by clips of films that can only reflect their contributions second-hand. Drawn by animator Patrick Mate, they are delightfully whimsical bits of cartooning (as is the film's poster), giving the audience glimpses of the younger Harold and Lillian full of life and energy that don't necessarily come through in photographs and home movies from the time. It's also an effective demonstration of just how much of a film can come from this part of the process; combined with narration and vocal performances by Tish Hicks and Will Vought as the couple in their younger days, they feel dynamic and expressive, like they are more than snapshots.

It's so obviously visual that, sometimes, the film can seem to give Lillian's contributions short shrift; not only does the relatively-chronological telling mean that Lillian starting work has to wait until we've heard a lot about Harold, it often feels somewhat abstract. Viewers see shelves and cabinets filled with oddly-filed books, and hear talk about what the job entails, but Lillian's stories will often hint at a lot of adventures and contacts that could fill out a lot of screen time on her own, especially when she's talking about researching De Palma's Scarface and how at one point she had a semi-retired drug lord and a DEA officer both waiting for a chat in her library. HOw she made some of these contacts will certainly pique curiosity, but perhaps those are stories that Lillian still isn't interested in telling.

That Lillian will talk about many things is one of the film's greatest assets. Still sharp in her eighties, she hasn't lost her southern accent despite sixty years in California, giving her words a kind and reassuring quality even as she often can be quite blunt in some of her assessments, or relating her earlier self's adventures with occasionally heartbreaking honesty. She's clearly a firecracker of a woman that the rest of the world is just catching up with. We're unfortunately denied much opportunity to see her and Harold together - he passed in 2007 - Harold does still get to be a presence via archive footage (some apparently coming from Raim's previous documentary, Something's Gonna Live, and his voice and dry sense of humor bring to mind Walter Matthau. Raim cuts the film in such a way that these perspectives don't feel entirely separate. His other interviews are nicely integrated, both in what they say and how: Fellow art directors and researchers appear in environments that reflect their connections to the couple, and while Mel Brooks has effusive praise for them as collaborators, it's clear DeVito considers them friends. Raim also makes sure that he doesn't adhere to a strictly chronological telling of their story; though there are occasional years flashed on screen to track progress through the twentieth century, he'll jump back and forth to stick with a topic and avoid chopping an interview up too much, which also helps keep both its two subjects at the forefront throughout the film.

When he's done, viewers will have a bit of a better take on how a film is not just shaped by the army of people in the credits, but by some who don't necessarily make it onto that list. They'll probably also wind up fond of the Michelsons just like everyone Raim talked to, and glad he was able to tell their story in such an entertaining manner.

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