Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story

There's nothing funny about The Graduate.

There’s nothing funny about The Graduate.

(2015) Documentary (Adama) Harold Michelson, Lillian Michelson, Danny DeVito, Mel Brooks, Francis Ford Coppola, Bill Krohn, Rick Carter, Jim Bissell, Gene Allen, Gabriel Hardman, Richard Sylbert, Tom Walsh, Stuart Cornfeld, Norm Newberry, Tish Hicks (voice), Will Vought (voice), Anahid Nazarian, Marc Wanamaker, Patrick Mate. Directed by Daniel Raim

Harold Michelson was a storyboard artist who kind of fell into the work after serving his country in World War II. He had met and fallen in love with Lillian, a penniless but beautiful orphan from Miami who was originally friends with his sister. Although they didn’t know each other well, Harold was smitten and brought her out to California where they eventually got married and started a family.

She had gone to school to become a librarian but ended up founding a research library which would become one of the most valuable in Hollywood. Wanted to know what undergarments Jewish girls wore in Russia in the last decade of the 19th century? The makers of Fiddler on the Roof did and Lillian found out for them. Want to know what a drug lord’s mansion would look like? The makers of Scarface did and Lillian found out for them.

They were never a power couple but as their close friend Danny DeVito put it, they were the beating heart of Hollywood. Respected and beloved, both Harold and Lillian were well known for mentoring young people who were hoping to do what they did someday. Both of them worked on some of the most iconic films in the history of movies, from West Side Story to Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

One of the most fascinating sequences in the movie looks at Harold’s storyboarding work on The Graduate. Harold wasn’t just someone who sketched drawings; he understood camera angles and creativity and often his ideas helped make films better, making him much sought after and after The Graduate even more so. Shots like Benjamin Braddock being framed by the crooked leg of Mrs. Robinson were Harold’s idea and many of the shots that we still remember today from that film came out of Harold’s mind.

In some ways, this is four movies for the price of one. We get the story of Harold and Lillian’s courtship, with lots of drawings (presumably by Harold) that depict them during this period. We also meet their family, including an autistic son who has since become a computer programmer. Second, we find out about Harold’s work, the films he worked on and how important his contributions were to some of the most classic films of the era. Third, we see Lillian’s development into the top research librarian in Hollywood and what her own contributions meant.

But it was the fourth part that’s magic. We get more of a sense of the relationship between the two and the love that exists between them, with all their own insecurities (and they both had plenty). The last is set to the strains of Claire de lune by Claude Debussy and a more perfect soundtrack they could not have asked for. The music means something to me personally (I used it to court my own wife) so in the interest of fairness I have to say that the emotional resonance for me was far more than perhaps it might have been for others.

But as informative as the middle two segments are, it is the last one that will stay with me. The couple stayed together for sixty years until Harold sadly passed away in 2006 – Lillian is still alive and living in the Motion Picture Retirement Home and is in her 80s, possibly 90s by now and still beautiful and vivacious and even though her husband has been gone nearly a decade, her love for him is still very much apparent.

The secret to their successful marriage is not just that they were a great team, although of course they were, but simply because they didn’t let anything get in the way of their love. Sure, they fought and sure, they had disagreements but they resolved things between themselves. I won’t say that they draw a roadmap to a successful relationship because every relationship is different, but there’s no doubt that their formula can be useful to anyone who wants to make their relationship last. One can only wish for a marriage and a love like theirs – it’s what most of us aspire to.

This is a beautiful film that is also an informative film and I can count on the fingers of one hand how many films I’ve seen that are both, and I’ve seen thousands of films, maybe tens  of thousands. This movie is going to stay with me for a very long time. It’s premiering at the NYDOCS festival tonight and then playing again tomorrow. After that, keep an eye out for it on the festival circuit this Winter and next Spring (which I think would be the perfect time to see it). Hopefully after that, a savvy distributor will give it a theatrical release or at least make it available for streaming or VOD. This is a movie that very much deserves to be seen.

REASONS TO GO: Informative about the Hollywood process. Some wonderful anecdotes. The love story is beautiful and presented in a touching, heart-warming manner. Great use of music.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit of talking head syndrome.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mild language and period smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The King and Queen in Shrek 2 are based on Harold and Lillian and even bear their names.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/17/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Home movies of people you adore
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: Phoenix

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