I expected the new documentary Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story to depict cute old people. I did not expect it to be fascinating, edifying, unsentimental, and a master class in how to have a great marriage.
The film explores the shared history of storyboard artist Harold Michelson and research librarian Lillian Michelson, who, together and separately, worked on some of the greatest movies of the 20th century: The Graduate, Chinatown, Raging Bull, The Apartment, The Birds, To Catch a Thief, The Fly, The Ten Commandments, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Spartacus, Cape Fear, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The Day of the Locust, High Anxiety, Reds, The Cotton Club, Manhattan, Star Trek, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Rocky, and many, many more. It offers some juicy behind-the-scenes stories, and looks at what made their 60-year marriage work in a glittery land of surfaces where marriages fail as frequently as post-1994 Johnny Depp movies in which he does not play a pirate.
Unlike many documentaries, Harold and Lillian never feels static. Israeli-born, Oscar-nominated director Daniel Raim juggles interviews with the couple and with some of the big-name directors they worked with; clips of great old movies; lively storyboard-style illustrations by longtime DreamWorks animator Patrick Mate, who has worked with both Harold and Lillian; bits of their (sometimes sizzling) love letters; the couple’s own home movies and vintage photos; Harold’s sketches; and dozens of amazing, funny bits of art he made for Lillian on birthdays and anniversaries.
The film does a fine job explaining what, exactly, Harold’s job entailed. A younger storyboard artist, Gabriel Hardman of Interstellar, explains, “Storyboards are a working document for the crew…but they’re also a visual screenplay.” Telling the story via wordless comic-strip-esque panels before filming begins saves money, showing directors what they need to buy and build and where the camera should go in a given shot. As an example, Harold and Lillian takes us shot-by-shot through the gas station scene in The Birds, and we see how many of Hitchcock’s iconic images appear on screen exactly as Harold drew them. In The Graduate, when we see Dustin Hoffman framed under the triangle created by Anne Bancroft’s bare bent leg and he says, “Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me,” that image came straight from Harold’s imagination. The chariot race in Ben-Hur? Harold again.
“You’re practically a whole studio in yourself, and you just draw,” Harold notes.
Lillian hypothesizes that Harold was so brilliant at understanding perspective and framing because during World War II, he was a bombardier navigator who sat in the fighter plane’s nose and used panoramas to pinpoint a precise bomb site. “That might have been how he got the incredible view of how things could look real when they weren’t,” she says.
The duo met because Lillian was friendly with Harold’s little sister and saw photos of him, looking dashing in his pilot’s uniform, on her living room walls. Harold came from a close-knit middle-class Jewish family; Lillian was essentially an orphan. She tells the camera in her piping voice, “I didn’t have much of a family life, and what there was of it was brutal. I was sent away to orphanages. And that’s about all I can say on that.” She smiles, but her little-girl voice is steely.
Reading was her escape. “It’s the most wonderful gift I think a child could have,” she says. “Your imagination is let free and it can go in any direction.”
At first, Harold found his sister’s pal a bit too assertive in her beliefs in women’s intellect and ability. But he quickly became smitten. (Surely it didn’t hurt that she was—and still is, at 89—ravishing.) On their first date, he announced, “When we get married, I know what color I want to paint our front door!” She was more hesitant about the future. Still, they moved to Los Angeles together—Harold got Lillian an apartment but insisted on sleeping on a friend’s couch until he and Lillian were legally married—and their love deepened through the years, as Lillian joined him in the motion-picture business. They often worked together until Harold’s death in 2007. They faced challenges, notably having a son with autism in an era when autism was poorly understood (“We were saddled with the term ‘refrigerator mothers’; they said we gave our children no love, no attention,” Lillian says), and Harold’s struggles with alcohol and depression following a terrible injury on set. But their love for each other—and clearly, their shared intellectual curiosity and sense of fun—kept them united. You get a sense of how beloved the duo are when you see the king and queen in the Shrek movies: The animators drew them as Harold and Lillian.
Lillian began her research career when the kids were out of diapers and Harold was working on West Side Story. She was bored, and he suggested that she help out in the studio library. Volunteering turned into a job, and eventually, she ran the most respected library in Hollywood, moving it over time from Goldwyn to the American Film Institute to Zoetrope (Francis Ford Coppola’s studio) to Paramount. A producer compares going to her library to “visiting an alchemist’s lab to find vision.” Mel Brooks says, “There are so many movies that Lillian gave nuance.”
You get a sense of the scope of her work from the penciled list of research questions she was given for the movie Annie: “NYC breadlines, strikes, El railroad bridges, rich parties, size of the Mona Lisa, date liquor legal after Prohib., police uniforms, orphanages, circuses, 1933 coffee cans…” and dozens more. She researched furniture for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, noting, “The most innocuous things—a living room table, a sofa that might just seat two—can become an arena of war.” She researched occult practices in different countries and time periods for Rosemary’s Baby (“I learned a lot,” she says, smiling angelically). Director Raim observes that much of Lillian’s magic was in her Rolodex. “Her relationships, the fact that she’s so charming and can get any information, made her unique,” he told me in an interview. “Today, there’s Google, and if you want a picture of a bank in Venezuela in 1980, you always get the same eight photos. Everything winds up looking the same. But because Lillian could find and talk to all kinds of people, she had resources no one else had.” And of course, loving one’s work doesn’t hurt. “I get to float among the centuries! I dip into a time machine every day!” Lillian exclaims in the film. “I’ve been fortunate enough with research to gain a certain perspective on my tiny little life, and other tiny little lives, and things don’t bother you so much. If they do, you just open another book and go back into your time machine.”
I got a sense of Lillian’s charm when I chatted with her on the phone. She was funny and sweet and wanted to talk about me more than she wanted to talk about herself, and at one point, she called me “Marjorie darling,” and after five minutes I pretty much would have killed for her. She now lives in the Motion Picture Home, and told me that only about 30 percent of her heart works (“but I’m vertical, and that’s all I want”) and that she still goes to the movies. “You should forget about your life for a moment, for an hour and a half,” she told me. “And for that to happen, it’s important that we all do our job really right.” I mentioned how much I hated anachronistic hair and makeup in vintage movies, and she told me I was brilliant. (Did I mention I’d kill for this lady?) “You shouldn’t be grabbed out of the movie’s reality and thrown back into your life,” she said. “I saw that movie about the black mathematicians [Hidden Figures], and I thought, ‘Wow, someone did their research.’ They pulled me in and just pulled me along. Whoever did that research did such a good job! I looked in the credits, but I didn’t see the name of a researcher. So that’s not changed! We are still not credited!” She laughed. “But we’re surviving!” Amen to that.
Harold and Lillian is currently playing at the Quad Cinema in NYC and at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge. It opens in Los Angeles on May 12 and in cities around the country in the next couple of months. See it. We all need a good love story.