You don’t have to be a movie buff to fall in love with the story of Harold and Lillian Michelson. Their sixty-year marriage—with more than its share of ups and downs—would be compelling enough. Their long involvement with Hollywood is icing on the cake, as we learn about Harold’s career as a storyboard illustrator and concept artist and Lillian’s work as a research librarian. They almost never received screen credit, yet without their input films as diverse as The Ten Commandments, The Birds, and Rosemary’s Baby wouldn’t be the same.
Harold Michelson visualized entire films scene by scene, shot by shot. Directors ranging from Cecil B. DeMille to Mike Nichols followed his artful compositions like a blueprint. Nichols’ work on The Graduate is great, but it was Harold who thought of Mrs. Robinson bending her knee and then framing a shot of Benjamin as seen through her sexy limbs. This is just one example of many in his extraordinary career, which led to him becoming a full-fledged production designer.
Lillian Michelson was restless while raising three children—one of them autistic, at a time when that condition was little understood and didn’t even have a name. When she met the woman who ran a full-time research library at the Samuel Goldwyn studio she volunteered to help and ultimately acquired the library, which migrated several times. When directors needed to know the look of a period, from ancient Rome to a contemporary working-class house, they turned to Lillian for answers. She provided Roman Polanski with everything he needed to know about witchcraft.
Lillian is warm and articulate to this day…and fortunately, director Daniel Raim found vintage interviews of Harold talking about his career. This material and archival footage is augmented by testimonials from Francis Ford Coppola, Mel Brooks, Danny DeVito (who also served as the film’s executive producer), and a new generation of art directors and production designers who were inspired by Harold and Lillian. Raim ingeniously uses charcoal sketches that look like Harold’s (but are actually drawn by Patrick Mate) to tie these pieces together.
Harold and Lillian is subtitled A Hollywood Love Story and appropriately enough, I fell in love with it while watching it with my wife. Be warned: you may tear up, as I did, toward the end of this affectionate tribute.
Harold and Lillian opens today in New York and May 12 in Los Angeles. For further information on upcoming playdates, or to watch the trailer, click HERE.