In a world of CGI and franchise starters, we’ve lost sight of the hard work that used to go into filmmaking, like when a poster image was hand-drawn by an artist. The story of Harold and Lillian Michaelson in Daniel Raim’s documentary is to look at the parts of cinema we take for granted that’s all but disappeared. It’s also the story of a couple married for 60 years who were the best of friends, partners, and the greatest secret weapon Hollywood ever had.
“You have the term ‘power couple’ and then you have Harold and Lillian.” Hollywood’s dynamic duo are Harold and Lillian Michaelson who, for over two decades, worked to shape several prominent films; Harold as a concept and storyboard artist turned production designer, and Lillian as a researcher. Their work helped bring to life films as diverse as The Ten Commandments (1956), Ben-Hur (1959), West Side Story (1961) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) to name but a very few. But the crux of Raim’s film isn’t necessarily their film accomplishments, though that’s devoted to in the film’s short 97-minute runtime. What’s important is how Harold and Lillian navigated their careers while simultaneously having a marriage fraught with ups and downs.
Similar to other documentaries about creators behind the scenes – most recently Floyd Norman: An Animated Life – the film blends the professional with the personal, but with more of an eye towards the latter. Harold and Lillian are a couple whose chemistry is felt even with the knowledge that Harold died in 2007, with much of his footage archival or through past interviews. The audience learns about Harold through his wife’s eyes, as well as the handmade poems and cards he wrote for her to commemorate important events. Those of you who think The Notebook (2004) is romantic need to look at one of Harold Michaelson’s beautiful Valentine’s day cards for his wife, a thing of beauty! Their relationship is charted chronologically. Lillian met Harold through his sister and a whirlwind courtship saw them eloping to Los Angeles.
As Lillian says towards the end, Harold always feared she didn’t love him because their relationship started so abruptly, though it’s also easy to imply Harold felt Lillian wanted to escape a bad childhood. Regardless, it’s impossible to deny the love between them and Lillian is very candid about their marriage, citing their three rambunctious boys – one of whom is autistic – and the general insanity of family life creating untold tension. They’re essentially Carl and Ellie Frederickson from Up (2009), but real.
The film’s path is showing Harold and Lillian’s relationship, but Raim’s camera captures each of them as distinct individuals. Because the footage of Harold isn’t captured in the moment he comes off as the character who others talk about, but who never really comes off the page unless through his love for his wife. His love for film, however, is infinite. Known as the man who created the “little goodies…to make you look like a great filmmaker,” Harold’s work requires intricate know-of the mathematics of cinema, being both artist and scientist. Directors Danny DeVito and Mel Brooks touch on several of Harold’s best shots to elaborate on the complexities of working within confined spaces, knowing which angles will work, and drawing it out like a comic book turned screenplay. Harold’s sketches are worthy of framing and show just how talented he was, a fact aided by how many movies lifted their scenes from his drawings. Case in point, Harold Michaelson came up with the infamous Mrs. Robinson leg sequence in The Graduate (1967) and plotted the entire gas station explosion in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963).
Because Lillian is the warm, beating heart at the center of this story – and her interviews are extensive and create a living witness to events – you’re bonded more thoroughly to her than Harold. She’s summed up best as neither “young or old; she’s just Lillian.” With a voice bordering on that of a baby – at one point an enemy refers to her as a “baby-faced killer” – and an infectious giggle it’s easy to see why a man like Harold would devote his life to her. She’s funny, affectionate and has created a career out of her intelligence. Referring in brief snippets to an unhappy home life, Lillian sought refuge in literature, and turned that mad desire for the written word into a Hollywood career researching for movies.
She’s living proof that all us readers can make money off books someday! Her desire to provide movies with authenticity leads down some wild paths. At one point she talks to a group of old Jewish women about their underwear in order to have an accurate representation for Fiddler on the Roof (1971). For her, accurate items in movies are “a matter of pride, to get to the essence of the truth.” Lillian’s stories of getting research material is enough for an entire movie on its own, with stories ranging from getting photos of the CIA from a retired agent to being offered a trip to South America with a retired drug lord during the making of Scarface (1983). (A trip she was forbidden by Harold to go on.)
Harold and Lillian’s love remains immortalized today, with the King and Queen in the Shrek series named after them. Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story shows us the “the best of Hollywood.” Two people who loved each other immensely and left a lasting impact, both personally and professionally, is as inspiring as it is heartwarming.
Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story opens in NYC today and Los Angeles May 12th. Learn more at the movie’s official website
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.