Harold and Lillian
Just after World War Two, an American GI returned home to Florida and met his younger sister's best friend. He liked her and said he was moving to California. She should join him and they would get married. About six weeks later, she did. She barely recognized him at the train station. Why am I marrying this stranger, she thought? But it was the beginning of a beautiful partnership.
It took Harold Michelson a while to get established as a production designer, drawing storyboards in a Hollywood assembly line where he never even spoke to directors. Later in life, his unique talent for perspective and understanding camera angles put him in high demand as he worked closely with filmmakers and rose to the position of art director. He was nominated for Oscars for Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Terms of Endearment. He was the first to conceptualize many shots that would become iconic in films like The Graduate and The Birds.
Harold found success earlier, partly because he was the man and it was assumed that he should have a career and look after his family. He got one of his breaks when someone from the studio noticed that his wife was having a second baby and said they better hire him back on.
Lillian was a force to be reckoned with. You didn't say no to Lillian, many friends say firmly. She was an orphan who loved books and reading. Marrying Harold was a way out of her childhood, she says, and finding a life she could never have imagined. Even so, she lost her job at the telephone company when her pregnancy started to show and she spent many years as a wife and mother. She always wanted to do more and Harold suggested she volunteer at his studio's research library. When the archivist retired she insisted that Lillian find a way to buy the collection. And that it where Lillian's career began. She moved her books to several locations over the years but whenever Hollywood needed to know how a drug kingpin lived (for Scarface) or what type of undergarment a Jewish girl in nineteenth century Eastern Europe wore (for Fiddler on the Roof), Lillian was the one who provided the answer.
While this movie is a behind-the-scenes glimpse into Hollywood jobs that rarely get attention, it is also very much a story about marriage and partnership. Harold and Lillian managed to love each other for over sixty years but Lillian is very candid about the many challenges involved. Harold became extremely depressed after an accident in which he sustained a very bad break in his leg. He took to drink and eventually Lillian said she would leave if he didn't stop. She is also clear about the difficulties of raising an autistic son (and two other sons!) at a time when mothers were specifically blamed for the condition.
The reason that filmmaker Daniel Raim made this documentary, though, is that Harold and Lillian are so damn likable.
I had no idea that there was such thing as a Hollywood research library and little idea about the scope of a storyboard artist or production designer's domain. So, lots to learn here. The film is assembled from archival photos, storyboards from Harold's career, interviews with famous directors, and contemporary interview with Lillian and an older one with Harold (who passed away in 2007). No need for reenactments or archival shots of the old days in Hollywood—instead, fittingly, scenes of past decades are brought to life through cute sketches and illustrations. A fascinating and heart-warming film—my only critique is that it isn't specifically filmic and could be enjoyed just as much on the small screen.
Plays 2nd October 2016 3:30 p.m. at SFU Goldcorp and 13th October 2016 6 p.m.at Vancity Theatre.