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A Behind-The-Scenes Couple Get Star Treatment In 'Harold And Lillian'

Howard and Lillian: A True Hollywood Love Story chronicles the marriage of Lillian and Howard Michelson, who triumphed over challenges that have doomed many Hollywood couples. Zeitgeist Films hide caption

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Zeitgeist Films

Howard and Lillian: A True Hollywood Love Story chronicles the marriage of Lillian and Howard Michelson, who triumphed over challenges that have doomed many Hollywood couples.

Zeitgeist Films

What it is like to be married in Hollywood? We have a good idea about what it's like to be divorced in Hollywood, we've seen famous couples run aground by egos and scandal, and we're well-versed in the ups-and-downs of a lifestyle where fortunes vary and relationship are jostled like luggage on a turbulent flight. The beautiful documentary Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story celebrates a marriage and creative partnership that lasted six decades in the business, one that survived stretches of poverty and joblessness, catastrophic injury and alcoholism, and the challenges of raising an autistic son at a time when "refrigerator mothers" were blamed for the condition. Bottom line: A Hollywood marriage can be sublime and inspiring, but it's always an adventure.

Though well-known and beloved by their peers, Harold and Lillian Michelson had the sorts of jobs that are often so far below the line that they're not credited at all. As a production designer and art director, Harold would eventually earn Academy Award nominations for Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Terms of Endearment, but for the bulk of his career, dating back to an apprenticeship at Columbia Pictures in the late '40s, he worked the art department as a concept illustrator and storyboard artist. Despite a passion for books and a formidable intellect — she was a spelling bee champion in her youth — Lillian stayed home and raised their three children until the early '60s, when Harold was brought onto the lot at Samuel Goldwyn. He helped land her a volunteer position in the research library across the street, and a second career was born.

Only the most hardcore cinephiles have heard of the Michelsons, but even casual viewers are familiar with their work. Harold's talent for adjusting his storyboards for different camera lenses and telling stories shot-by-shot is readily apparent in sword-and-sandal epics like The Ten Commandments, Ben Hur, and Spartacus, and he worked side-by-side with Alfred Hitchcock on The Birds and Marnie, two of the master's most strikingly composed films. One of the most famous shots in cinema history — Benjamin Braddock framed by Mrs. Robinson's leg in The Graduate — appeared first on Harold's sketchbook before it was immortalized on screen. He wouldn't start collecting more prominent credits until later, when he worked in production design and/or art direction for filmmakers like Mel Brooks and Danny DeVito.

For her part, Lillian toiled in the research department, where she quietly unearthed the specific period details and bric-a-brac that would lend real-world authenticity to Hollywood fictions. In Harold and Lillian, she describes the extraordinary lengths she would go to get things right, like querying old Jewish women at a deli to find out what 1890s bloomers looked like for Fiddler on the Roof or pressing ex- (and current) drug lords and DEA agents for information relevant to Scarface. When asked the impossible, like getting photos from inside CIA headquarters, she could deliver. She talks about research as a "time machine" that allows her to access other worlds, much as she did as a five-year-old orphan in Miami Beach.

Lillian's voice carries the documentary — Harold died in 2008, though he left a wealth of interview footage behind — and collaborators like DeVito (who also executive-produced), Brooks, and Francis Ford Coppola offer themselves as talking heads, along with other researchers, storyboard artists and technicians in the field. Harold's extensive illustrations of their lives together — including a marvelous tradition of homemade birthday and anniversary cards, adorned by sweet poems and artwork — give Harold and Lillian all the visual panache it needs, much like a real-life version of the side-by-side comparisons between his storyboards and a finished sequence.

The stories Lillian tells are a treasure-trove of personal and professional anecdotes, doubling as a side history of Hollywood itself. But Harold and Lillian is most affecting as a tribute to their marriage, which was full of romance and hardship and uncertainty, but built from the beginning on mutual respect and enthusiasm. "You must have shared experiences for a marriage to have some kind of soil to grow on," she says, offering a key insight into why so many Hollywood marriages struggle to last. In a business where individual success waxes and wanes, and each new production is a job that will eventually be lost, the Michelsons rode out its crazy vicissitudes with something approaching harmony and grace. Theirs is a model few will ever get to follow.