Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, Harold and Lillian Michelson; all couples that have left a mark on Hollywood history, though you will only have heard of three of them. That’s a situation Harold And Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story aims to rectify.
Harold and Lillian met in the mid 1940s, when Harold was freshly out of the army. Though Lillian was friends with Harold’s sister, so already knew his family, their courtship wasn’t easy. Whilst she was progressive in her views, he was more of a traditionalist. She was an orphan with few prospects, which made his family uneasy when there started to be talk of marriage.
Nevertheless, they eventually tied the knot and made the move to LA. Harold got work as a background artist, whilst Lillian went about raising their rapidly growing brood. As the kids grew older, Lillian found herself getting bored whilst she was home alone during their school hours, and so Harold found her a position as a research assistant in the studio library. Being the prodigious reader that she was, it turned out to be the perfect fit.
And between them, over more than 50 years, Harold and Lillian quietly left their mark on an astonishing array of Hollywood classics.
More Than Supporting Players
One of the things that Harold And Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story does so very well is illustrate these vital positions which most people are completely unaware of.
For most of his career Harold was a storyboard artist. After reading a script, his job was to sketch his ideas for how the scenes could be shot. In the early days, when he was working on Biblical epics like The Ten Commandments, and Ben-Hur, there was a strict segregation in place between storyboard artists and directors. Though so many of the images he sketched would appear in the final films, he would rarely meet the directors, who were reluctant to share the creative credit with people whose names were unknown. If the public were to find out how much of the imagery in a movie was down to the storyboard artists, some directors worried that they wouldn’t get as much recognition.
This changed when he worked with Alfred Hitchcock on The Birds. The two had a close working relationship, where they often talked face to face. They collaborated again on Marnie. From there, Harold went on to work with Mike Nichols on The Graduate, where one of his many contributions was that iconic image of Dustin Hoffman viewed through the suggestive arch of Anne Bancroft‘s leg. That Dalton Trumbo worked on his screenplays in the bath thanks to his bad back is well-known; less well-known is that Harold would often be perched on the toilet working with him!
The film is peppered with charming celebrity anecdotes like these. David Lynch was a regular visitor to Lillian’s research library, and apparently the only one who always put the books he borrowed back in the right place. Tom Waits was also a frequent guest, though self-described ‘musical idiot’ Lillian didn’t know who he was, at first. She comments that “Everything that came out of him sounded like it should be in a police confession.” The film is executive produced by Danny DeVito, and in his pieces to camera, it’s clear that he considers Harold and Lillian to be family.
Although the Hollywood exploits of Harold and Lillian are wonderfully absorbing, there’s also a lot to their civilian lives that makes for fascinating viewing. Some parts are worthy of their own films.
Though Lillian is clearly uncomfortable discussing it and doesn’t divulge much information about it, her childhood as an orphan clearly had a profound and upsetting effect on her. It was reading that she turned to as an escape during her unhappy times at the orphanage, and reading that enabled her to enter her beloved profession. It’s touching to see how she has been able to come so far from decidedly humble beginnings.
Harold and Lillian’s first son was autistic, a condition that wasn’t discussed openly during the 1940s. Lillian speaks movingly about her guilt after having him seen by a specialist with particularly cruel methods, as well as her pride at the rich, full life that her son (who at the time of filming was about to retire) has managed to live.
More than anything, it is the ways that Harold and Lillian expressed their love to each other over their long, shared lives that makes this film such a warming, heartfelt experience. My favourite example of this are the cards that Harold made Lillian for every birthday, Christmas and anniversary that they had together; so creative and funny, full of obvious adoration. Though Harold is gone now (he died in 2007) it’s nice to know that Lillian still has these cards to look back on.
If you’ve ever sat through the end credits of a movie, the likelihood is that you’ve wondered about the names you see, and the jobs that they have. It takes so many people to make a movie, yet you only ever hear about a tiny fraction.
Harold And Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story is a beautiful tribute to those names that you don’t know, but you should. This film shows you what a huge, untrumpeted effect that two people had on the industry, which naturally leads you to think about the other, anonymous names who have changed cinema without any credit.
It’s also a tribute to the deep, quiet love that goes into sustaining a relationship of six decades; the sort of unshowy love that is rarely seen on a cinema screen. In a way, the fact that Harold and Lillian spent half a century in the film industry is incidental. There’s as much pleasure here in learning about the ways that the two have supported each other over the years, as there is in hearing one of Lillian’s brilliant celebrity tales. Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story shows that every life, whether lived onscreen or off, is cinematic.
Who is your unsung Hollywood hero?
Harold And Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story is released in the U.S on April 28th. No release is scheduled in the UK as yet.