Editor’s Note: Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story opens in limited theatrical release today, April 28, 2017.
Harold and Lillian Michelson are the Hollywood power couple you’ve never heard of. Married for 60 years, the couple worked on dozens of major films from the 1950s through the 2000s. Lillian worked at and later owned a large research library, and Harold, a WWII vet who used the G.I. Bill to get an art degree, worked his way up from apprentice at small Hollywood studios to major production designer, earning two Academy Award nominations along the way. Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story takes us through their careers, but also their enduring love for each other, their struggles with family and children, and paints a portrait of two amazing people who are as important to our culture as they were to each other.
Harold and Lillian is not your typical behind-the-scenes Hollywood doc. It’s about love and family, things that you don’t see very often in the movie business, at least not off the screen. Lillian has some theories about why that is, and she’s seen it all, so she’s probably right.
Despite the importance of their work, both Lillian and Harold were usually uncredited. Back in the studio days, it was more than just not getting credit, it was that you did work the director didn’t want to admit wasn’t their own, and they would go to some pretty extreme lengths to make sure everyone thought every frame of the film was their own work. If you ever find yourself in heated discussion with a proponent of the auteur theory, Harold and Lillian may just be your best first salvo against their arguments, but you didn’t hear that from me.
Lillian came into the industry later than Harold and worked frequently with the Movie Brats, many of whom appreciated her library and amazing research skills — particularly fun is her story about finding images of traditional Jewish underwear of the early 1900s — yet she still faced hostility and indifference. Who gets angry about something as benign as a library? More people than you’d expect, it turns out. She had to move the entire collection several times as studios and organizations withdrew space and funding.
It all sounds like typical Hollywood business bullshit until you see how important and noteworthy their work has been. They’re responsible for the look and feel of dozens, probably hundreds, of films, some major, some lesser known, some cult, most influential. If you’re a cineaste, one or both of the Michelsons was probably responsible for some of your favorite film scenes, yet were often treated by the industry as unnecessary, occasionally even a nuisance.
If you’re a cineaste, one or both of the Michelsons was probably responsible for some of your favorite film scenes, yet were often treated by the industry as unnecessary, occasionally even a nuisance.
Harold and Lillian is not your typical behind-the-scenes Hollywood doc. It’s about love and family, things that you don’t see very often in the movie business, at least not off the screen. Lillian has some theories about why that is, and she’s seen it all, so she’s probably right. She also has insight into her own family issues, or at least the (sometimes harrowing) problems with her in-laws. Harold’s interviews are all from archival footage and rarely about family, but his straight talk on how to get ahead in Hollywood is honest and valuable.
Lillian is the kind of woman you immediately feel protective of, even though you know full well she can take care of herself, which makes you love her even more. Still, the film makes a subtle joke about her naïveté with regard to Harold’s possible behavior while away for months filming a Hitchcock movie, a joke that seems not only old-fashioned but a touch cruel. We’re not here to critique their marriage, and it may seem fun to make a very 1962-era joke about something that happened back in 1962, but it doesn’t play today the same way it did 55 years ago.
Is that nitpicking? Yes, absolutely, and this reviewer fully admits it. Harold and Lillian is such a fantastic blend of Hollywood history, exposé, family documentary and love story that a joke at someone’s expense, even a mild one, feels out of place. But films are like humans: even the great ones have flaws, and maybe that makes them better, or at least easier to relate to.
A charming mix of love story and behind-the-scenes look at the film industry, Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story shows us the life and work of two of Hollywood's unsung heroes.