An amazing Hollywood romance you’ve probably never heard of
‘Harold and Lillian’ tells the remarkable behind-the-scenes story of 'The Graduate,' 'The Birds' and a love story that made movie history.
In Hollywood, where a skinny latte lasts longer than some relationships, Harold and Lillian Michelson broke the mold. They were married for 60 years while working together behind the scenes on cinema’s most iconic movies – he as a storyboard artist and she as a research librarian – until his death in 2007.
You've likely seen their work: “The Ten Commandments,” “The Apartment,” “The Birds,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” “The Graduate,” “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Scarface” and “Rain Man” are just a few of the classics on their very long and impressive resumes, yet they’re virtually unknown to the general public. That’s about to change, with the release of “Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story,” the third documentary in Israeli-born director Daniel Raim’s film trilogy about Tinseltown’s unsung artists.
Below, we round up six of our favorite takeaways from the film.
Hitchcock gave Harold his big break
Raim met and became friendly with the Michelsons when he started working on his first film, “The Man on Lincoln’s Nose,” about his mentor at the American Film Institute, production designer Robert F. Boyle. Harold had worked with Boyle on “The Birds” in 1963, creating shot-for-shot storyboards for the Alfred Hitchcock thriller. “It was a turning point in Harold’s career because it was the first time he was invited by a director to be by his side through the entire shoot,” Raim told From The Grapevine. “Up to that point, Harold had never even met a director. Cecil B. De Mille had the storyboards shipped to Egypt on ‘The Ten Commandments.’”
Working with Hitchcock on “The Birds” and “Marnie” a year later propelled him to another level – he became a production designer and art director in the ‘70s and ‘80s, earning Oscar nominations for art direction on “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” and “Terms of Endearment.”
Their marriage endured 60 years
A returning World War II fighter pilot, Harold met Lillian, his sister’s best friend, in Miami in 1945. He first moved west, seeking employment in Hollywood, and she soon followed; they married in 1947. “Harold was madly in love with Lillian. The honeymoon period never waned for him,” said Raim, noting that Harold showed his affection through letters, poems and drawings he created for her over the years. “The challenge of making this film was to find a way to tell the story of a 60-year creative partnership and a romantic partnership." Going into it, “I knew that they had these incredible careers that needed to be talked about, but I didn’t know that I would make a love story about these amazing human beings. Their creative and romantic partnership bolstered each other.”
Harold had a hand in that iconic scene from 'The Graduate'
Think of “The Graduate,” and the image of young Ben Braddock seen through the naked, shapely leg of Mrs. Robinson comes to mind. That’s the work of Harold Michelson. It was important to Raim to show how Michelson’s storyboard helped director Mike Nichols capture the iconic shot. For Michelson, “It was all about telling a story and making the director look great,” Raim told us. The filmmaker combined digital scans of Harold’s storyboards and interviews he conducted with him over the years.
Raim’s interest in Michelson’s art is not surprising, as he started out as a painter. Born in Israel to an Israeli mother and American father, he moved to the U.S. at age 5 when his dad relocated for work. He later returned to Israel to study painting at an arts high school. His interests later shifted to moviemaking, and he went to California to study cinema at the American Film Institute.
The king and queen from 'Shrek' were named after them
The Michelsons loved to help and mentor young people and inspired Hollywood figures on both sides of the camera – including Danny DeVito, Mel Brooks and Francis Ford Coppola, who sing the couple's praises in the new documentary. (DeVito is actually a producer of the film.) So it’s not surprising that the royal figures in “Shrek” were named King Harold and Queen Lillian in their honor.
Lillian went to great lengths to hone her craft
Raim interviewed Lillian, now 88, at least once a month over a year and a half. As she opened up on camera, revealing information and telling stories he hadn’t heard before, he was continually impressed with her life. “She had a very difficult childhood but went from growing up in orphanages to becoming a very successful self-made woman.”
For Lillian, authenticity was a matter of pride, and she would go to great lengths to get the details right on the films she researched. For “Fiddler on the Roof,” she needed to know about the undergarments of the time period, and sought out elderly Russian women, one of whom drew up a pattern for her. Researching the criminal underworld for “Scarface” didn’t faze Lillian either. With a Rolodex worthy of the CIA, she got in touch with a notorious drug lord, who offered to send her to South America in his private plane to find out more about the cocaine trade. She was willing, but Harold, fearing for her safety, asked her not to go.
They have a lasting legacy
“Now that the film is being shown around the world, people are getting to see two people whose work was never credited, that most people never heard of, but made such an important contribution to films we all know and love,” Raim said, hoping audiences are encouraged by both their career accomplishments and lasting love. “I think it’s inspiring for young people to see that anyone can come out of anywhere and work in someplace like Hollywood,” he told us. “You just need tenacity and talent.”
After "Hollywood Love Story," Raim's next project is a documentary about “Fiddler on the Roof” creator Joseph Stein. He’s also writing a screenplay for his first scripted feature, a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story set in Israel.
“Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story” opens in New York April 28, in Los Angeles May 12 and at film festivals and theaters elsewhere this spring.
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