“To Float Among the Centuries”

Harold & Lillian — A Hollywood Love Story

Honesty is sometimes the best policy. When a marriage in infamously fickle Hollywood survives for sixty years — as it did for the protagonists of this documentary — the magic combination of perseverance, optimism and honesty is well-rewarded by an honest telling of the story. Director Daniel Raim manages this not only in his interviewing technique, pulling in genuine tributes from A-listers including Danny DeVito (executive producer of this film), but also more subtly in his approach to constructing what might otherwise be an uncritical paean to a highly talented couple.

Against considerable odds, amusingly and refreshingly related on camera by Lillian, mid-20th-century American society finally permitted Harold Michelson to marry her and take her across the nation to Hollywood, where Harold’s career as an artist was intermittently moving forward. His talent was picked-up in World War II, when his paintings created during his time as a gunner in aircraft were noticed by his commanding officer. The skill of combining art with the precision of understanding angles of view as seen through a gun-sight translated perfectly to the optics of Hollywood cameras. Throughout Harold’s career as a storyboard artist then as a production designer, directors could not get enough of his visualisations of scripts that allowed cinematographers quickly to create iconic scenes that have gone down in history. It is his idea that saw a young Dustin Hoffman viewed through the triangle created by Mrs. Robinson’s legs, and it was Harold who gave us the commanding of the Red Sea’s turbulent obedience in “The Ten Commandments”. In fact, from the 1950s to “Star Trek”, it is impossible to overstate the influence of his art — often uncredited — on our collective movie memories.

Lillian’s first steps into motherhood in her new life with Harold are painfully documented by her exposĂ© of once-fashionable treatments available to her autistic child, while her feminism shines through as she fights against the confinement that 1950s mothers were expected to suffer in a male-dominated society. Her breakout discovery of a volunteering opportunity in a film studio research library was the start of another career of great influence in film-making: she became the unofficial dean of accurate research over many decades of famous movies. When a ballroom needed re-creating, Lillian’s library had the answers; when war scenes needed to be shot, her shelves of expertly-catalogued books showed exactly how to make each uniform and each prop. And when one studio would decide it no longer needed a comprehensive research library, Lillian’s reputation and persuasive skills would find it another home. If this lovingly-curated collection were to be broken-up in Lillian’s retirement, the film industry would lose its great Library at Alexandria.

The director’s good sense allows us to spend much time with both Harold (in well-respected archive footage) and Lillian, through whose attractive personalities many stories are told whose value last far beyond the end of the screening. Lillian’s observation of Tom Waits’ conversation as, “everything that came out him sounded like it should be a police confession”, and her delight in using her library to “float among the centuries” are nuggets that give hope to anyone beginning a career in a supporting role.

I will turn to the evidence of honesty, and its subtlety, in a moment. But first, Daniel Raim’s talent rises far above the genre of legacy films, in that he not only takes the trouble to discover the lessons that Harold and Lillian leave behind for all people who seek successful relationships, but also commissions sympathetic contributions from the cream of Hollywood’s directing and artistic talent who have lined up to be interviewed. Perhaps their motive is not entirely altruistic, because the strengths of the Michelsons, if rediscovered in younger form, would serve another two generations of film-makers well.

However, more than merely the icing on the visual cake is the work of modern-day artist Patrick Mate, whose frequent storyboard-style drawings of our protagonists’ real-life story resoundingly capture Lillian’s charm and personality, and simultaneously reflect Harold’s habits, practical nature and sometimes salty comments. This art is worth a book of its own.

Illustrating the honesty of the medium of film is difficult to manage subtly, but director Raim achieves this by allowing the cracks to show just sufficiently. He demonstrates the point that film-makers use artifice to suspend disbelief, but sometimes it must not interrupt the truth of the documentary. For example, jump-cuts are permitted in vision, so we are aware that sound-bites are constructed to allow reality to fit into the short spaces of our busy lives. The lavalier microphones are visible in-shot, rather than hidden beneath clothing, so we are reminded we are observers on a formal documentary film set, not merely guests invited to tea. Occasionally, the camera wobbles (it is easy to nudge a tripod in a small room), but the shot is not cut around; and footage taken from the Internet or from preview sources has not been replaced by the raw clips, possibly a measure to save thousands of dollars in budget without destroying the impact of the images. These are few and far between.

Although visual thrills are not the point of Raim’s documentary, there are enough great viewing and listening pleasures for an audience to be grateful for the honest manner of telling this story of hard work, hard talent, social history, and glimpses behind the edges of the proscenium arch. If storyboard artists, production designers and researchers have not been sufficiently acknowledged before, the top directors in this film might be starting to assuage their guilt on screen for all our pleasures in this documentary.

Harold & Lillian — A Hollywood Love Story (official site)