Harold and Lillian is simple in concept: the film chronicles the lives of the Hollywood couple over six decades through flashbacks, old letters, and contemporary interviews. Littered with testimonials from their colleagues and friends in show-business, you would expect that this is another in a recent string of “pulling back the curtain” documentaries that really only appeal to industry insiders.
You would be absolutely wrong.
Harold and Lillian is a love story that happens to take place in Hollywood, between two people who happen to have left their mark on almost every major film released in Hollywood’s Golden Age. And by the end of this documentary, you’ll be in love with them, too.
The husband and wife team were a powerhouse – if they touched a film, it was likely to be a success. Their first movie together was Hitchcock’s The Birds, and from there on they contributed to The Graduate, Fiddler on the Roof, Rosemary’s Baby, History of the World Part 1, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture, among many, many others. However, you won’t find them credited on a lot of the projects they worked on. Even though they were in high demand by their peers, their IMDB pages list barely a fraction of their work.
Rather than a documentary mourning the lack of credit they received, Director Daniel Raim has crafted a film that feels more like story time around the dinner table than a behind the scenes expose. Much of this warmth comes from the characters themselves – Harold and Lillian Michelson are so welcoming, even on camera, that it’s easy to feel like part of the family. I’m not the only one to think so – film icons such as Francis Ford Coppola, Danny DeVito, and Mel Brooks all speak to the sense of family that Harold and Lillian are known for.
This kindness doesn’t blunt their mischievousness in the slightest. Harold speaks of getting his first job drawing storyboards by answering a phone call meant for another animator… and taking the job someone else was supposed to get. And Lillian is easily twice the troublemaker. When her husband incredulously asked if she was seriously considering going alone on a research trip to South America in a drug king’s airplane, she shrugged and answered, “Why not?”
Lillian might be my new favorite person.
She has definitely become one of my favorite personalities – an avid book lover, she doesn’t hesitate to be blunt, but also has a sense of humor that obviously has not diminished over time. She’s quick to laugh, and there’s a teasing smile she breaks out when she knows her last tale was a bit of a shock to those listening.
Though the outspoken Lillian does overshadow Harold (partly due to there being more recent footage of Lillian and only older clips of Harold), he stands strong as a character in his own right. We see his playfulness – he wrote poems and designed cards for Lillian for every special occasion throughout their lifetime – as well as a darker side that struggled with depression and alcoholism during recovery from a severe injury. Yet this episode also also allows us to see his willpower; when Lillian dropped the ultimatum of “Quit or I leave you,” there was no hesitation – he stopped immediately.
Throughout the film, Lillian chatters a mile a minute. She’s a born storyteller. Her eyes glitter with mischief as she recounts suggestive letters she and Harold wrote to each other while he was in California and she was still in Miami, and the way she describes the struggles and dissatisfaction of motherhood are eloquent without any added frills or drama. In fact, the only subject that finds her at a loss for words is Harold’s passing; eight years later, the pain of loss and longing still bring her to a halt. And it’s easy to sympathize. By the point in the film that we hear of his death, it feels like we, too, have lost a friend.
Though Lillian herself is immensely quotable, one of my favorite moments of hers is this: with pride and passion in her eyes, Lillian describes how, with her research, “I get to float amongst the centuries, I get to drop into a time machine every day.”
If that isn’t any book lover’s dream, I don’t know what is.
Harold and Lillian premiered at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, and went on to screen at both the 2015 Film Fest Gent and the 2015 DOC NYC festival, where it had its North American premiere. You can catch it at the 2016 Hot Docs’ Doc Soup Film Series in January, and keep an eye on their Facebook page for details on the general release.