It’s commonplace to acknowledge that the making of movies is a collaborative process. Yet it’s also easy to pay lip service to that idea. The truth is that making movies is such a deeply collaborative process that the more you understand about how it works, the more you realize how little you know. “Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story,” directed by Daniel Raim, is a passionate and beguiling movie-love documentary that shines a light on two of the unsung artisan heroes of Hollywood.
Its central figure is Harold Michelson, a storyboard artist who found his way into the film industry in the late ’40s. Storyboarding is a craft that looks cooler now than it once did, because when you see the storyboards for a movie, they now resemble nothing so much as a graphic novel — a swiftly exacting comic-book blueprint for the motion picture to come. Nothing, of course, is more essential to a movie than the shot, which is the basic building block of any film. In the studio-system days, storyboard artists frequently came up with ideas for shots — the compositions, the camera angles, the whole concept of what would be pictured — that were meticulously duplicated by the directors and cinematographers who implicitly (or explicitly) took credit for them.
A beautiful case in point is Harold Michelson’s first defining movie. He started off at Columbia Pictures, but his big break came when he was traded over to Paramount to sketch the storyboards for Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 Biblical epic “The Ten Commandments.” We see those drawings now, and they include all the iconic images you remember from the film, notably Charlton Heston’s Moses parting the Red Sea. As Michelson describes it, he did the drawings on demand, and they would then get passed, through a series of go-betweens, right into the hands of DeMille on set, who insisted on having no direct contact with the man who was designing his key images. The collaboration was kept on the down-low, as if the storyboards were DeMille’s cheat sheet, his slightly shameful cinematic Cliff Notes.
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Not every director felt that way, but the history of storyboard artists’ contribution to the movies can be measured, in a sense, by how quasi-underground and off the books they remain. (There is still no Academy Award for storyboarding.) “Harold and Lillian” offers other enticing examples of what Michelson brought to the movies he worked on. He devised much of the visionary doomsday look and aura of Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” and, startlingly, he designed all the most famous images from “The Graduate”: the composition that framed Ben with Mrs. Robinson’s stockinged leg, Ben in his scuba mask being pushed back into the swimming pool, and, at the end, the panoramic shot of him holding his arms up like Christ as he bangs against the church window. Those shots went a long way toward defining the movie’s artistry, and its extraordinary influence. Yet for Harold Michelson, sitting at his drafting table looking like Norman Rockwell with his pipe, it was all in a day’s work.
“Harold and Lillian” makes you want to see an entire documentary about the hidden history of storyboarding. Yet that’s only one dimension of the movie. It offers incisive film-world testimony from Mel Brooks, Francis Coppola, and Danny DeVito, but it also tells the story of Harold’s marriage to Lillian Michelson, who became a highly prized film researcher. The two had a union of great tenderness, marked by ripples of darkness, that lasted for 60 years, up until Harold’s death in 2007.
Their marriage could hardly have been less “Hollywood,” although it did have a straight-out-of-the-movies kickoff, when the smitten Harold proposed to the 19-year-old Lillian before they barely had a pretense of knowing each other. You can see why; in the old photographs, Lillian is more than beautiful — she has a bloom of devotion. In many ways, they could have been a friendly, anonymous Midwestern couple. What lends “Harold and Lillian” its highly resonant and touching quality is that the quiet solidity of the couple’s relationship turns out to be anything but incidental to the film’s portrait of how movies really get made. This, the film says, was Hollywood too: an ordinary marriage of workaday devotion. A great many people cherished Harold and Lillian as friends, colleagues, and party hosts, and that’s because their union expressed the bedrock values that were — and are — present in so many of the people who toil behind the scenes of Hollywood.
Yet it wasn’t all smiles and orange trees. Harold and Lillian’s first son was autistic, which landed Lillian in a Freudian therapy group that she hated (but stayed in for 10 years), because she, along with the others in the group, were branded “refrigerator moms” (i.e., in the view of ’50s psychoanalysis, their “coldness” had brought on their children’s autism). The couple had two more sons, and Lillian became the archetypal postwar wife and mother who yearned for more. Yet she grew up as an orphan who hadn’t been raised to expect much for herself. So it was only tentatively, at first, that she ventured into the archival mysteries of film research. She ultimately became a paragon of the field, helping to define the texture of movies from “Fiddler on the Roof” to “Scarface.”
Lillian, in her 80s, is interviewed throughout “Harold and Lillian,” and with her spun-sugar voice and ardent gleam, she displays a singular fusion of affection and pluck that makes you think: America was a better place when it had more people like this. Raim gives the movie the breezy flow of an elegant short story, revealing just enough about Harold and Lillian’s lives to transform them into a true-life Hollywood fairy tale. The film’s most ingenious gambit is that their entire relationship also gets told in storyboards. It is rendered, throughout, as a series of charcoal drawings by Patrick Mate, who captures the spiritual optimism that can lead certain couples out the other side of tough times. “Harold and Lillian” is a valentine to the thing that once drew people to Hollywood and made the place tick: a love that was so much bigger than themselves.