Friday, June 9, 2017

Harold and Lillian: In Love With Movies, and With Each Other

Though Harold and Lillian is rightly billed as “a Hollywood love story,” it’s taken two years for this film to arrive at SoCal theatres. This amiable documentary, made in 2015 by the Oscar nominated director of The Man on Lincoln’s Nose,  chronicles a lifelong love affair between a former GI named Harold Michelson and the best friend of his little sister. Because Lilian Farber was poor and an orphan, Harold’s family did not welcome her into their ranks. So the two eloped to post-war Hollywood, where Harold was beginning to put his artistic skills and his keen eye to work, drafting storyboards for some of the world’s best filmmakers.

Most of us outside of filmmaking circles don’t know much about storyboards. They are a series of cartoon-like drawings, intended to graphically sketch out for the film crew exactly what scenes will be shot, and from what perspective. Harold, who had been an aerial navigator and bombardier over Germany during the second World War, was especially adept at combining his drawing skills with a sophisticated comprehension of distances and angles. The biographer James Curtis, who recently published a book on the legendary contributions of William Cameron Menzies to the field, agrees with me that some directors—especially those with no camera experience—rely heavily on sketch artists to map out their visuals prior to shooting. In those instances, the storyboard artist makes a huge (though generally unsung) contribution to the way a film unfolds. In other cases, a director with a sophisticated grasp of what a camera can do makes artistic choices that the storyboard artist simply renders on paper.

Daniel Raim, writer-director of Harold and Lillian, seems understandably eager to give Harold Michelson full credit for creating the look of films as famous as Hitchcock’s The Birds and Mike Nichols’ The Graduate. The film’s interview subjects, who range from Francis Ford Coppola to Mel Brooks to Danny DeVito (he also functions as executive producer), loudly sing Harold’s praises. And I can’t deny that he worked on a number of major Hollywood productions, including Ben-Hur, The Apartment,  Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and Catch-22. Later in his career he moved up to the post of art director, nabbing Oscar nominations for his work on Terms of Endearment and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Clearly he was a very talented man, though I doubt that he singlehandedly gave the imperious Hitchcock his famous sense of visual style. And as the author of an upcoming book on The Graduate, due out in November 2017 from Algonquin, I can’t buy the idea that filming Benjamin Braddock through Mrs. Robinson’s arched leg was entirely Harold’s brainstorm.

While Harold was putting in long hours at various Hollywood studios, the feisty Lillian struggled to raise three sons, one of whom had serious psychological difficulties. Along the way, she also fell into her own life’s work, when she became a volunteer at the film research library on the Paramount lot. Eventually she was to buy that library, struggling to find a home for it at such varied studios as Coppola’s Zoetrope and Dreamworks. Alas, such libraries are becoming rare at today’s movie studios, but her books and files were invaluble in checking out visuals and historic details for such films as Reds and Fiddler on the Roof. For the latter, she needed to verify what sort of  undergarments would be worn by Jewish girls in an eastern European shtetl. Always an intrepid researcher, she went to the legendary Cantor’s Deli on Fairfax to track down some elderly Jewish ladies who supplied her with a pattern from their girlhood.

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