There are the stars, obviously. And there are the directors. Every once in a while a screenwriter will get noticed, or some musician. But most of the people who work in film operate under the radar. People like Harold and Lillian.
“Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story” is a sweet look at a long and unlikely marriage and a revelation about how people you’ve never even heard of have shaped the culture you’ve grown up in.
One of the most iconic shots in film history is the look at a young Dustin Hoffman through the arched leg of Anne Bancroft in “The Graduate.” Mike Nichols directed that movie, so he came up with the shot, right? Wrong. That shot was drawn on a storyboard by Harold Michelson; Nichols just followed Harold’s lead, as did so many great directors over the years.
Alfred Hitchcok’s “The Birds” and “Marnie,” Nichols’ “Catch-22,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” “Cleopatra,” “Ben Hur,” and “The Ten Commandments,” Harold did storyboards for all of them. Eventually he was bumped up to art direction and earned Oscar nominations for “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” and “Terms of Endearment.” He was a Hollywood legend that only Hollywood knew about.
And then there was Lillian. She grew frustrated as a housewife, so she began volunteering in the research library at a studio. Then she took over the library and became such a force that she moved the library from one studio to another over the years.
If you needed to know what a 1930s coffee can would look like, you asked Lillian. If you wanted to know about life in revolutionary Russia (“Reds”), you went to Lillian. No matter how obscure the detail, how remote the history, how odd the request, you went to Lillian. Again, she was a Hollywood legend only Hollywood knew about.
Harold was a bombardier in World War II. When he came home to Florida at 28, he met the 17-year-old Lillian, an orphan. He’d decided he wanted to be an artist and thought he could find work in Hollywood. He moved there and then sent for Lillian. When she got off the train she didn’t even recognize her future husband, that’s how little time they’d spent together.
They were married until Harold’s death in 2007. There were bumps along the way, but their romance persevered. Their story is told in a stream of family photos, inventive illustrations and interviews with admirers, some famous — Danny DeVito, Frances Ford Coppola, Mel Brooks — but many fellow behind-the-scene artists.
The resulting film is warm, enlightening and inevitably hopeful. Life can be so lovely.
Tom Long is a longtime culture critic
‘Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story’
Running time: 94 minutes