‘Harold and Lillian’ is For Anyone Who Loves Movies

The latest from Oscar nominee Daniel Raim presents a Hollywood love story.

Following The Man on Lincoln’s Nose and Something’s Gonna Live, where he gives due recognition to the under-appreciated field of production design, with Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story, writer-director Daniel Raim turns his attention to a couple whose 60-year marriage is the stuff of a Hollywood movie. Harold was a storyboard artist, Lillian ran a film research library, and for six decades their contributions enhanced motion pictures from every genre.

Unlike the Hollywood that allowed them to remain uncredited for most of their careers, Harold and Lillian are quick to acknowledge every person who ever showed them kindness in the industry. Alfred Hitchcock was the first director to request working with Harold directly. That this wasn’t the norm adds to the indignation of seeing the parade of movie posters they collectively worked on: Rosemary’s Baby, Ben Hur, Spaceballs. It wasn’t just that some directors didn’t communicate with them. It was that Cecil B. DeMille purposely avoided being seen with Harold, for fear the extent of his contributions would be exposed.

To be sure, such concerns weren’t misplaced. Nobody stoops to using go-betweens without having something to hide, and Harold’s storyboards were integral to the look of films like The Ten Commandments, just as Lillian’s ingenuity was integral to designing cocaine labs in Scarface and underwear in Fiddler on the Roof.

In many cases, Harold’s storyboards proposed the exact framing for a shot, his time as a WWII bombardier navigator giving him a unique handle of perspective. That there would be directors who wanted to preserve the impression these ideas were solely their own made giving Harold attribution a threat. Shortly after watching a documentary like Harold and Lillian there’s confusion over who deserves proper acknowledgement for cinema’s greatest moments, like the famous leg shot from The Graduate. That was in Harold’s storyboards.

Films are a collaborative art form. That’s an inarguable fact, but the way we speak about film often points otherwise. Allowing a select few to take all the credit for a work of art is a habit that’s left even crew members who get mentioned in the closing credits unknown by the general public. Documentaries like Raim’s can’t help but muddy the “clarity” schools of thought like auteur theory give, by naming directors the authors of their films. There’s a reason Raim turns to dictionary definitions to explain what storyboard artists and research librarians are first — any parameters that can make crediting the right person easier are longed-for.

Besides being an unbelievable film for indulging in Hollywood nostalgia, Harold and Lillian is about the title subjects’ partnership. Given the pervading disillusionment over relationships lasting today, their courtship was anything but a sure thing. They barely knew each other when they moved to California from Florida. Money was tough to come by. There were unplanned health issues. Lillian’s library persisted through multiple relocations. Harold’s conservatism flipped between chivalrous and old-fashioned. A woman ahead of her times, Lillian refused to let sexism keep her from pursuing a career or helping her eldest son, who was diagnosed with autism at a time when mothers were thought responsible. Harold and Lillian were a team, and the loving way they speak of each other, even on matters where they disagreed, qualifies their longevity.

Watching the film, you come to realize Harold has passed away but there’s a hesitation to say the words until the very end. Lillian’s interviews don’t hold back, and that includes using her researcher’s preciseness to remember the exact words used by people who wronged them. Upfront when a topic’s too raw to go into detail, the film shows her every respect, while interviews from other production designers, friends (Danny DeVito is an executive producer), and directors (Mel Brooks, Francis Ford Coppola) articulate how universally beloved and important they were to film history. Throughout, original storyboards by Patrick Mare capture Harold and Lillian at milestones, along with their indomitable spirits and unbending love. It’s couples like them that give hope they weren’t a fluke and give hope that there are other couples out there.

Harold and Lillian comes out on DVD October 3rd, and is streaming via Turner Classic Movies On Demand until September 21st.