It’s only a paper moon. Sailing over a cardboard sea. But it wouldn’t be make believe if you believe in me.—Billy Rose and Yip Harburg “Paper Moon”
The names Harold and Lillian Michelson are not synonymous with cinema, but they ought to be. Spanning six decades in Tinsel Town, Harold and Lillian worked on hundreds of movies from The Ten Commandments to The Graduate; The Birds to Dick Tracy; Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe to Spaceballs, all without credit, all without acclaim.
But as director Daniel Raim’s lovely documentary Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story suggests, the Michelsons didn’t really seem to mind. Movies were their passion, and what mattered most to them was getting the work on the screen.
Take, for example, the image of Dustin Hoffman seen under the crook of Anne Bancroft’s bent knee in The Graduate. You know the one: “Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me.” Easily the signature image of the movie, not to mention the sexual revolution coming round the bend. But that image belonged neither to director Mike Nichols (who won an Oscar for his work) nor cinematographer Robert Surtees (who was nominated) but to Harold’s storyboards. And he wasn’t even listed in the movie’s credits.
Nowadays, storyboard artists—illustrators who make comic book-like sketches the camera department and director use as guides while shooting — receive proper credit, but that was not the case back in the day. The same goes for the research department that informs décor and costuming, even government protocol. That was Lillian’s department, and she was the best around, stopping at nothing to get the most for every movie.
While working on the drug kingpin movie Scarface, Lillian was in contact with a South American drug dealer—a “nice Jewish boy” as she recalls—gathering information on how drugs are brought up from the border. But she also wanted to know how the Drug Enforcement Agency goes about tracking down and prosecuting these people, so she called them too. In one surreal moment, Lillian was having the drug lord over for tea when her DEA informant dropped by with a tip. As Lillian recounts, all three sat there drinking tea with neither of her guests suspecting who the other was.
These two anecdotes cannot begin to plunder the depths of the Michelson’s contributions to Hollywood, nor do they speak to their 50-plus year marriage, one that weathered some stormy seas. Lillian speaks for the both of them—Harold died in 2008—with a candor that can only come from age. At a certain point, you just stop trying to project a perfect life, and Lillian lays it out, warts and all.
Lillian couldn’t have done it without Harold, and he certainly couldn’t have done it without her; some people are just meant to be. But the real beauty behind Harold and Lillian is the sense that every trial and tribulation they faced and overcame informed their work and found a way into the movies we hold dearest in our hearts. Available now on Blu-ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.
The above review first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 29, No. 47, “A true Hollywood power couple.”