The term “nice” has taken on a weirdly pejorative tone when it comes to the movies, especially when talking about documentaries. But, you know, it can be a good thing, too. Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story is an exceedingly nice viewing experience, about an unassuming married pair whose behind-the-scenes contributions powered some of the greatest films to ever come out of the studio system.
Utilizing celebrity interviews and cute (but-not-overly-so) cartoony sketches, the film tells the story of the late storyboard artist/production designer/Hitchcock fave Harold Michelson and his wife Lillian, whose dissatisfaction at being stuck at home led her to become the go-to researcher for filmmakers such as Francis Ford Coppola, Roman Polanski, and Stanley Kubrick. Tom Waits liked to hang out with them, which speaks multitudes.
Director Daniel Raim doesn’t neglect the couple’s sometimes chaotic home life, including their struggles with raising an autistic son. Still, the focus here is largely on The Movies, offering fascinating looks throughout at how Harold’s illustrations helped create the look of classics such as The Birds and The Graduate, as well as the intriguing suggestion that his experiences in the nose of a World War II bomber made him uniquely suited for the job.
The film’s real ace in the hole, however, proves to be Lillian, an endlessly quotable interview subject whose pixyish presence can’t mask the sense that she knows exactly where all of the industry bodies are buried. (A brief aside about contacting a Bolivian drug lord while researching Brian De Palma’s Scarface demands a 10-hour miniseries, at the very least.) Together, the stories of this unlikely Power Couple make for a terrific corrective of the idea of filmmaking being a singular vision. Orson Welles’s quote about the movies being the world’s biggest electric train set gains even more resonance when you consider the folks who keep the transformers humming.