“Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story” and “Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent” are two terrific documentaries that you should put on your list of must-see movies.
Harold and Lillian tells the almost invisible story of an amazing couple who were the secret sauce behind some of Tinseltown’s most memorable movies. And Chef Jeremiah Tower was the secret sauce behind the success of Alice Waters’ famed restaurant Chez Panisse, and then exploded into the culinary world stratosphere with his own groundbreaking, scene-making San Francisco restaurant Stars.
You’ll have to wait a bit to see “Harold and Lillian”: it opens May 12 at select Laemmle Theatres. Landmark Cinema at the Westside Pavilion opens “Jeremiah Tower” in L.A. on April 21, and presents both Tower and director Lydia Tenaglia in person on April 23, 24 and 25.
“Harold and Lillian” can be seen as a tutorial on filmmaking from the perspective of the storyboard artist that Harold was; and from Lillian (still alive and living at the Motion Picture Home in Woodland Hills, now in her 80s), whose film research, archive and library has been essential to Hollywood’s top directors.
Name the film: West Side Story, Star Trek, The Graduate, The Birds, Fiddler on the Roof, Rain Man, Spartacus, The Ten Commandments, Ben Hur — the decades-long list goes on and on but the credits earned by this couple were rarely given. Together and separately, they were the key to success for such directors as Danny DeVito, Mike Nichols, Alfred Hitchcock and Francis Ford Coppola, to name just a few.
To witness how storyboard translates into film is mind-bending. Harold’s experience as a bombardier navigator in WWII gave him an artistic point of view that made him unique among studio artists in understanding the camera lens, angles for shots and the visual perspective that directors need to translate story into image.
The point is made in the film that the storyboard artist is often more the director than the director. The images Harold drew quite literally became the images on the screen. For example, you’ll see his drawings of the famous view of Dustin Hoffman through the sexy bent leg of Anne Bancroft (Mrs. Robinson) in Mike Nichols’ “The Graduate,” and the drawing of Tippi Hedren being attacked in the telephone booth in Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” juxtaposed against the screen images of those exact scenes.
Harold went on in his later years to become a production director and was nominated for an Oscar for Star Trek: The Movie. Lillian had to persuade him to do it because although he didn’t like sci-fi, he did love creating “gadgets,” an opportunity this movie gave him in spades.
And the research that Lillian did (there’s a funny story about the underwear in Fiddler on the Roof, and how she got pictures from inside the CIA) brought the authenticity required for Hollywood to take the imagined and make it look real on film. Directors, designers and artists alike talk about how essential her work was to them.
Falling into research as a volunteer, she finally came to own the film research library where she first began at Goldwyn, and as the studio system broke down, moved to Paramount, AFI, to Zoetrope, DreamWorks. The library now has a permanent home at The Art Directors Guild in Studio City.
Their love story is beautiful but equally moving is the story of their autistic son, who served as an early experiment in the destructive Freudian “refrigerator parenting” technique, but is now a well-adjusted adult.
But the amazing thing is how much this loving couple, in 60 years of marriage, did for Hollywood … and thank heaven they are finally getting their due.
THE FIRST CELEBRITY CHEF
Jeremiah Tower is a regal, patrician, hard-ass, non-compromising figure who spent much of his childhood ignored by his wealthy parents, with food as his best companion. He emerged as one of the most controversial and influential figures in the history of American gastronomy.
We get the bio-pic treatment of his family life, then follow him into the dynamic circle of dreamers who brought Chez Panisse — Alice Waters’ legendary Berkeley restaurant that launched California cuisine — to life.
It was Alice’s vision but in 1972, it was handsome, bi-sexual chef Jeremiah whose culinary genius was unparalleled and became the backbone of her increasing success. Contention arose when The Chez Panisse cookbook came out, without acknowledging the role he’d played in creating the recipes. When he walked away, he decided to build an empire of his own.
Stars in San Francisco was a restaurant scene like no other; you could equate it to Studio 54 in New York because every A-list celebrity and power broker came through the doors — but it was still a haven for everyman.
One of the top-grossing restaurants in America (he later launched it as a chain), a few years later, Tower walked away from both the restaurant and the culinary scene for nearly two decades. Where he emerged surprised the world.
His story is told with the help of such food world rock stars as Mario Batali, Anthony Bourdain, Ruth Reichl and Martha Stewart, Neal Fraser (RedBird locally) and others who worked with and knew him.
It’s an intriguing look at a mysterious man who has always had a clear idea of how to bring his standards to bear on the world around him. “The Last Magnificent” is an apt description of Jeremiah Tower, and the film helps us understand why.
Sarah A. Spitz is an award-winning public radio producer, now retired from KCRW, where she also produced arts stories for NPR. She writes features and reviews for various print and online publications.