Overview: A little girl who lives at the Plaza Hotel, free of parents, school and any notion of boundaries, the illustrated imp Eloise has been an obsession for little girls, a delight for adults and a sly feminist icon for more than 50 years. One of these little girls was Lena Dunham (creator of the hit HBO series “Girls”), who was such a fan that she had an image of Eloise tattooed on her back at age 17. Directed by Matt Wolf and executive produced by Dunham and Jenni Konner, this documentary tells the story of Hilary Knight, the man whose pen helped create Eloise, and recounts the painful events that led to the dissolution of his working relationship with Kay Thompson, the books’ author and his closest collaborator.
The documentary includes interviews with friends, family and key cultural influencers, including Mindy Kaling and Fran Lebowitz, as well as a unique blend of archival footage, Knight’s extensive library of home movies and whimsical animations. Although Knight continued to write and illustrate books after “Eloise,” nothing had the same far-reaching success. Conflicts with the complex and prickly Thompson, and eventually her estate, have prevented him from having any significant involvement with the “Eloise” franchise.
Like Eloise, Knight is a remarkable character: odd, temperamental, flamboyant; on one hand, fiercely private, on the other, desperate to make his legacy known; disgusted by pretense, but obsessed with Hollywood, Bollywood and high glamor. By all accounts an overgrown child, Knight is as likely to stage a “frog opera” with unwitting friends in his swimming pool, or throw a birthday party for his cat, as he is to spend hours hard at work at the drawing board. Inhabiting an environment as eccentric as his detailed images, Knight has always used whimsy to escape the challenges of human interaction. At 88, Knight has the desire to work, but enjoys only limited access to the subject with whom he would most like to work: Eloise. IT’S ME, HILARY: THE MAN WHO DREW ELOISE is a portrait of an artist stunted by early success and haunted by personal failures, yet still deeply devoted to his most famous creation.
Expectations: First off, let me express that this lighter documentary film comes at the right time. Except for one evening with Rosie O’Donnell, HBO has been hitting us dramatically hard. We witnessed the Holocaust all over again with NIGHT MUST FALL, followed closely with the intriguing Academy Award winning CITIZENFOUR, then THE JINX gripped us and VICE launched a new season. Plus the controversial Alex Gibney film on Scientology debuts soon. So, seeing a light, informative piece on the creator behind a kid’s lit character seems like a nice diversion right about now.
Beyond being able to pick the Eloise character out of a hand drawn line-up I know nothing about her or the creators behind her. I’ve never read or even picked up an Eloise book, but I guess she is quite a meaningful character for some. To get us in the mood here is the trailer for the film:
Gut Reaction: I watched this one, all 36 minutes worth, on HBOGo and as the player was going through the credits I noticed Brief Nudity listed in the ratings. “Oh no,” I thought, “Lena Dunham manages to show her flabby flesh even here, too?” Luckily, she does not; it is just some wood nymph. The only flashing flesh of Lena’s is her Eloside tattoo on the small of her back. Also as the documentary started and Lena Dunham showed up at Mr. Knight’s door I was beginning to think that this was going to turn out to more about Lena and her connection to the Eloise character than anything; I’m glad I was wrong. She is, of course, a large part of this documentary because she instigated its creation and serves as executive producer and the interviewer of Hilary Knight.
Hilary Knight, among other thing is the illustrator for the series of books written about Eloise, a precocious little girl who lives in the Plaza Hotel in NYC. Though this character may mean much for Ms Dunham and other women who read the tyke’s adventures it means nothing to me, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t get something interesting out of the piece. I did get a small primer on the character and the significance the character holds from people like Lena, Fran Leibowitz, Mindy Kaling and Hilary Knight himself.
But what I got most from the film was a glimpse into the creative process that went into such a lasting character. That is where Kay Thompson, the creator of the concept and the writer of the books, comes into the picture. Whether Mr. Knight likes it or not, she was the charismatic personality that brought attention to Eloise it seems. She made the appearances, she did the voice and she shaped the stories. And the creative, dramatic flash that was their creative process was quite interesting and the best part of this short documentary. Let me quickly single out though, that Knight’s illustrative contribution is what gave Eloise identity, personality and a recognizable visage.
Let me focus on two quotes of interest to me. Dunham hit the nail on the head when she said that Hilary and Kay were like a married couple that gave birth to a child (Eloise) and then ended the relationship in a bitter divorce and a nasty child custody battle. It was all explained nicely, just like that, in this film. The other interesting comment came from Knight himself when he said that he has had enough creative troubles over the years that he demands and wants control from now on to ensure things are just so, including the documentary he is in. So it struck me as interesting that decades later he fights for the same thing Kay wanted and he ended a relationship over.
In Conclusion: There are nice moments of parties and book signings and plenty of imagery of Eloise for the true fans of the book series. Also there is a look at what Knight latest pursuits are, including filming a story he wrote involving a topless nymph and a frog. But, for me the more dramatic moments held the most interest. So there you, go I do need the dramatic I guess – even in a lighthearted bio I centered on the tense moments. The documentary debuted MONDAY, MARCH 23 at 9:00pm, exclusively on HBO. Other HBO play dates are 03.26 at 10:30am & 4:45pm; 03.28 at 12:45pm; 03.30 at 12:45pm and 03.31 at 11:55pm.
Since the captivation of this character is lost on me I would hope that fans of Eloise would get down to the Comment portion of this page and tell me all about her presence in your childhood. I invite it.
Knight and Dunham are both from New York City and it was easy to stage a premiere event for the documentary. HBO’s Buzz confirms that below.
Next Week: GOING CLEAR: SCIENTOLOGY AND THE PRISON OF BELIEF actually debuts on SUNDAY, MARCH 29 at 8:00pm and it encores in Documentary Mondays’ regular time (9:00pm) on 03.30. It is the controversial Alex Gibney documentary thoroughly examining the religion of Scientology.