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Almost all artists, whatever their level of productivity, have that one thing that defines their legacy. For the prolific illustrator Hilary Knight, it’s Eloise, the preadolescent protagonist of a 1950s series of books (“for Precocious Grown Ups,” announced the first installment’s cover page) about a mischievous young girl who lives at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan.
Knight’s delightful drawings complemented the witty text written by actress, singer and socialite Kay Thompson, who memorably played a Diana Vreeland-like fashion-magazine editor in the Fred Astaire-Audrey Hepburn musical Funny Face (1957). They collaborated on five Eloise books in total, one (Eloise Takes a Bawth) published posthumously after Thompson’s death. Knight mostly remained in Thompson’s shadow, even as the series attained ever-greater popularity.
It’s Me, Hilary: The Man Who Drew Eloise, Matt Wolf’s breezy 35-minute documentary (executive produced by and prominently featuring Girls creator/Eloise superfan Lena Dunham), aims to give Knight his due. There’s some virtue to the movie’s brevity, since it lends the proceedings the feel of flipping through one of Eloise’s brisk adventures, with the openly gay 88-year-old Knight standing in for his heroine.
Nothing in his career ever reached the same level of popularity as the Eloise series, and both Thompson and her estate contractually forbid Knight from working on any additional properties featuring the character. That didn’t stop this unabashed eccentric from illustrating and authoring his own children’s books, drawing marquee posters for many Broadway musicals and casting his friends in fanciful home movies. (Dunham assistant directs one of these productions, a sort of Walt Disney-meets-Kenneth Anger fable about a frog prince pursuing a half-naked, mandolin-strumming princess.)
The tone throughout is whimsical. But there’s a somber undercurrent that Wolf allows to percolate and occasionally come to the fore whenever Knight addresses his soured relationship with Thompson, who blocked the publication of all but the first Eloise book for many years. Though he cheerily still does book signings (the doc shows one such event held at the Plaza itself), it’s clear this fictional tyke is something of a millstone around Knight’s neck. It’s especially sad to watch video from 2004 in which the frustrated artist unsuccessfully attempts to negotiate his way back into what had by then become a lucrative, corporately owned franchise of Eloise books, movies and other merchandise.
Regardless of any big-business perversions, the five official Thompson-Knight Eloise books still have a devoted following, and interviewees from Mindy Project star Mindy Kaling to sardonic social commentator Fran Lebowitz are on hand to sing the praises of that particular literary quintet. “He made something that lasted,” says Lebowitz of Knight’s efforts. “Almost nothing lasts.” With that kind of abiding glory, which Thompson mostly hogged, comes complementary anguish: How does an artist avoid the crippling despair so easily brought on by mammoth success?
For Knight, the answer was to throw himself into his work and build a somewhat cloistered world of his own. It’s fascinating to watch him amble around his magic kingdom of a home in the Hamptons, where even the soup cans he’s bought from the supermarket have had their labels replaced with original Knight doodles. One wishes the film took more time to explore this secluded domain, as well as some of the denizens — such as flamboyant performance artist Phoebe Legere — who come to visit Knight like subjects paying homage to their quirky king. It seems like a missed opportunity to dig deeper into both Knight’s aesthetic and emotional turmoil. Despite the doc’s overall sketchy nature, however, it remains an enjoyably affectionate tribute.
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