The Untold History of Polly Platt: An Interview with You Must Remember This’ Karina Longworth

Film historian and author Karina Longworth unravels misconceptions of the “behind every great man” narrative with her latest season on producer Polly Platt. 

Polly Platt (Photo by © Steve Banks)

Polly Platt was a screenwriter, production designer, talent whisperer, and producer whose keen opinions influenced a film resume as varied as The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon, A Star is Born, Terms of Endearment, Bottle Rocket, and The Simpsons, to name just a few. She was also an “inconvenient woman,” who was much beloved by her collaborators, and largely forgotten by the American public, save for her involvement as the cast-off wife of Peter Bogdanovich. Bogdanovich fell in love with young star Cybill Shepherd on the set of The Last Picture Show (a story you can listen to in full over at The Plot Thickens), and most public accounts of Platt peter off where her involvement with her far more notorious male counterpart ends. 

Nine years after her death, Platt has a new role: as the central figure of You Must Remember This’ fifteenth season. The thoroughly researched, meticulously edited Hollywood history podcast, which has kept film buffs informed and intrigued for the last six years, tells the “secret, and/or forgotten histories of Hollywood’s first century.” Over the seasons, those secrets have included a chronological origin story for the mythology behind Hollywood’s Dead Blondes, the intensely disturbing, racist and anti-communist history of Walt Disney’s The Song of the South, and most recently, a collaborative deep dive into some of the most puzzling and constrictive beauty trends forwarded by intersections of Hollywood’s relationship to race, class, fatness, and misogyny.  

Continuing along the same lines of uncovering the foundations of Hollywood’s historic illusions, this season intends to tell the entire history of Platt – not just her working and personal relationship to Bogdanovich. Drawing from her unpublished and unfinished memoir, as well as interviews with Platt’s daughters, friends, and colleagues, the first episode (which drops May 26th) already hooks into Platt’s traumatic early life as a daughter of alcoholic parents. It introduces listeners to a perceptive, deeply fearful young woman who began to see the possibilities of art and design after spending her childhood in the rubble of war-torn Germany and France, but was already pushed to a secret adoption and widowhood by the age of 21.

Karina Longworth (Photo by Emily Berl)

I interviewed You Must Remember This’ narrator, producer, creator, and all-around film history multi-hyphenate Karina Longworth on some of the most exciting secrets in her upcoming season, as well as how Platt’s layered identity speaks to Longworth’s own ideas about credit, filmmaking, and how we picture women at work. 

[Interview edited from transcript]

S: How did you first become interested in Polly Platt’s story?

K: Well I think, like a lot of people, I had a fascination with ‘70s American cinema, dating way back. You know, probably from Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, which came out when I was in college and was a huge deal. But that book interviews a lot of the wives and female collaborators of the male auteurs, and as soon as they leave the male directors’ lives, that book is kind of done with them. So, there’s a lot of women mentioned in that book, and that I’ve learned about since, and I just wanted to know what their lives were like before they got involved with these dudes, and what happened to them after. Which is basically what I did with my Howard Hughes book. I was talking about Ava Gardner and Katharine Hepburn — who were they before they encountered this powerful man, and how did that encounter change who these women were, which is kind of the opposite thing that most of these film histories do. 

So I was always interested — [Polly’s] story and Marcia Lucas’ story were kind of the holy grail because we knew so little about them. But I did know that Polly had gone on to be a very successful producer after she and Peter stopped working together. And I had also always had this question of like…this guy leaves you for Cybill Shepherd on the set of this movie, and then you make two more movies with him. How do you do that? Why do you do that? So I was very inclined to want to know her story. So then about a year ago, actually more than a year ago now, through somebody that I was working with, I got to get in touch with Sashy Bogdanovich, who was one of Peter and Polly’s two daughters, and Sashy had this unfinished, unpublished memoir that her mom wrote, and she really wanted me to help her get mom’s story out there, and I was thrilled to because it’s really a stunning document.

S: That’s incredible. So Sashy was the person who initially pushed for that?

K: You know, I had to be put in touch with her through somebody else, but yeah. She was like, “my dad gets to tell his story on many platforms, but my mom never got a chance.” She and her sister Antonia sat down for multiple interviews with me. 

S: That goes to something I wanted to ask about a little later, but since you already led right into it, how has this season been in terms of actually interviewing people who are invested in and remember the lives and the work and the memories of the person whose story you’re broadcasting? What is it like to ask them questions directly rather than turning to previous interviews, and clippings?

K: Well, it was necessary in this case because, you know, Polly’s memoir is unfinished, and so I had a lot of questions. Luckily I was able to get in touch with a lot of the people she worked with and who loved her. Unfortunately, the coronavirus has made it a little…for some people, they’re just sitting around and they’re happy to talk. For other people, this is not something that they want to deal with right now. I think that under different circumstances I would have conducted more interviews, but we still have maybe about 25 that are incorporated throughout the season. 

It wasn’t a totally foreign thing to me because I did make non-fiction films in college, and I was sort of trained in non-fiction filmmaking, but what is surprising is how emotional some people are, and maybe, again, that’s something that comes out of this quarantine situation, where people are sort of literally and figuratively bottled up? So when you ask them questions, a lot of people got quite emotional about Polly. It was amazing to me, and also very touching, that nine years after her death, people are still sad about it. They can’t believe that she’s gone and that she left in the way that she did. 

S: Are all of the episodes of the season finished? 

K: I’m still working on episode 10, and then there’s one interview that I’m still hoping I get, but for the most part I would say that the season is 98% done. 

S: Got it. That’s really exciting, and very odd to be working on, during this time. Have you found that there is a sort of a difference, even though podcasting is such a solo, and then remotely collaborative venture regularly? Aside from those heightened emotions that you mentioned?

K: Well, I was really lucky that I’ve been working on this for so long, because after March 13th, there was no possibility of doing archival research. So, luckily I had already done that, all I needed to do. I had gone to AFI, and I got to listen to seminars that Polly gave; I spent a lot of time at The Academy [of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences] library, where they had just begun processing James L. Brooks’ papers, which were super helpful for that period of Polly’s career. So luckily I had been working on that aspect of the podcast since last summer, so most of what I’ve done over the past few months have been doing phone interviews, and then putting all this stuff together.

S: I’m glad you already had a big chunk of that archival work done.

K: Yeah, but I had a vague idea of a small project that I’m going to start working on in a couple of weeks, but after that, I don’t know how I’m going to do my work going forward if I can’t go to libraries and stuff like that. I really don’t know.

S: Have you been in contact with any friends, or archivists or library sciences people who are also in that same kind of uncertainty?

K: No, I haven’t really.

S: There’s a very prominent theme, even in the marketing materials for this first episode, of the women who stand behind their men, and then how that mindset causes Hollywood to neglect giving credit to female collaborators. Why does that theme speak so heavily to you, enough to base an entire season around one woman’s very complicated obscurity?

K: Well, that’s only part of Polly’s story. The problem is that’s the only part of Polly’s story that has been told, and that people want to know. She had already lived a pretty complicated life by the time she met Peter Bogdonavich when she was 21. She was a widow, you know? She had already been through a lot. Both of her parents were alcoholics, she had a really difficult childhood, growing up mostly in Germany and France because her father was an attorney for the War Crimes Trials. She had already been through a lot before Peter, and she and Peter stopped working together in 1972, and she lived until 2011. So, she worked on many, many, many films, had another marriage, had a whole life. He was sort of a peripheral presence at best because they shared custody of two daughters. She’s so much more than the woman behind that man.

I connect to her in many ways. I think probably what you’re asking is, I’m married to a director [Rian Johnson], and do I bring that to it. And I mean, I guess? But my experience is so different, because I don’t work with my husband, and I never will. There’s no opportunity for us to. And he’s just from a different generation. He’s very comfortable with me having a very active career that stands on its own, and is not related to his. And there are so many other things I relate to in terms of Polly. I also had a difficult childhood with parents who had a really hard time showing me love. I’ve also dealt with some of the same personality issues as her — of being someone whose instinct is to be outspoken and say exactly what I think, and not necessarily be sensitive to the way that makes other people feel. And certainly, when I was younger, I was often the only woman in various situations. I was the only young female film critic on panels — I would be sort of the token girl. I just relate to her a lot, but it has so much more to do than being married to a filmmaker. 

S: In your research for Polly, either in the memoir or interviews, was there any really surprising synchronicity? Or something that you found that really resonated with you?

K: I’ll point to how Polly was sort of an inconvenient woman. She was always speaking her mind, often when people didn’t want to hear it, and she would have sort of this presence on a movie set where she would really fight for what she believed in, but she wasn’t as tough as she seemed. Working that hard and fighting that hard really took an emotional toll on her, and I feel that way too. I can have sort of bluster and bravado, but actually I have incredible anxiety and it’s really, really hard for me to put myself out there. 

There’s this thing in the movie Broadcast News, which Polly was a producer on, where the character played by Holly Hunter is really getting in the muck and the mire of the workplace. She’s very outspoken, fighting for what she believes in, but every day she has to take five minutes to take the phone off the hook and cry. And that’s Polly — that is, I think, a lot of women, and I’ve definitely had parts of my life where I’ve been like that.

S: Wow. Well, thank you for sharing that and being an inconvenient woman. 

K: You’re welcome.

S: Just doing your due diligence. I would love to ask since you went a little bit into Broadcast News — is there anything that you can specifically identify as Polly’s work or idea that has become a kind of favorite piece to you?

K: I don’t know, there’s so much! There are just so many ways in which she put her fingerprints on all of the movies she worked on, and she was always kind of overstepping the bounds of what her credit was. In the movies in which she’s credited as a production designer, she’s often doing tasks that are similar to a producer or a talent whisperer. She’s saying what she needs to say to Tatum O’Neale on the set of Paper Moon, or Debra Winger on the set of Terms of Endearment. It’s difficult to separate it out.

There are sorts of trivia things that are very interesting — like the logo of the title design for Terms of Endearment. The filmmakers were worried that nobody would understand what that meant: just the title Terms of Endearment. Polly wrote the title with a little ‘xxx,’ and then that image of her writing, with her handwriting, was used as the title treatment. And going through James L. Brooks’ papers at The Academy there was a lot of correspondence from Polly, like handwritten notes, and that’s how she signed things, with three little ‘x’s. 

S: Can you give us a sneak-peek into any chapter of Polly’s life that you’re most excited for others to learn about?

K: You know, there’s so much. There’s an episode that I just recorded that’s about Pretty Baby (1978), that she wrote and was a producer on, and which I think if people know that movie at all, they sort of dismiss it as being this dirty movie about a twelve-year-old in a brothel. But the movie is so much more complex than that, and Polly brought so much of herself to it, and put so much of her own experience — not with sex work, but just being a woman and a mother and a daughter — into that screenplay, and I’m really excited for people to be able to see that movie in a new light.

S: Oh, great! I can’t wait for that episode.

K: It’s number six.

S: Is there anything that I didn’t ask you about Polly and this season that you’d like to get out to people before it comes out?

K: Well, one thing we didn’t talk about is that the actress Maggie Siff [Mad Men, Sons of Anarchy] is playing Polly. She’s reading the excerpts that we’re using from Polly’s memoir. I’ve used performers on the podcast before, but never quite to this extent, and listening to the tracks that Maggie has recorded, she really is channeling something about Polly, and it’s really bringing her to life in a way that I think makes the show a lot better. Polly was a funny lady in that she was very blunt and outspoken, and she would often say things that were very honest, or very emotional, about the way she felt about things, but she’d do it in sort of a deadpan as if she were doing it in quotes. Very detached. That’s something that we’re really trying to capture in having an actress embody her.

S: Absolutely. And what a talented voice actor to be able to do that.

K: It’s really exciting.

S: Moving beyond the scope of this season…with the issue of dropping the entire histories of female filmmakers, producers, and collaborators and only focusing on the relationship between them and their male counterparts, is there something in that vein that persists today, which you’d like to see change?

K:  Well, certainly it does seem like there’s a problem in film history and book publishing. Before I decided to do this as a podcast, I was considering doing it as a book, and the feedback I got from the literary industry was, “nobody’s ever heard of this lady, so you can’t write a book about her.” And it’s like, well, that’s why you need to write a book about her — because nobody’s ever heard of her, you know?

So, in a lot of ways, that attitude certainly persists. Both Christopher and [Jonathan] Nolan work with their wives [producer Emma Thomas and screenwriter, director, and producer Lisa Joy, respectively], and their wives are collaborators with them, and I don’t know that people even know that. I just think that there persists this idea of auteurism, and luckily we do have more women that are directing films now, but you still have to be a director for anyone to take you seriously as a filmmaker. To want to do a profile of you! This is something that I’ve experienced, too: nobody wants to see a picture of a woman unless they’re in full glam. They don’t want to see you actually doing the work. There’s this great quote from Björk from years ago which always sticks in my head, in which she says, “no one wants to take a picture of me at the mixing board actually doing the producing that I do. They just want to see me in some crazy outfit with full makeup on.” 

How many photographs of male directors have we seen of them just wearing a baseball cap, looking into a lens or whatever? There’s something really fundamental that needs to change about, literally, how we picture women at work.

S: At least among my own circles of female and non-binary journalists and critics, we’re always so excited to see [female] directors in any state of what they’re working on; it’s very encouraging. I think you put it so well and so succinctly.

K: Thanks! One thing that is…not a concern, but is just going to be interesting: I think that I’m older than you, and I come from a generation in which we’re still wrapping our heads and arms around thinking of issues like people being non-binary, and not identifying as male or female. It’s still new to us, whereas I think younger people have kind of grown up with that, and there are so many ways in which the story of Polly has to with generations, and things changing from generation to generation to generation. 

Her way of being, of not thinking of herself even as a feminist, and the experiences she went through, and the ways in which she kind of subjugated herself to her husband and then was bereft when she didn’t get the credit that she wanted, and he kind of got to do a victory lap with this new woman on his arm — I don’t know if younger generations will necessarily understand where she’s coming from, but I hope that I’ve figured out a way to make it emotional so that anybody can understand it. Hopefully we can at least start a conversation.

You Must Remember This (Photo by Emily Berl)

You can listen to more about Polly Platt by subscribing to You Must Remember This, or by participating in Vidiots’ new Virtual Film Screening Series celebrating Platt’s work. 

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