Does the name Polly Platt mean anything to you? Karina Longworth thinks it should. The host of the podcast “You Must Remember This,” which specializes in telling, as its haunting intro puts it, “the secret and/or forgotten histories of Hollywood’s first century,” is premiering a new season today, devoted to the figure Longworth calls “the invisible woman” of Hollywood.
Platt, who died in 2011, hurtled through the movie business like a skipped stone, creating wide-ranging ripples but not making waves. She is probably most associated with the director Peter Bogdanovich—the two were married for almost a decade and had two children, and they collaborated on some of his best-known films. Platt was the production designer on Targets (which she also co-wrote with Bogdanovich), The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon, and What’s Up, Doc? But her career in Hollywood went well beyond the couple’s work together. She wrote the screenplay for Pretty Baby, a film she later largely disavowed; worked with directors as varied as James L. Brooks, Cameron Crowe, and Wes Anderson, and even helped birth The Simpsons after she discovered Matt Groening’s comics and introduced him to Brooks. Longworth spent a year investigating Platt’s life and work and speaking to her family, friends, and colleagues. Even so, she says, “I know I still don’t know everything.”
Longworth first discovered Platt where many of her subjects reside—in the margins of male-dominated movie history. “Like a lot of people, a foundational film history text for me was Easy Riders, Raging Bulls,” she says, referring to the 1998 Peter Biskind doorstop, which spun a yarn of bad-boy directors like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and Bogdanovich. In the book, Bogdanovich recalls Platt as “very abrasive. Very loud. Jumping in with her opinions when they weren’t asked for, alienating people.” Platt’s main role in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls is as one point of a famous romantic triangle—Bogdanovich left her for his star, Cybill Shepherd, during the filming of The Last Picture Show. “The book deals with these women who were involved in their husbands’ or romantic partners’ movies,” says Longworth, “but only to a certain point. It’s like it’s only interested in them in that they can provide gossipy soundbites about the men. It’s not really interested in them as human beings or in what their lives or work were like once these men, for the most part, discarded them.” Around 2012, Longworth wrote a book proposal framed as “Women of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls,” but says, “I couldn’t sell it. I didn’t even have an agent [at the time.]”
Her podcast feels like an extension of that project, often focusing on women in Hollywood whose stories are either little-told or distorted beyond belief. Her season on Charles Manson delves into the lives of the women who became known as the Manson girls. Her “Dead Blondes” season examines well-known stars like Marilyn Monroe and Jean Harlow alongside largely forgotten figures like Barbara Loden and Peg Entwistle. “Jean and Jane” looked at the different trajectories of two actresses (Seberg and Fonda) who became activists in ways that feel startlingly contemporary. Longworth says she’s always trying to ask one question: “The story was told this way, but why was it told this way?” When I note that You Must Remember This often feels like an alternative history of Hollywood, she says, “I wish it wasn’t alternative history. I wish, from the beginning, the stories had been as multivalent in the telling as they were in the occurrence. On every project, I try to look at all the different points of view and all the different things put on the record. I’m trying to create this multifaceted portrait through which you can guess what seems most true.”
This season, Longworth had one important primary source. Platt left behind clues to her inner life, including an unfinished memoir to which Longworth was granted access for this project. It was immensely helpful, she says, “to have this document in which she tells you exactly how she felt about so many of these events I’ve wondered about for so long. It’s really powerful writing—it felt like being entrusted with a treasure.”
In a take-no-prisoners Vulture interview last year, Bogdanovich said of Platt, “She took credit for things she had nothing to do with,” while allowing that, “she was very fun to bounce things off of and had good ideas.” But Longworth argues Platt is Bogdanovich’s undersung collaborator. For The Last Picture Show, she was hyper-attentive to detail, making sure Cybill Shepherd had cold cream on her face in one scene, and that people were wearing clothes they could’ve actually afforded in the film’s small-town Texas setting. But the rise of auteur theory, popularized by the French film magazine Cahiers du cinéma, contributed to the industry’s single-minded focus on directors, Longworth explains, and led to figures like Polly fading into the background. Even today, she notes, “we’re still stuck in this auteur mode of putting the director on a pedestal and talking about them as the fascinating personality behind serious movies.”
Despite Platt’s involvement in seemingly every corner of filmmaking—writing, producing, production design, costuming, and even a little acting—she never directed a film of her own. “One of the underlying questions throughout the podcast season is, why didn’t she direct?” says Longworth. “She wanted to. She tried to. And it really isn’t as simple as, ‘Well, it was difficult for women.’ That was part of it, but there was so much going on psychologically in her life.” The podcast gets into Platt’s tragedy-strewn personal life, including her decision to give up a child for adoption in college and the death of her first husband. “She was an Oscar-nominated production designer and producer of extremely successful films who had a secret pregnancy,” says Longworth. “These kinds of stories, we just don’t hear them about moguls and powerful people in Hollywood. We accept these kinds of complications from men and we don’t really talk about them when it comes to women.”
Some of Platt’s personal traumas made it into her screenplay for the 1978 Louis Malle film Pretty Baby, to which the season devotes an entire episode. Longworth believes the film is “ripe for rediscovery. I think it’s misunderstood to some extent.” Brooke Shields plays a 12-year-old prostitute abandoned by her mother, played by Susan Sarandon. The story was something of a “veiled autobiography for Polly, because she felt abandoned by her mother, and she also felt that she was abandoning her children by going to work. It’s also a metaphor about ’70s Hollywood, and the extent to which very, very young women were fetishized and dehumanized,” says Longworth, noting that Pretty Baby was filmed around the same time Roman Polanski was arrested for sexual assaulting a minor.
When Platt became a producer, she still paid attention to the nitty-gritty details some producers would see as below their pay grade. On 1987’s Broadcast News, “Jim Brooks was about to call ‘Action!’ and Polly said ‘Wait, no, stop.’” She grabbed a paint can and re-painted either a staircase, or a door, depending on which account you believe. Longworth points out that Platt wasn’t even the production designer on the movie, “but she was so engaged in design that everything had to look perfect. She was going to get it done herself.” This perfectionism extended to her fashion (as a producer in the ’80s, she dressed the part in fabulous silk blouses, brooches, and “killer heels”) and to her home life; Longworth recounts the way she would move into a house, redecorate it completely, then move out. “That’s like being a production designer: ‘It’s time to tear down this set.’”
With Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood atop the Netflix leaderboard, we’ve never been more hungry for tales of the studio system. Longworth, who says she has not yet watched Hollywood but enjoyed Feud, has her own eye on the small screen. She sold a TV adaptation of her Manson series and did a writer’s room last fall, though the project’s next step is unclear due to the pandemic. She also very much wants to adapt the podcast for TV: “I’ve had conversations and I hope that is the next project I do.” Her marriage to Knives Out director Rian Johnson also offers insight into the present-day industry she can’t access as a film historian and critic. “I’ve gotten to see the way Hollywood works now, up close and personal,” she says. “I think a lot of people who write about Hollywood don’t know much about the business and how it works, or even how a film set works.”
In the meantime, Longworth is focused on Polly Platt. Concurrent with the podcast, she’ll be hosting a virtual screening series and Instagram Live discussions with the video store-turned-film-nonprofit Vidiots, so if you haven’t seen some of the films referenced in the season, you can experience them for the first time with her sparkling commentary.
“This is the pinnacle of everything I’ve been trying to do over the past six years. I couldn’t ask for a better subject than somebody who was either forgotten or never known about who has secrets,” she says. “I hope I’m doing her justice, because she deserves a doorstop biography like David O. Selznick.”
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