The Wide-Ranging Genius of Polly Platt

The highlights of Polly Platt’s film career are impressive and well-known. She first gained notice as a production designer (“The Last Picture Show,” “What’s Up, Doc?,”  “Paper Moon”) then as a film producer (“Pretty Baby,” “Terms of Endearment,”  “Broadcast News,”  “Bottle Rocket,”) and screenwriter (“Pretty Baby,” “A Map of the World). Along the way, she also found time to develop a TV cartoon show called “The Simpsons.”

Though she began her career as a visual artist, Platt was, as recent obituaries pointed out, most identified by her creative partnerships with two powerful writer-directors: Peter Bogdanovich and James L. Brooks. It was with Bogdanovich, her husband (until he took up with Cybill Shepherd), that Platt perfectly conjured small-town Texas in the 50s in “The Last Picture Show” (the novel of which she had brought to Bogdanovich’s attention) and Missouri in the 30s, in “Paper Moon.” Shot in black-and-white, both films were not only beautifully written and acted but rigorously authentic in their appearance, an aesthetic widely credited to Platt. Locations and furnishings were faithfully rendered, while actors were dressed, coiffed and made-up in period style, with no anachronisms permitted for the sake of laziness or vanity. (In contrast, the Hollywood norm for period films at the time was “Dr. Zhivago,” in which Julie Christie wore groovy 1960’s makeup and hair in Russia, circa 1912-1940.)

Thanks to Platt’s attention to period detail, audiences experienced the Bogdanovich films less as observers than time travelers. The importance she attached to the smallest of objects–a hair ribbon, a soda bottle–is especially keen in “Paper Moon,” as this clip–of the famous diner scene between Addie and Moses Pray–shows:

Significantly, it was Platt who pushed Bogdanovich to cast the young Tatum O’Neal, who had never acted before, as Addie. O’Neal’s performance was a tour-de-force that made her the youngest winner of a competitive Oscar (Best Actress) at 10.

After their marriage ended, Platt–by then the first female member of the Art Directors’ Guild–continued to work with Bogdanovich on “Paper Moon” and “What’s Up, Doc,” but wisely went her own way when he decided to make “Daisy Miller,” a critical and financial bomb starring his inamorata, Cybill Shepherd. Their paths could not have diverged more dramatically: although Bogdanovich has continued to direct (“Mask,” “The Cat’s Meow”), his post-Platt films have none of the striking visual characteristics of his early films or, for that matter, their quality of acting. If not for his name in the credits, it would be easy to guess they were someone else’s work, which has led me (and others) to believe that Platt had a larger role in Bogdanovich’s early films: that of co-director. 

After striking out on her own,  Platt turned to screenwriting. Her first film, “Pretty Baby,” was both a critical favorite and a box office hit; like her previous work, it was also visually stunning. “Pretty Baby” made stars out of Susan Sarandon and Brooke Shields (in her first role and arguably her best performance), and made Louis Malle–alone among the French New Wave auteurs–a major director in the U.S.

After the success of “Pretty Baby,” Platt began working with the writer-director James L. Brooks, who was making the transition from television (“The Mary Tyler Moore Show”) to film. She was the production designer of  “Terms of Endearment,” for which she received an Academy Award nomination, and went on to co-produce “Broadcast News.” As executive vice-president of Brooks’s production company, Gracie Films, from 1985-1995, she co-produced “The War of the Roses” and “Bottle Rocket” (thus giving Wes Anderson, Owen Wilson and Luke Wilson their start). She also produced “Say Anything,” Cameron Crowe’s directorial debut. During that period, she presented a Brooks with art work from a cartoon strip called “Life in Hell,” which led to a meeting with its creator, Matt Groening. The resulting project, “The Simpsons,” is now entering its 23rd season on Fox television.

For years, I’ve told people I learned to make films by watching “Paper Moon,” which I also call “film school in a box.” (In addition to Platt and Bogdanovich, I credit the late cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs for my cinematic education.) I also wondered why Polly Platt didn’t direct a film in her own right, instead of working behind the scenes, and fervently wished she would.

 She never did. Although another of her screenplays, “A Map of the World,” was made into a movie in 1999, her film career was curtailed by ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), from which she died on July 27th.  Having had no idea Platt was ill, I was doubly saddened by her death–but not surprised to learn that she had continued to produce in spite of that devastating disease. Her last film, a documentary about Roger Corman called “Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel,” will be released later this year.

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