Cinemasters: Polly Platt
We have been obsessed with the work of designer, producer and all round cinematic secret weapon Polly Platt since we first listened to Karina Longworth's excellent The Invisible Woman podcast back in 2020. So naturally, we are over the (Paper) Moon to have had the opportunity to curate a whole season dedicated to Platt as part of a new partnership with the Glasgow Film Theatre.
We are delighted to share our programme notes for this exciting Cinemasters: Polly Platt season, written by own Rachel Pronger.
As co-founder of feminist collective Invisible Women, I spend a lot of time (some would say too much time) thinking about women and old movies. Since we started the collective back in 2017, we have been researching stories of female filmmakers across history. Many of the women that we have encountered have been directors (contrary to what our sausage fest of a canon might have you believe, women have been directing films since the invention of cinema). We love to celebrate the work of early Hollywood pioneers such as Lois Weber, Esther Eng and Tressie Souders, tracing their influence through to the present-day triumphs of the likes of Ava Duvernay, Chloe Zhao and Jane Campion. However, focusing purely on the work of directors only offers us a partial picture. Cinema is an inherently collaborative artform, and when we zoom in too closely on one aspect of the process we ignore a larger, more complicated story.
The invisibility of women in film history partly stems from our narrow definition of what makes a filmmaker. Since the explosion of auteur theory in the 1950s, the hierarchy of filmmaking (or at least of filmmaking as art), has been firmly established - the director (or “auteur”) at the top, followed by a long line of collaborators. The status attached to the director has made the role sought after, prestigious and undeniably gendered. This means that while there have been many significant female directors over the past century or so, they have always been outnumbered by their male contemporaries and they have often faced many more barriers to getting work made on their own terms.
Yet even when they have been effectively locked out of directing, women have consistently found ways to contribute creatively to film. In Hollywood, where for large chunks of the twentieth century there has been only a vanishingly small number of women working as directors, a significant number of female screenwriters, designers, editors and producers have managed to make their mark. The dominance of a narrow, auteurist reading of film history - and the tendency of curators such as ourselves to build retrospectives around directors - means that the true contributions of these women have often been minimised and misunderstood.
The story of Polly Platt offers a perfect illustration of the limits of a director centric approach. You might not have heard of Platt, but you’ll definitely have heard of her films. Between the late-1960s and the 1990s, Platt played a key role in the making of a number of much loved Hollywood classics. Across her career she worked as a production designer, writer and producer, but she was never credited as a director. Despite this, there is a clear argument to be made for Platt as an author of the films she worked on.
This is precisely the argument that is put forward in The Invisible Woman, a ten-part podcast from writer Karina Longworth which tells the story of Platt’s life and work. Longworth specialises in revisionist takes on film history – the series is part of You Must Remember This, a podcast dedicated to “the hidden and/or forgotten history of Hollywood’s first century” – and Platt’s story makes for rich material. The Invisible Woman is built around an unpublished memoir which was passed onto Longworth by Platt’s daughters after their mother’s death. Extracts from the memoir, read aloud by an actor, form the spine of the series allowing Platt to effectively narrate her own story from beyond the grave. The result is a gripping audio auto(ish)biography which succeeds in bringing Platt vividly to life, while also making a compelling case for a radical rethink of the way we think about authorship in cinema...
To place Platt at the centre of her own story is itself a kind of political statement. Up until recently, Platt had only been discussed as a secondary character to the famous men she worked alongside. This pattern was set right from the beginning of her career. Born in 1939, Platt fell in love with the theatre as a child and went on to study art, with the ambition of working in stage design. She was freelancing as a designer in New York when she first met the young and charismatic Peter Bogdanovich, a film critic whose real ambition was to direct. The pair married in 1962, and immediately formed an intense creative partnership. With their combined talent and ambition, it was only a matter of time before they hit Hollywood.
In the mid-1960s, Platt and Bogdanovich moved to LA where they cut their teeth working for Roger Corman. B movie king Corman was renowned for his “fast and cheap” philosophy, which made him unusually willing to take a punt on untested talent (he gave early breaks to Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Jonathan Demme, among others). Corman’s filmmakers were expected to turn their hand to any role required to deliver on time and under budget. This meant that right from the start Platt worked in multiple roles - writing scripts, designing, producing and co-directing - although it was always Bogdanovich who was credited as director. Targets (1968), a low budget horror starring Boris Karloff, brought Bogdanovich to the attention of execs who offered him a chance to direct a feature of his own. It was Platt who convinced her husband that a recent bestseller, Larry McMurty’s The Last Picture Show, would make a great adaptation.
What is directing? According to the credits, Platt never officially “directed anything,” but her story makes us question those labels. Credited only as a production designer on The Last Picture Show (1971), Platt’s work extended far beyond that title. She sourced the costumes, found the source material, pitched the project to funders, co-wrote the script and fed creatively into every aspect of the production process. There were whispers on set that Platt was co-directing the picture – after all, didn’t Bogdanovich turn to her for advice on the set up of almost every shot? If the director is the person who leads on creative vision, the “author” of a film, then in what sense was Platt not directing here? If she looks, sounds and acts like a director, she’s probably a director.
The Last Picture Show was a huge critical and commercial success. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards, although there was nothing for Platt. Another pattern was set in motion - a lack of official recognition of Platt’s immense contributions to hit films. The film’s success was bittersweet for another reason; by this stage, Platt and Bogdanvoich were going through a divorce.
Yet even as their personal relationship began to break down, the pair continued to work together on two more outstanding films, both of which were shaped as much by Platt’s vision as Bogdanovich’s. On screwball pastiche What’s Up Doc? (1972) Platt advocated for switching the setting from grey Chicago to rickety San Francisco. She also argued that the central dynamic of the film should be reversed, giving female lead Barbra Streisand the opportunity to shine as the flighty comic relief opposite Ryan O’Neal’s uptight academic. Watching the film today, it’s impossible to imagine how it might have worked without these interventions. For Paper Moon (1973), alongside designing the sets Platt secured the casting both of an initially reluctant O’Neal, and of his 10-year-old daughter Tatum, who Platt rightly spotted as a star in the making (Tatum went on to receive an Oscar for her performance, making her the youngest winner ever). Both films were hits, but the pressure of working together through an acrimonious divorce took its toll and the extraordinary Platt-Bogdanovich partnership finally dissolved for good.
Platt’s work with Bogdanovich had earned her the reputation of being a phenomenal right-hand woman, exactly the kind of tenacious ally that you need to get your film made. For this reason, the next few decades saw Platt often work in collaboration with powerful male directors (yes, “auteurs”). Platt was a strong personality infamous for being honest to a fault, and some of these would-be collaborators took her input better than others. She wrote the script for Pretty Baby (1978) and was initially heavily involved in the production until she was edged out by director Louis Malle, who seems to have been threatened by her competing vision. An attempt to develop a project with Mike Nichols, director of The Graduate and later Working Girl, also collapsed mid-way through when he fired her for contradicting his ideas.
When these collaborations gelled however, they could be magical. Working with George Miller on fabulously camp horror comedy The Witches of Eastwick, Platt produced some of her finest work as a set designer. That was a one-off partnership, albeit a spectacular one, but another running collaboration would go on to define the second half of Platt’s career. From the 1980s to the mid-1990s, Platt served as a producer at director James L Brooks’ production company, where she was instrumental in the making of era-defining hits Terms of Endearment (1983) and Broadcast News (1987).
As an executive, Platt was known for her exceptional eye for talent. In the final phase of her career, she directed her laser focus towards young directors, helping both Wes Anderson and Cameron Crowe make their first features. Those young directors owe Platt a debt of gratitude – without her work it’s likely that neither Say Anything (1989) or Bottle Rocket (1996) would have made it to the screen. “Every detail mattered to Polly, and nothing slipped by her,” said Crowe, in a tribute to Platt after her death in 2009. “She took a lot of pride in knowing how all the pieces of a movie worked. She could do almost all the jobs herself… She did all of this with rare delight and an epic sense of humour. That’s why we’re talking about her right now and will be for a long time.”
Crowe was right. More than a decade after her death, we are talking about Platt more than ever. Thanks to Longworth’s amazing research, Platt is finally beginning to receive her due and with this season we hope to continue that work. The films in this programme have several different male directors, but they have one woman in common. By screening these films under her name and embracing them as part of a cohesive legacy we want to encourage a wider conversation about what makes a filmmaker. Perhaps by declaring Polly Platt a “Cinemaster” we can open ourselves up to more inclusive and imaginative ways of interpreting film history. If, like Platt, we begin to pay attention to the details, we might be surprised by what we find – there they are, behind the camera, the invisible women of cinema, quietly making their mark.