Video Essay: Polly Platt – Designing the ’80s

Polly Platt is best known for two phases in her long Hollywood career. First, for her work as a production designer on some of the great films of the New Hollywood era (The Last Picture Show, What’s Up, Doc?, The Bad News Bears). As I’ve argued elsewhere, including in a previous video essay, Platt’s design work in the ’70s contributed significantly to the changing look and feel of American cinema during that era (along with Dean Tavoularis and Richard Sylbert, among others).

The second great phase of Platt’s career came with her production work in the ’80s and ’90s, mostly during her time at Gracie Films and through her long association with James L. Brooks. Producing films like Broadcast News, Say Anything, and Bottle Rocket, Platt further developed her reputation as a deeply knowledgeable and creative filmmaker who had a near unparalleled ability to see the micro and macro elements of film production at the same time. She also became well known for mentoring new and first-time filmmakers, including Brooks himself, but also Cameron Crowe, Wes Anderson, and J.J. Abrams (Platt helped Abrams develop a film idea that would eventually become the TV show Felicity).

In addition to these two phases (and her long-running work as a screenwriter), Platt also continued working as a production designer in the ’80s, particularly on four feature films: Young Doctors in Love, The Man with Two Brains, Terms of Endearment, and The Witches of Eastwick. In this video essay, I take a look at Platt’s work on those four films. I consider how she maintained her commitment to onscreen realism and to creating emotional spaces, while also deftly responding to the new visual aesthetics of 1980s Hollywood cinema.

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