The Thief Who Came to Dinner: Design by Polly Platt

I recently watched The Thief Who Came to Dinner for the first time. This 1973 film was written by the great Walter Hill (and it’s got the punchy script to show for it), directed by an unsung Bud Yorkin,* and stars Ryan O’Neal, Jacqueline Bisset, and Warren Oats. It’s also got a great performance by Ned Beatty, and some sound supporting work by Jill Clayburgh, John Hillerman, Gregory Sierra, and the always wonderful Austin Pendleton as a frustrated chess master trying to outwit O’Neal’s cat burglar through a game of correspondence chess. There’s even a brief appearance by Michael Murphy in the film’s opening scenes. In other words, a killer’s row of great ‘70s talent.

It also features a funky Henry Mancini score, and some occasionally brilliant cinematography by Philip H. Lathrop, who mostly shot comedies like The Pink Panther and I Love You, Alice B. Toklas, but also did some thrilling work on films like The Cincinnati Kid and Point Blank. The experience of shooting a mix of comedy and action serves him well in this sexy comedic thriller.

But I watched the film** mainly because the production design and (uncredited) costume design is by Polly Platt. Platt’s work in New Hollywood cinema is my case study for the first year of this project. I’ve written elsewhere about her work with Peter Bogdanovich – Platt did production design, writing (sometimes credited, often not), and uncredited costume design and location scouting for Bogdanovich’s first four, highly celebrated films: Targets (1968), The Last Picture Show (1971), What’s Up, Doc? (1972), and Paper Moon (1973).

The Bogdanovich films have been written about extensively since their release. Furthermore, the DVDs of all four films include a variety of special features, including director’s commentaries, and Bogdanovich is quite open about how much input Platt had into the making of the films. The Thief Who Came to Dinner, on the other hand, has benefitted from very little commentary – scholarly, critical, or otherwise – so determining the precise nature of Platt’s input involves a fair bit of deduction. Continue reading

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Buffy at 20 Live Tweet / #Buffy20 #BuffyLive

March 10 marks twenty years since television’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer premiered. A groundbreaking show that influenced the current era of “quality television” in too many ways to mention, Buffy was first broadcast on the WB on a Monday night with a double-episode opener, “Welcome to the Hellmouth” and “The Harvest.”

In celebration of the premier’s anniversary, let’s re-watch and live tweet “Welcome to the Hellmouth” and “The Harvest” on March 10, a Friday evening. Anybody can join in – the more the merrier – and spread the word to all your Buffy-loving friends!

I propose starting “Hellmouth” at 9pm (GMT), taking a small break between episodes, and starting “The Harvest” at 10pm.

Friends in North America can join in, too – your start times would be 4 and 5pm for the two episodes. Or you could organize your own live tweet for later in the evening!

Please share with anybody you know, and let’s try to make this a new sort of Slayerfest! After all, what better time to join together and stand against the vampires, the demons, and the forces of darkness!

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I recently wrapped up a year-long project of watching 52 films by women directors. 52 Films by Women is the idea of Women in Film, and anybody can take part at any time (in other words, you don’t have to wait for January 1 to roll around).

It was a fantastic experience, so I thought I’d offer a few thoughts about what I got out of it, along with just a few more about my one quibble with it, and then some final thoughts about the films I most enjoyed.

The gist of the project is that you commit to watching an average of one movie a week directed by a woman. You can go to the Women in Film web site and register, you can tweet with the #52FilmsByWomen hashtag on twitter, you can chart your films with reviews and ratings at letterboxd. Or you can just do it for the experience of it. The one rule I set myself was that every film I watched had to be one I hadn’t seen before.

I promise you, you’ll find the experience incredibly rewarding. Continue reading

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So far, I’ve outlined just a few of the ways that the auteur concept has come to dominate most conceptions of Hollywood filmmaking, whether historical, academic, popular, or otherwise. In doing so, I’ve described the “internal paradoxes and contradictions” of what I call the auteur paradigm, arguing that adherence to the paradigm amounts to “a massive disservice to our understanding not only of how filmmaking works, but also of the actual development and progression of film history.”

What I’d like to do in this entry is describe a counter-approach, a concept some scholars have taken to calling “multiple-authorship.” I don’t want to go into too much detail, or even build a sustained argument; rather I’ll just lay out what the term means to me and why I think it’s a vital new way to approach Hollywood filmmaking and Hollywood history. Having said that, I will provide a list of sources at the end of this entry that readers can turn to for more in-depth discussions of the concept. Continue reading

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One More Reason Women in Hollywood Can’t Catch a Break

Just a quick entry here to highlight two recent articles about women in Hollywood: Peter Biskind’s “Sherry Lansing, Dawn Steel and Sue Mengers: When the Broads Faced the Raging Bulls in ’70s Hollywood,” (The Hollywood Reporter 9 December) and Scott Mendelson’s “Female Directors Don’t Need ‘Experience’ – They Just Need To Get Hired” (Forbes 28 November).

Both articles are great reads with worthy intentions. I don’t mean to be overly critical of them here, but I would like to point out just a few of the ways in which their efforts to highlight flaws in Hollywood and Hollywood history might also enable the system that includes those flaws as structural components.

In short, both articles perpetuate the auteur paradigm. Continue reading

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The Auteur Paradigm, Part 2

In Part 1 I outlined a few key developments that led – by the late 1960s – to a widespread cultural reimagining of the role of a film director. That entry is not meant to be exhaustive. There are a number of books, essays, and documentaries that touch on the rise of the auteur, often going into great detail about the many artistic, industrial, cultural, and social factors that led to the development and sustaining of the auteur model in its various guises (shameless plug: you can also read about it in the second chapter of my book on Hal Ashby, which you can find more about by clicking that link over there –>). My intention in Part 1 was to demonstrate, with a couple of very narrow examples, how shifting theoretical ideas and production practices led to the director coming to embody two functions that had often previously resided in other roles: the film’s sole creative originator (previously often the writer or producer); and the film’s practical “owner” (previously often the producer or studio).

In a sense, the structural relationship between these two functions represents a totalizing of the bond between director and film. The film is of the director, the film is the director – at least in the way it represents an aspect of the director’s creative personality, his inner being. As this figure began to be recognized as a kind of artistic “genius” in the 1970s, attempts to recognize other modes of authorial contribution became increasingly difficult to frame and, in the case at least of performers as authorial contributors, nearly illegitimate.

That this construction so obviously contradicts the collaborative and industrial nature of Hollywood filmmaking did not seem to bother many of those advocating for the primacy of the auteur throughout the New Hollywood era. Nor did the fact that – in seemingly revolutionary times – the director-driven model of understanding filmmaking nearly replicated the despised hierarchical nature of the producer-driven model (Derek Nystrom’s 2004 article “Hard Hats and Movie Brats” is worth a read for more on how New Hollywood autuerism replicated previous modes of coercion and control on film sets). Continue reading

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Polly Platt – DVDs and collaboration

While I put the finishing touches on part 2 of my thoughts on the auteur paradigm, I thought I’d post a few words about my big “black Friday” purchase.

I ordered three DVDs that I hope don’t take forever to arrive: The Thief Who Came to Dinner (1973); The Bad News Bears (1976); and A Star Is Born (1976). Yes, the Streisand Kristofferson version!

thief-dinner-posterEach of these films features Polly Platt as production designer. Platt’s probably best known for her marriage to and early collaboration with Peter Bogdanovich. She worked as production designer on Bogdanovich’s first four films: Targets (1968); The Last Picture Show (1971); What’s Up, Doc? (1972); and Paper Moon (1973). She’s also credited as co-writer on Targets, and more than one person has claimed she contributed to the writing and maybe editing of all four films. (For some of my thoughts on the importance of Platt’s contributions to the design of those films, check out this conference paper I gave on the subject last spring.)


Continue reading

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The Auteur Paradigm, part 1

(In this entry, I’m playing around with a few concepts and terms – such as “authorship by ownership” or “the idea of ownership.” I welcome thoughts about these concepts, suggestions for alternate terminology, or references to other texts and writers that do a better job of explaining them.)

Much of the research that I do in film studies (and other screen studies as well) centers on my contention that the auteur concept is so dominant and so pervasive within contemporary film scholarship and culture as to constitute a paradigm. To be sure, there are a number of ways to think about, study, or teach film that are not traditionally auteurist – or at least seem not to be. But I would argue that even most of us who are suspicious of auteurism, or insist on its illegitimacy, dwell within the paradigm despite our best intentions. Others, of course, happily reside there and make no bones about the paradigm’s efficacy for understanding films and film history.*

Over the next two entries I’d like to spend a bit of time discussing the auteur paradigm, particularly some general thoughts about how it came into existence and also why it’s so relevant to my project on women in 1970s Hollywood. Much of what I’ll write, especially in this first entry, is well known to film scholars and most film buffs, too: the concept of the auteur and its many iterations over the past several decades have been endlessly outlined, discussed, and dissected. This won’t be a timeline of the auteur, another retelling of the concept’s evolution, or a debate about the strengths and weaknesses of particular strains of auteurism (there will be a bit of that, but if you’re unfamiliar with the concept and its history, this is a decent starting point). Rather it will be more like a riff on the concept, bouncing through history and theory with a smattering of law to consider just how the auteur paradigm came to dominate our understanding of film so thoroughly. Continue reading

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Why New Hollywood?

As I’ve begun to discuss this project with friends and colleagues, one of the questions that regularly comes up is, why New Hollywood? What specifically about this era and the way it accommodated (or didn’t!) women’s work and creativity has drawn me to spend two years researching it. So I thought I’d use this entry to offer a few thoughts about why I think Women in New Hollywood is a topic not only ripe for further exploration, but one necessary to a better understanding of how Hollywood continues to treat women and their work today.

First, a few definitions and clarifications of terms. Most of this is pretty well known to films scholars and buffs alike, but it’s always worth establishing some firm ground before attempting to build new scaffolding! Continue reading

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De Palma De Palma! DE PALMA

My original plan for this entry was to talk a little bit about New Hollywood – not to try to define it or anything like that (well, maybe a bit like that), but just to say a few words about why I’ve chosen that era as the contextual container of this research project. But it turns out that’s going to be my next entry.

Last night I saw De Palma, and I decided I’d rather talk about that. This isn’t necessarily a review in the traditional sense. Watching the film last night, I was struck by how its form and structure work to exemplify some of the things I’m trying to get at with this project, so I thought it would be worth taking a minute to talk about why.

For those who don’t know De Palma is a new documentary about the American director Brian De Palma, whose films include Carrie, Blow Out, Scarface, The Untouchables, Carlito’s Way, and many many more. Here’s a trailer for the doc:

Continue reading

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