In July of this summer I spent two weeks at the Peter Bogdanovich collection at the Lilly Library at Indiana University. I went searching for material – particularly production-related material – on Polly Platt, who was married to Bogdanovich for nearly 10-years and had two daughters with him, but, more importantly who worked on four films with him and other film and film-related projects as well. Platt doesn’t have her own archive, so I thought the Bogdanovich papers might be the closest approximation I could find. The Lilly Library is a fantastic resource with a lovely and helpful staff and the papers are a treasure trove of Bogdanovich material (some of which I wrote about mid-way through my visit). But while I found quite a number of Platt-related papers – professional documents, memos, script notes, personal letters, etc. – overall, the amount was pretty thin. Below are some of my reflections on how the material has been useful and what its limited scope might mean.
Polly Platt is a palimpsest.
I mean, of course not. That’s ridiculous. Platt was a real person, a woman, mother, lover, friend. She lived an incredibly fruitful and creative life (1939-2011) that influenced nearly everybody she worked with. From her iconic production design on films like The Last Picture Show, The Bad News Bears, and The Witches of Eastwick to her production of films like Say Anything and Bottle Rocket, Platt played a major, decades-long role in shaping the look of a particular type of Hollywood film, straddling the line between arthouse and commercial.
Just one example: describing her work on Say Anything, director Cameron Crowe said: “She knew, heading into Say Anything . . . that I would need the support of a great cinematographer. She went out and got a master, László Kovács. I think she had talked to him about it, sent him a script, and then she saw him at a restaurant and pounced on him. She got his agreement to do the movie on the spot, standing there in the restaurant.” Crowe, as a first-time director, then relied heavily on Kovács’s guidance in crafting the look of the film, a late ‘80s Gen-X classic.
But what did Platt do? I mean, we know her job titles, and based on some anecdotes, we know a bit about specific contributions she made to films. She worked actively in Hollywood from the late ‘60s through the early ‘00s, but she generally drops out of most historical accounts after her divorce from Bogdanovich in 1972. For example, in Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, the account of ‘70s Hollywood that most are probably familiar with, Platt figures heavily in the early going as she and Bogdanovich embark on their careers together. But once Bogdanovich leaves her for Cybill Shepherd, Platt drops out of the narrative almost completely, despite having continued to work steadily throughout the decade. She did uncredited work with Robert Altman (costumes for Thieves Like Us, locations for Nashville!), production design for A Star is Born (not a fabulous film, but one of the decade’s massive financial successes), and wrote the complicated, unnerving Pretty Baby.
The question of who did what on a film production is not insignificant. As I’ve written about previously, most scholars and critics are happy to work under the assumption that a film’s director is responsible for every creative decision. However, the explosive growth in ancillary materials in recent years – particularly filmmakers’ archives, but also DVD commentary tracks and making of documentaries – increasingly complicate that assumption. When documents and first-hand accounts consistently reveal a Hollywood filmmaking that is highly collaborative in its creativity, then the image of the singular figure with a singular overriding artistic vision simply cannot stand, despite how enormously creative many directors are.
But how to fit somebody like Platt into the mix? Like many women in Hollywood, her contributions were generally downplayed at the time and have been ill-served by history since. There are no Polly Platt archives,* no Platt biography or critical studies. And although Platt pops up in most of the documentaries of the era, she’s almost always talking about somebody else’s work. Whether that’s down to the interviewers, the directors, or the editors of these documentaries is hard to say. But the result is almost always that Platt comes across as an intriguing figure in somebody else’s – invariably a man’s – story.
That means that discerning what Platt actually did becomes a process of gleaning, of reading between the lines, of putting together a puzzle with lots of missing pieces. This is often true of archival work, regardless of the subject, but especially so women like Platt whose creative labour has been so thoroughly marginalized.
Let me walk you through an example.
In Paper Moon, there’s a sequence that comes about thirty minutes in. Young Addie’s mother has died, and the con-man Mose – one of her mother’s former lovers and maybe Addie’s father – has agreed to drive her to an aunt’s house in Missouri. Addie (Tatum O’Neal) and Mose (Ryan O’Neal) develop an antagonistic relationship of convenience: she doesn’t trust him and he finds her a nuisance, but it turns out they can work a con really well together, so they start making money. While they’re still getting to know each other, they stop for a night in a cheap motel (one of many), and when she’s sure Mose is asleep, Addie sneaks into the bathroom with her box of treasures. A beat-up cigar box in which she keeps track of the money they’re making, it also contains precious artefacts from her old life, including a picture of her and her mom, some of her mom’s jewellery, and a bottle of her old perfume. Addie studies the photo, puts on some of the jewellery, and mimics her mother’s stance in front of the bathroom mirror. She then takes the perfume and douses herself with it, mimicking the way a man might put on aftershave, adding a touch of comedy to the scene (and setting up a joke in the next one), but also highlighting Addie’s confusion about who she is and where she comes from.
It’s a quiet, moving moment in a film that’s mostly played for broad comedy. And it’s one of the few reminders in the film that undergirds all the hijinks Addie and Mose get up to with a sense that this is a little girl, who is most likely still grieving. If Addie’s choice at the film’s end is believable at all, much of that is rooted in this scene.
Bogdanovich has mentioned in interviews that it was Platt’s idea to add the mirror to the scene, that the mirror’s not there in the original script. This doesn’t seem to be quite accurate. In script drafts dated through the summer of ’72, while the film was still in pre-production, there are actually two bathroom scenes. First Mose creeps into the hotel room late, after a night out. He goes into the bathroom, looks in the mirror, and tries to wipe lipstick off his collar. Once he gets into bed, Addie, who’s been pretending to sleep, sneaks into the bathroom and makes faces in the mirror before going through her box of treasures.
The Mose scene was eventually cut from the script. In the final version, he quietly comes into the room, takes of his trousers, and passes out in bed, still wearing his jacket and tie.
But clearly the mirror was always there, so what could Bogdanovich be talking about? Well, what was missing in script drafts throughout the summer of ’72 was Addie posing like her mother in the photograph. She looks at the photo and her mother’s jewellery, and she slaps on the perfume, but that’s it.
Then, in a script dated 1 September ’72 (just before production begins), a line is added to the scene regarding the photograph: “She studies it, then she takes the stance her mother has taken in the photo.”
Could it be that when Bogdanovich gives Platt credit for adding the mirror to the scene that he’s actually talking about adding this brief piece of business? Platt is credited with co-writing Bogdanovich’s first film, Targets, and is often given credit by many of the directors she worked with for contributing to their scripts in one way or another. And she would go on to write scripts of her own. So it wouldn’t be surprising if she’d added to Paper Moon’s script.
It may seem a trifle, a minor moment in a nearly two-hour film. But that pose is vital to understanding who Addie is and who she’s trying to be. It’s vital to understanding her emotional make-up, her toughness. It’s also mirrored throughout the film by the way she sometimes dresses in tomboyish overalls (she’s mistaken for a boy on more than one occasion), or sometimes in a short babydoll dress (designed by Platt), or by the way that even when in tomboy garb, she wears her mother’s hat (also designed by Platt, and a major plot point late in the film).
It’s this moment of humanizing Addie by adding a depth and complexity to her character that moves her from being just a cute kid to making her a believable protagonist in a film full of shady adults.
One last point. In November, 1973, Bogdanovich was in Switzerland in the middle of the European production of Daisy Miller with Cybill Shepherd. I don’t like to dwell too much on the personal, but a few things are worth mentioning about this period. Daisy Miller was the first film Bogdanovich made without Platt’s help, and it starred his new lover, Shepherd. They were now a public item – the subject of much celebrity journalism and soon to be on the cover of People. Paper Moon was a financial hit and Bogdanovich was continually lauded as one of the era’s great new directors, with three smashes in a row. He’d become a mid-‘70s fixture on The Tonight Show, both as guest and occasional host. Meanwhile, Platt was at home, raising their two daughters. In the Roger Corman documentary Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel (2011), Platt briefly describes this period of loneliness: “my husband left me, and the phone stopped ringing.”
Even still, Platt and Bogdanovich seemed to have maintained a close relationship through the mid-to-late ‘70s. The films they’d worked on together were still making money, they still had close friends in common, and they were co-parenting two young daughters. In their letters of the time, they often refer to each other as “dearest,” and they send each other birthday and even anniversary gifts.
Platt wrote to Bogdanovich in Switzerland, in a later dated 29 November, ’73, to thank him for a gift of flowers he had sent. The letter is short, mostly mundane – the children are well, she’s going to visit his sister, she describes a dream she had. But in the middle of the letter, she writes these three lines: “Need I encourage you about the movie further? You make it sound so good. Especially the mirror scene that made you understand the whole movie.”
“Need I encourage you about the movie further? You make it sound so good. Especially the mirror scene that made you understand the whole movie.”
That last line carries a lot of weight – “made you understand the whole movie.” There is more than one “mirror scene” in the film, so it’s hard to know if she means the scene in question. But it seems likely. If so, perhaps it’s not the case that Platt “put the mirror in the scene,” but that she actually clarified the film to its director (it was Platt’s idea for Bogdanovich to make the film because she thought it would be good for him to shoot a movie about a father and daughter).
And here is what I mean by palimpsest. This is one short scene in one of the many films Platt worked on. Some of the decisions and contributions she made are public record and easy to discover. For example, and just on Paper Moon, Bogdanovich has been upfront about it being her idea to move the film from the book’s southern setting to the Midwest.
But all those micro decisions she made, all the seemingly trifling additions to her films add up to profound contributions that not only change a film’s look, but maybe even its “meaning” or at least its potential for meaning. And to discern all those decisions, one must read her through layers of other texts: interviews with directors, Bogdanovich’s archive, her own offhand comments as she talks about other men. Platt’s story is almost always the text behind the text, but hers gives the “primary” text its meaning, its contour, its shape.
Hollywood scholarship and the apparatuses and institutions that support it still are not prepared – as in, not set up – to help tell the stories of women. Platt is only one of many. But until there are more archives, more monographs, more biographies dedicated to women and their creative labour, tracing their achievements and contributions will remain a fragmented exercise, an effort to read their stories through or behind the dominant discourse that focuses on the men and “their” films that those women did so much to create.
*To be fair, there are very few archival collections dedicated to production or art designers. Ken Adam is one of the few to benefit from the archive treatment (would love to hear of others, dear readers!).