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Polly Platt earned plaudits from Hollywood for her artistry, vision, love of movies, influence on great directors and knowledge of film history. She was the first woman admitted to the Art Directors Guild (for features) and earned credits as a costume designer, production designer, producer and screenwriter. But those who knew her best say she was so much more: She was a true artist, mentor and “truth teller” whose single-minded goal was always to make any movie better. “She had a dark and funny side, a real sense of humor. She was brutally honest,” says daughter Antonia Bogdanovich, who watched Three Kings, one of her mom’s favorite modern movies, with her two weeks before her death. “She always told me, ‘When people ask you questions, turn it around and ask them about themselves. People love to talk about themselves.’ ”
Platt, in Brief: The daughter of an Army colonel, she came of age in Europe after World War II. She attended the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh then moved to New York to work in theater. She was a costume designer in summer stock when she met Peter Bogdanovich, becoming his creative collaborator, wife and mother of two children, Antonia and Sashy (who gave her three grandchildren). She and Bogdanovich worked on such films as Paper Moon and The Last Picture Show. Platt produced and wrote Pretty Baby then joined James L. Brooks’ Gracie Films as a production designer and creative exec. She introduced Brooks to Matt Groening, leading to the creation of The Simpsons. Producer Frank Marshall started as her assistant, and she boosted the career of Bottle Rocket director Wes Anderson. At the time of her July 27 death at age 72 from Lou Gehrig’s disease, she was completing a documentary about filmmaker Roger Corman. A private memorial is planned for Sept. 17 in L.A.; the family requests that donations be made to Women in Film.
Writer-director, Platt’s ex-husband and creative collaborator
“We met working in the theater in April 1961 [when he was a film critic and programmer at the Museum of Modern Art]. I was preparing a scene for a [summer stock] theater in Phoenicia, N.Y., near Woodstock. We were casting, getting costumes and design people. She came to see me as a costume designer. I liked her and hired her. We started living together that summer and got married at the end of 1962.
When I went to interview John Ford on the set of Cheyenne Autumn for Esquire [in 1963], she came with me. We went down to the location to watch him shoot.
When we met, she didn’t know much about movies. She knew more about theater. The only director she ever heard of was Ford. We were friends then with a lot of people like [film critic] Andrew Sarris, all of whom were mad about movies. We would see movies incessantly. She picked up all of that and met all the same people and was part of all the same conversations. Polly was very quick to pick up on things.”
Platt read the book The Last Picture Show by Larry McMurtry and recommended it to her husband. They worked side by side on the movie. It was a difficult, demanding shoot in the heat of Texas, and to make it even more uncomfortable, Bogdanovich famously fell in love with his youthful star Cybill Shepherd and broke it off with Platt, who at the time was pregnant with their second child. Despite the breakup, Platt continued working on the movie; In a 1999 interview with Texas Monthly, she recalled: “I was jealous, of course, wildly. I did Cybill’s hair every day. I cut her hair, you know. I was tempted. …”
Platt also with Bogdanovich after that on What’s Up, Doc? and Paper Moon.
“We enjoyed doing What’s Up, Doc? together. We weren’t divorced yet, but we were living apart,” Bogdanovich says. “Then we did Paper Moon. It wasn’t the easiest thing to do [working and raising two small children]. She had help all through it, but it wasn’t easy. She loved working on the pictures. She didn’t want to let that go. She kept working.”
He says Platt was a very good editor of screenplays. She also added creative ideas.
“For a scene in Paper Moon, we needed to find a place to hide the money so it couldn’t be found but it would be in plain sight, and the audience would know where it was. Polly suggested putting it in the hat [worn by Tatum O’Neal] and putting some lace around the hat to hide it. That solved the problem and was a very good solution. She really had a very keen eye. She was fun to work with.”
Writer-director whose film debut, Say Anything …, was produced by Platt
“She was ferocious about voice — your writer-director-filmmaking voice. She knew how to guard a director’s or writer’s freedom to tell the story in gorgeous detail, with passion. Every detail mattered to Polly, and nothing slipped by her. She took a lot of pride in knowing how all the pieces of a movie worked. She could do almost all the jobs herself — and did in the early days of making movies with Peter Bogdanovich.
There’s a great story about a Broadcast News day when James Brooks was about to film a scene and Polly said, ‘No, not yet!’ And she ran up the steps of the set with a bucket of paint and painted a single door red. It pops in the scene and matters in a beautiful way. That red door is Polly — she knew how to make every detail matter.
In my experience, she took no prisoners in getting that job done. That kind of passion is what’s missing so often now. She mentored a lot of people, and for good reason.
She was on top of every part of a movie: casting, writing, production design. She just kind of inhaled all challenges and fired out tough notes about how to make a movie rich.
With Say Anything …, there was a party scene, and she was like a fierce-looking bird — her head snapping this way and that, checking every detail on every extra. That was Polly.
She had a body of work that was loaded with greatness. She also did a key thing for me as a first-time director. She knew, heading into Say Anything …, that I would need the support of a great cinematographer. She went out and got a master, Laszlo Kovacs. 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. That was how I got to work with him, and I was kind of bulletproof with Laszlo because of the relationship with Polly. Laszlo went the extra mile and never ceased to take me aside and say, ‘This is how it’s done.’ I thanked Polly, then and later.
‘Ferocious’ is the word that comes to mind, always. Also, very tough. She would not stop herself from doing the right thing, even if it was going to ruffle feathers. In fact, ruffling feathers was often something that made her confident she was on the right track.
We wanted to have a wrap party on Say Anything …, but there was no more money in the budget for a party. John Cusack and I were shocked: ‘We’ve got to have a wrap party!’ She said: ‘Nope. If you want a wrap party, you’ve got to pay for it yourself.’ We had our party, and we sprung for it ourselves. Years later, we remember that wrap party more than any other. It was the wrap party Polly made us pay for. It was all about Polly holding a machete to protect the movie and making sure we put the money up on the screen. Take no prisoners. Tell your story, tell it great, stay hungry — everything else is fluff.
She was never ready to settle for good. Good belongs to too many people. Great was a much smaller club.
She’d been there and wanted to be generous about helping you get there. She did all of this with rare delight and an epic sense of humor. That’s why we’re talking about her right now and will be for a long time.”
Star of Broadcast News, which Platt executive produced
“She was a star player. She was one of the greatest people I’ve ever met in my work. There wasn’t one bit of her at all out of style. She was amazing, incredible. She was wonderful about making connections between talented people then letting them do the work in a spirit of seemingly glib but wonderfully playful generosity. She never lost her sense of humor.”
Oscar-nominated costume and production designer
“She was a visionary, no question about it. She had wonderful ideas. She was very thorough in her understanding of what films needed to do, both on a visual and production-design level. She was very hands-on with costumes, hair, makeup. My first experience with her was doing costumes on Terms of Endearment. I was very affected by everything she was doing. She was a great supporter and mentor, not just to me. And she really could hold the reins of everything that was going on visually in a film and deliver that look. She allowed people to do their own thing, but she also wanted to be involved. She welcomed it all in the interest of the movie. The movie was the thing that mattered above and beyond anything else.”
Directed The War of the Roses, which Platt executive produced
“It was wonderful working with her. She always brought a brightness and a dedication to film and to the work. She’s somebody you could always rely on to come through with ‘the Eye.’ She had a great eye. Whether it was little things like exteriors or the interior of a house, she was full of great ideas. She had great heart.”
Creator of The Simpsons
“I was living in this little apartment building next to Paramount Studios [in 1986], and I got a call from Polly Platt. I don’t know how she got my number. She said: ‘I’d like to talk to you about doing a cartoon. Come over for a meeting.’ She had given my work to Jim Brooks, and she said she loved my stuff. She was always a great supporter of mine and The Simpsons.”
Star of The Last Picture Show
“Polly was so wonderful to work with. On The Last Picture Show, her brilliant, creative touch was felt everywhere. She was a great filmmaker and a joy to know. I’ll miss dear Polly.”
Thomas A. Walsh
President, Art Directors Guild
“When she was admitted in 1971, it was very difficult for a woman to get into a male-dominated industry. It had been since its origins. She is a role model for other women to follow. She broke the ice. She was really a consummate collaborator, a very good sounding board. Besides being well-read and very articulate, she was extremely smart and knew art, history and literature. And she wasn’t intimidated by the men. She was willing to stand her ground.”
Executive producer, Bottle Rocket
“She was a completely collaborative artist. She got credit as a production designer or a writer, but if you had a term ‘film artist,’ that would have been Polly. She didn’t segregate her roles. It was: ‘This script isn’t right. Let’s make it better.’ Or: ‘This actor isn’t right. Let me find somebody else.’ Polly’s brilliance was her entire way of looking at a movie and the elements that make it great.”
Cox producer, Terms of Endearment and Broadcast News
“Polly was best at tossing the salad. You can have the makings with the lettuce in one place, the dressing in another and the accoutrements. But you have to dress them, make them all come together. She would bring elements together, bring creative thoughts and notes and take other people’s ideas and her own incredible vision about the way something should look and sound and make something that was more than just the sum of its parts.”
James L. “Jim” Brooks
Writer-director, founder of Gracie Films, of which Platt was executive vp
“Polly was absolutely unique. A lot of people work hard, but she was a major talent. She couldn’t help helping people. She couldn’t help mentoring. It was in her structure.
She loved movies with a kind of ferocity that impacts everything. It just made it seem very legitimate. Movies were a religion to Polly. She was ferociously devoted to that religion.
She could not help being honest. She could not help saying what was on her mind. Polly spent most of her life unfiltered, which is what I think people loved about her.
The only thing that I saw her be really proud of, for herself –and Polly had a lot of accomplishments; a lot of people owe her a lot — but she loved that John Ford had this hat that he loved, that he wore on some of his big movies, and one day he gave it to her. It was a fedora with more sweat stains on it than you can imagine, a hat that had been trampled by horses and caravans. That was her favorite award that she ever got.”
Star of What’s Up, Doc? and Paper Moon, on which Platt was production designer
“She was a spectacular woman and as much a director as her husband.
By What’s Up, Doc?, they had already separated. Polly told me openly what had happened. She was such a collaborator of Peter’s. She didn’t know exactly what to do: Leave the marriage and the picture? She wasn’t raised that way, so she stayed and finished The Last Picture Show and then continued on, or tried to, as his collaborator on the next two. Then she just couldn’t take it anymore.
On Paper Moon, Polly mothered Tatum. Tatum’s mother was not there, so Polly took over that role. I was told I wasn’t her father. I wasn’t Addie’s father. This was Peter’s rule because in the movie, I don’t think I’m her father. I’m just giving her a ride. So I kept my distance, and Polly would not let that happen.
It was a terrible loss when she stopped making pictures with Peter. There was an emptiness and a sadness. There was nobody to tell him what wasn’t working. And he resented it when told he wasn’t as good without her.”
Director, subject of Platt’s last film, Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel
“Polly was a truth-teller and a life-giver. She loved with all her heart and so was more easily wounded. She was one of the most multitalented people I have ever met.”
Polly Platt Filmography
Starting out in production design and costumes, Platt went on to produce and executive produce some of Hollywood’s most memorable films, including those highlighted here.
The Last Picture Show (1971)
- Production designer, costumes
- Director: Peter Bogdanovich
Paper Moon (1973)
- Production designer, costumes
- Director: Peter Bogdanovich
Pretty Baby (1978)
- Associate producer, story by and screenwriter
- Director: Louis Malle
Terms of Endearment (1983)
- Production designer
- Director: James L. Brooks
Broadcast News (1987)
- Executive producer
- Director: James L. Brooks
The Witches of Eastwick (1987)
- Production designer
- Director: George Miller
The War of the Roses (1989)
- Executive producer
- Director: Danny DeVito
Bottle Rocket (1996)
- Director: Wes Anderson
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