Polly Platt (1929-2011)

In those days, I used to approach potential profile subjects informally. You never know. One such potential subject that interested me was the brilliant Polly Platt. First, I loved the sound of her name–a distinctly American moniker that sounded like mud going plop on a bumpy sidewalk in the sun. Then, there was the work itself. As the wife of a young and ambitious director named Peter Bodganovich , Platt influenced American film in ways that I found equally if not more fascinating than actually directing a film. While her credit was generally production designer on indelible movies like “The Last Picture Show,” and “Paper Moon,” Platt was more than that. She served as co-screenwriter on some projects (she received sole credit for her 1978 screenwriting effort, “Pretty Baby”) while also steering Bogdanovitch’s eye to stars that could make all the difference. One such discovery was a young model named Cybill Shepherd; Polly saw her on a Mademoiselle magazine cover and thought she would be perfect for the role of the spoiled rich girl dying of boredom in a small town in “The Last Picture Show.” Shepherd was, and she snapped her director up in the process. But I was less interested in the drama of Platt’s private life than in her process of intellection. Dressing Tatum O’Neal in the famous tuxedo she wore when she picked up her Oscar for “Paper Moon”; helping Wes Anderson get “Bottle Rocket,” greenlit; her world of sound and image. After writing to Polly, I got an invitation to visit her in Venice, California, where she lived in a perfectly appointed little house, near a canal. I remember her telling me that Chaplin used to hang around there in the nineteen-twenties; Venice was the place movie people went to to get away. I got the sense that Polly wanted to get away, too. (We met in 2000 or so.) Not get away from the movie industry, exactly, but to find out what she did and didn’t like about being a strong woman possessed of genius in a community that doesn’t necessarily reward you for either. During the course of our talk, Polly offered me a glass of white wine, which I accepted. gratefully; everything was laid out beautifully in her galley kitchen and living room, which, I imagined, must be what life might feel like on a well run ship: snug, and ship shape. I drank the wine, I took a tranquilizer; I had never been so nervous meeting anyone before; it was clear she could see through anything, including my anxiety: she had midwifed her share of determined young boys. But Polly didn’t have a drink herself; by the time we’d met, she’d been sober for years. “But I love watching people drink,” she told me in her slightly raspy, cigarette-smoky voice. Her smile was small because her mouth was small, but her interest in others wasn’t. ¬†We talked about money, and how I should have some one day; she had a money manager she wanted me to meet; he had made her a rich lady. She talked about her brother, Jack, a military guy; she had come from a family of military people. And we talked about the book she was writing about her life in Hollywood, and elsewhere. Still, she wasn’t resting on her accomplishments; there was other work to do, and the immense pride she felt in her daughters filled up her small frame. After our talk, she dropped me off at a friend’s house. “Wow, we’re really in the ‘hood,” she said, getting out of the car. She ¬†walked through my friend’s house where she asked his roommate all sorts of questions: Who built the house? What did those colors on that wall mean? She was interested in how people create a world. My friend could scarcely believe it. Polly Platt–a cineaste’s real life dream walking through the movie of our lives. And then she was gone. Afterwards she wrote to me about one of her daughters. Would I read a paper she wrote? I did, and I wrote back some time later, not knowing that Polly was probably ill by the time I responded, and living in a different part of the world than the world I’d met her in, but no less herself despite all that.