Thursday, July 28, 2011

RIP: Polly Platt (1939 - 2011)

I have been planning to start a blog for some time.  I really had not planned on writing something personal, but events this week appear to have dictated otherwise.

You may have seen in the papers the obituary for Polly Platt, the esteemed producer/production designer/screenwriter.  Her numerous career accomplishments are detailed here: 

Many people will be writing and commenting about her because she touched the lives of countless individuals, and everybody’s story will no doubt be as unique and insightful as she was. For my part, she was my friend for the last 11 years. 
When I met her in Los Angeles in 2000, I was working at a museum.  I met her while she was touring the museum and asked "Didn't you make 'Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women' with Mamie Van Doren?" and she said "Yes, but I call it 'Gill Women of Venus.'"  She gave me her email address and we started corresponding. 
Over time, we became friends and started going to movies every Sunday for three years and we would always have dinner afterwards.  She  encouraged me to go move East for law school—she said Hollywood had become a “corporate slum”—and taught me to treat everybody I encounter in the professional world with respect because "The people you meet on the way up are the same ones you meet on the way down." 
As expected, we talked a great deal about the movies she made, the people she worked with, the life lessons she encountered during the course of her career.  The anecdotes are too numerous to detail in this posting.  My personal favorite of her movies was “Targets” (1968) and she generously discussed all aspects of the making of that film with me.  She pointed out specific nuances and details in movies that made the difference between a film that was merely OK, and a film that was truly great.  

She taught me how to appreciate the works of esteemed filmmakers I am embarrassed to say that I took for granted prior to discussing them with her.  I taught her all about 1960s starlets that I was fascinated by and she was not familiar with.  She gave me John Ford and Orson Welles.  I gave her Tina Louise.

I remember the time we saw "We Were Soldiers" and she was appalled at the makeup and costuming for the women.  She said to me afterwards, "You will notice that there are many aspects of fashion that remain timeless and last through the generations.  Most people designing period movies forget that you don't have to overdo the period costuming and decor all the time.  Just some subtle touches here and there is enough to set the tone."  

Even though she had very high standards for what determines a good film, she always (always!) wanted to be pleased when she went to the movies.  She didn't enjoy criticizing other people's films because she knew the hard work that went into making them.  When we waited to see Brian DePalma's "Femme Fatale," she pleaded to the screen, "Come on, Brian!  Entertain us!"  

During the time I knew her, she was attached to several projects as a director that did not come to fruition.  She often recused herself from these projects because she had doubts as to quality of the scripts.  I once asked her why she didn't just make the film, even with its flaws, in order to work and to be able to finally say she directed a film.  She said, "It's so hard to make a good film...why would you want to waste all that energy on making a bad one?"

When I first knew her, she was living in a classy bungalow on the canals in Venice, California.  She had a very self-possessed jet-black chow dog named Charcoal.  We often took walks with Charcoal along the canals discussing movies as well as her friends and family.  There was a young filmmaker friend of Polly's who took her to movies on other days of the week.  She often discussed him with me and told me of her great admiration for him, and how his experiences that he had been sharing with her about his efforts to build his career reminded her of her own struggles when she and her then-husband Peter Bogdanovich came out to Los Angeles in 1962 with nothing but hope and dreams of becoming filmmakers.  

Of course, her children were never far from her mind.  She often worried about them, as all mothers do, but also had tremendous admiration and respect for their intelligence, their wit, and their perseverance.   She was very proud of the lives they built for themselves in recent years. 
An aspect of her life that fascinated me was her childhood as an "Army brat" who lived in Germany during the war crimes trials because her father was assigned to work on them.  One reason she became a production designer is because she had a fantasy as a child of rebuilding all the cities of Europe after the war to their original splendor.  As she learned about the atrocities being revealed during the trials, it was difficult for her to comprehend how the Holocaust could take place in the same world where her own father used to scold her brother for just teasing her.  For a woman who was known for working on some of the finest movies about human relationships (ie: "Broadcast News," "Terms of Endearment," "Say Anything," "The Last Picture Show," etc.), she would read books about Churchill, Eisenhower, Patton, and about military history.  She was more engaged and fascinated about the world surrounding her than most individuals.
I knew her health was not well for a long time due to ALS--Lou Gehrig's disease--but I continued to call her to see how she was doing.  Over time, however, it became difficult for her to speak.  The last time I tried to reach her was 2 weeks ago.  Her live-in caregiver said she was unable to come to the phone.  She passed away peacefully on July 27, 2011, leaving behind two daughters, a stepdaughter and stepson from her third marriage, three grandchildren, four step grandchildren, her brother Jack, sister-in-law Paige, three nieces, and last, but not least, her dog Madeline.  She was a well-rounded individual, one of the most intelligent people I ever knew, and someone who put me on the path to working on growing up.  I am very proud that she was my friend.