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Polly Platt Broke Barriers While Dealing With Hollywood Harassment

Terms of Endearment
Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Polly Platt, production designer, screenwriter, producer, and key collaborator to auteurs such as James L. Brooks and Peter Bogdanovich, doesn’t get the credit she deserves as a creative genius.

The new season of “You Must Remember This,” Karina Longworth’s deeply researched podcasts on all things Hollywood history, aims to rectify that injustice. Entitled “Polly Platt, The Invisible Woman,” the series recounts Platt’s integral role in the creation of such classics as “The Last Picture Show,” “Paper Moon,” “Terms of Endearment,” “Broadcast News,” and “Say Anything.” It also details her stormy personal life — a battle with alcoholism, as well as the emotional toll exacted by the breakup of her marriage to Bogdanovich, who left her on the set of “The Last Picture Show” for Cybill Shepherd.

Platt was a barrier-breaker in every sense of the phrase, becoming one of the first women to be admitted into the production designers guild, and blazing a path in sexist Hollywood on the strength of her ideas and undeniable talent. But in the pre-#MeToo era she faced frequent discrimination and harassment, much of it at the hands of prominent filmmakers, such as Bud Yorkin, who tried to sleep with her during the making of “The Thief Who Came to Dinner,” and Robert Altman, who propositioned her while doing pre-production work on “Nashville.”

Many of Platt’s alleged harassers are dead and Platt herself died in 2011. However, one of the men accused of mistreating her, Paul Verhoeven, is still alive and working. In the latest episode of the show, Longworth used parts of Platt’s unpublished memoir as source material, and in one section she remembers a dinner meeting with Verhoeven to discuss the possibility that she direct “Women,” a Charles Bukowski novel that Platt had adapted for the “Basic Instinct” filmmaker. Verhoeven had rejected an earlier draft by Platt. He did not respond well to the suggestion that Platt make her directorial debut with “Women” when the prospect was raised by Barbara Boyle, a producer who was also at the meeting.

“He turned pretty nasty at the suggestion,” Platt wrote, adding, “When we were standing in the foyer of the restaurant saying good night to Paul when he put his hands up my sweater in front of everybody and whispered in my ear, ‘if you f–k me, I’ll tell you how to write it.'”

Boyle told Longworth that she had no memory of the incident. Through his manager, Verhoeven declined comment. In a 1993 story on Platt by Premiere magazine, the director did share some memories of working on the screenplay that have not aged well.

“We’d meet in the Bel Age Hotel and discuss our sexual lives,” Verhoeven told reporter Rachel Abramowitz. “It was a good thing it was at breakfast.”

In an email, Longworth said that everything she knew about the alleged incident was in the podcast, and went on to note that Verhoeven’s alleged advances were one of only several instances of harassment involving powerful men that Platt endured through her career.

“All I can say is that though sometimes Polly misremembered details of events in her memoir, generally she had a reputation for being brutally honest,” Longworth said. “This event that she describes fits into a pattern of events dating back more than 20 years before this incident, in which many men in the film industry who she was working with seemed to not respect professional boundaries. This comes up in nearly every episode of the season. For me the story is not this one director and this one incident; the story is that, for decades, this kind of thing happened every day and was not only not remarked upon, but was not considered remarkable. And if we’re going to have a conversation about why there still isn’t gender parity in the film industry, we have to understand the climate that prevailed for decades.”

In the ensuing decades, there’s been a lot of debate in the movie business about ways to promote more female filmmaking talent. And there’s been a lot of progress. However, as Longworth notes, there’s still a lot of ground to make up. Last year, women comprised 20 percent of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, cinematographers, and editors working on the 100 highest-grossing films, according to a study by San Diego State University. That’s a four percent increase and a historic high, but still a paltry figure considering that women make up half of the population.

As for Platt, thanks to Longworth’s in-depth series, her contributions to film history are finally being recognized and celebrated. This “invisible woman” is now being seen.