Anyone who works in a job that involves close proximity with the famous and the talented will very quickly tell you, “Never meet your idols.” Get a second cocktail into a maître d’, a magazine photographer, or a chauffeur, and they’ll tell you about how their respect for Celebrity X went out the window after having to deal with him or her in person.
Thankfully, that same headwaiter, shutterbug, and driver will also tell you about which famous folks are kind and generous and compassionate. And when I heard the sad news about Polly Platt passing away Wednesday at the age of 72 after a battle with ALS, I immediately remembered how incredibly gracious and forthcoming she was in our one meeting.
In 1995, I was working in Dallas as the Artistic Director of the USA Film Festival, and Ms. Platt happened to be in Houston producing “The Evening Star,” the somewhat ill-fated sequel to “Terms of Endearment.” (She received an Oscar nomination for her art direction of “Terms,” one of several projects on which she worked with director-producer James L. Brooks.)
When director Louis Malle died in November of that year, it occurred to me to invite Ms. Platt to Dallas to screen Malle’s controversial 1978 film “Pretty Baby,” which she had written and associate-produced. Despite her busy production schedule, she called me back less than a day after receiving my fax and enthusiastically agreed to drive up.
The screening was set for the first week of January, and on the day of the program, Texas was hit by a freak snowstorm. Dallas, like many cities in the South where I spent my formative years, doesn’t see a lot of snow, and so when frozen precipitation does show up, it tends to shut everything down. With snow covering the freeways from Houston to Dallas, we figured that Ms. Platt -- who was driving herself, mind you -- would politely beg off.
But, no, that afternoon, she called the festival office from her hotel and assured us that she would be there. “I’ll go anywhere for Louis,” she said, and she meant it.
Figuring that she had navigated enough wintry roads for one day, I drove her from the hotel to the theater, and then back again afterward. After giving a moving tribute to Malle and fondly recalling the time they spent together making “Pretty Baby,” as we got back in my car and crawled around slowly through Dallas’ snowy streets, Ms. Platt was open and honest enough to answer my questions about her amazing career.
Of course, her collaborations with ex-husband Peter Bogdanovich -- his early triumph with “Targets,” his mammoth breakthrough “The Last Picture Show,” and delightful Hollywood genre homages “Paper Moon” and “What’s Up, Doc?” -- have been fodder for any number of books and documentaries about the Giants of 1970s Hollywood, so I didn’t go there.
I wanted to know about “I’ll Do Anything,” a flop for which I've always had a soft spot. In case you’ve forgotten about that movie, and odds are pretty good that you have, it was the film Brooks wrote and directed after "Broadcast News" and before “As Good as It Gets,” set among Hollywood players like an underemployed actor (played by Nick Nolte), an insecure mogul (Albert Brooks), and a compulsively honest audience researcher (Julie Kavner). The inclusion of the latter character wound up being incredibly ironic, since the legendarily disastrous audience-research screenings of “I’ll Do Anything” turned what started as a musical (with songs by Prince and Carole King, no less) into a tune-free dramedy after focus groups hated the numbers.
When I asked Ms. Platt about it -- she asked me to call her “Polly,” but I’m still too in awe of her for that -- she let out a pained exhalation, and then noted, “It’s like talking about your baby that died.” We talked about those audience tests, about the L.A. Times reporter who followed the film’s death of a thousand paper cuts in excruciating detail, about the fact that it’s a movie that will probably never be restored or rescued in any way, mainly because of the difficulty of getting the music rights back.
She talked about how she and Brooks saw the original short film of Wes Anderson’s “Bottle Rocket,” and how they knew they had found an exciting young filmmaker. She talked about her ongoing relationship with Bogdanovich (they had two daughters together) and her sadness over some of the hard turns his life had taken. Prodded by my questions, she told me story after story with frankness, honesty, wit, and not a touch of bitterness, even though any woman with three decades in the film business no doubt has stories that will singe your eyebrows.
When I dropped her off, I couldn’t resist asking one gossipy question about her breakup with Bogdanovich, which happened when he began having an affair with Cybill Shepherd on the set of “Last Picture Show.” But I couched it in an inquiry about a movie that was said to be based on their divorce.
“I have to know,” I asked. “Was ‘Irreconcilable Differences’ really about you and Bogdanovich?”
“Well,” she replied, “they got more right than wrong.”
And for whatever personal travails she might have suffered during her career in the industry, Polly Platt -- whose varied credits also include executive-producing “The War of the Roses” and “Say Anything,” writing “A Map of the World,” and art-directing the original “The Bad News Bears” -- got much more right than wrong herself.