The opening music of the podcast “You Must Remember This” contorts a Casablanca tune into a hypnotic theme. That is merely preparation for the trance-like narration of Karina Longworth, the LA-based podcaster who created “You Must Remember This” in 2014 to explore the “secret and/or forgotten histories of Hollywood’s first century.”
Each season of the podcast uncovers an oft-ignored Hollywood narrative. Longworth’s latest season, “Polly Platt: The Invisible Woman,” dives into the life of Polly Platt, a production designer and film producer. Platt’s contributions, while influential, were often overlooked in favor of pedestalizing the male directors who took her advice, notably her then-husband, the director Peter Bogdonavitch.
Polly Platt’s fingerprints are all over films such as The Last Picture Show, What’s Up, Doc?, and Terms of Endearment (the latter of which I mistakenly watched unsupervised during quarantine). Platt died in 2011 at the age of 72 with her memoir unfinished.
Last March, Polly Platt’s daughters handed over their mother’s memoir to Longworth, who has long been aware of the cohort of Hollywood women in the 1970s whose husbands became household names while their own contributions were tucked deep in the credits.
Longworth is currently telling Polly Platt’s story in a 10-part series, released every Tuesday. I spoke with her in May about her similarities to Platt, her Jewish grandparents, and of course, Babs.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
How are you holding up?
I live in Los Angeles where it’s pretty easy to social distance and I don’t have kids and I usually work at home anyway so my life is actually not that different.
Has COVID changed your watching habits?
My husband and I have done this thing where, at the very beginning of the quarantine, I made a list of a bunch of movies that I’d never seen before. We put all the movies into this app called Random. Three to four nights a week, we press the button and it tells us what we’re going to watch. It takes the conversation about what you’re going to watch out of the equation. And it’s very satisfying.
Your new season of “You Must Remember This” is all about Polly Platt. What first attracted you to her story?
For a long time, I’ve been interested in these stories of women who were involved in the movies of 1970s Hollywood usually because they were in a romantic relationship or marriage with a male director, and then they made creative contributions to those movies. Classic texts about that period, like Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, will use the women as sources for gossipy quotes, but they don’t really care about what happened to those women after those men disposed of them. I always want to know more about Polly Platt and Toby Rafelson and Marcia Lucas.
This season is largely based off of Platt’s unfinished memoir. How did you navigate the subjectivity of a memoir?
I look at the memoir as this really exciting document of somebody who is no longer with us telling us exactly how she felt about a large portion of her life. I let the memoir guide my way to a large extent. But because it’s unfinished, I still had a lot of questions and so I started talking to people in her life to try to answer more questions.
You’ve also written a few books. How do the opportunities of podcasts compare to those in the publishing world?
I have absolute freedom in terms of what I do these podcast seasons about. Somebody was asking me the other day, “Do you have somebody working on the podcast who tells you cut this, add that?” and I was like, “No, I tell them we need to cut this, you need to change the music there.” It’s my show and I call the shots.
“It’s my show I get to call the shots” makes me think of the common characterization of Platt as strong-willed and very honest. How do you feel your working style compares to her?
It’s been interesting getting to know Polly and seeing aspects of myself in her and really relating to her in a way. Polly had a big influence on some of the characters in the movies she worked on. There’s a scene where Holly Hunter’s character in Broadcast News is forcefully fighting for what she believes and her boss says something like, “It must be great being the smartest person in every room,” and she says, “No, it’s awful.” That’s Polly. She has to fight for what she thinks is right in terms of the creative process. But it’s not like she likes doing it, and in fact she emotionally suffered.
I don’t think I’m quite the same but certainly the most outspoken I ever am is in my work. Like Polly, I have this sort of ability — or sort of flaw — of steamrolling through the work and asking for exactly what I want and not really being able to take other people’s feelings into account. It’s something that I’ve tried to work on. But I am that way because my dad was that way and that was the only model I had for how to be in business. And so it’s a hard thing to change.
Your husband is a director, right? Were you able to relate to Polly on that level?
No, because my husband is a really different type of person. First of all, we never collaborate together and I don’t think we ever will. If we did, I think that the dynamic would be very different. Sometimes I feel like what Hollywood wants from a director’s spouse is for them to look good and be quiet.
Did you ever feel you are that version of a director’s spouse?
I don’t look good enough and I’m not quiet enough.
Maggie Siff voices Platt this season, but you do a lot of the other voices in her life. What’s your process for doing those impressions?
It all just comes out of me. I record the podcasts alone in a closet and I go to another place while I’m doing it.
One thing that has been fun is seeing Maggie Siff as she does Polly’s narration. In the second episode, there’s this long story about Fritz Lang, the German director, and Maggie was like, “Do you want me to do Fritz Lang’s voice?” and I was like, “If you want to but don’t worry about it.” Then she came out with this awesome German accent. It really puts my attempts at doing impressions to shame.
Actors have performed voices on previous seasons of “You Must Remember This.” How do you like working with actors? It makes you quite literally… a director.
I’m self-conscious about my ability as a director. It’s definitely asking people to reach into themselves and not only try to connect with character, but sometimes say things in a very specific way. It really takes balls. I feel very strongly about the creative perfection of the work and I know exactly what I want. I’m not going to get what I want unless I ask for it.
That’s so Polly Platt of you.
It’s one of the things that made Polly’s life really hard. People didn’t want that from a woman, especially then, but they still don’t. Life is easier if you have a different set of people skills that allows you to get what you want while making other people think it’s their idea. But I don’t have that and Polly didn’t have that.
Platt worked with Barbra Streisand on a few films. What was their relationship like?
Polly’s daughters remember them having a friendship and they remember going over to Barbra’s house. The way Polly writes about working with Barbra was that they had a really good working relationship because they could both be difficult people. They were both focused on the work and on making the work as good as it could be. I think that Polly observed Barbra as a very powerful woman in an industry in which, at that time, there were very few women in power. I think she admired her quite a bit.
You have a Star of David emoji in your Twitter bio. What does including it mean to you?
My mother was Jewish. My grandparents were Saul and Ada Shieman. They were the biggest spot of religion in my life. My father is a British Protestant, but he was an atheist and very not religious. My mother wasn’t fully practicing but she was still really connected to her family who were. So I was raised in the Jewish cultural tradition.
I think of myself as being Jewish, and increasingly, I think of myself as being Jewish in a world where there’s some really scary anti-Semitism. I’m married into a Christian conservative family in which the topic of me being Jewish doesn’t come up but I’m aware of it. I don’t want anybody to think that I’m trying to hide my Jewishness and so I want to put it out there.
Are there any Jewish stars of Hollywood’s past that perk your interest?
I always thought it was funny that — or not funny — but I love that Elizabeth Taylor converted.
Header image: Polly Platt by Warner Brothers/Getty Images and Karina Longworth by Lia Toby/Getty Images for BFI.