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12 August 2020

How producer Polly Platt shaped Broadcast News

Nominated for seven Oscars, the film is considered James L Brooks's masterpiece. But another force also moulded the movie. 

By Simran Hans

Jane Craig is up past her bedtime. She is writing letters to her pen pals and she’s got two left to do tonight if she is to stay on schedule (“this way, the rotation stays the same”). “Finish quickly – I don’t want you getting obsessive about these things,” her father says. The pre-teen Jane takes a beat before storming into the living room and launching into a furious speech about the psychological implications of the word “obsessive”. Satisfied, she plants a goodnight kiss on her father’s cheek.

James L Brooks’s 1987 romantic comedy Broadcast News hit a little too close to home the first time I watched it. And the second, and the third, and the fourth. Other self-identifying obsessives, workaholics and hotheads prone to emotional outbursts might also find themselves cringing in recognition as its protagonist, TV news producer Jane Craig (Holly Hunter), unplugs her landline and allows herself a brief, scheduled sob-fest. The film centres around a love triangle between Jane and two of her colleagues – Aaron (Albert Brooks), a witty, intelligent reporter whom she considers a close friend, and underqualified news anchor Tom (William Hurt), who unfortunately happens to be very good-looking.

Nominated for seven Oscars, the film is considered Brooks’s masterpiece: he wrote, directed and produced it. But another force also shaped the movie. Speaking to Premiere magazine in 1993, Brooks describes his friend, collaborator and the film’s executive producer Polly Platt as “amazingly tough and totally vulnerable at precisely the same moment – so that she can either kill you or burst into tears”. Detail-orientated, excellent at her job, expressive to a fault … She sounds a little – a lot – like Jane Craig.

Platt herself tells Premiere that Jane’s manic direction-giving was “definitely from me, because even to this day, I’m all about how to get there in every sense of the word”. The profile, written by Rachel Abramowitz, is a key source in the latest series of Karina Longworth’s You Must Remember This podcast, which focuses on the writer, producer, production designer and “Invisible Woman”. Longworth seeks to correct Platt’s legacy, which is too often tethered to her creative collaborations with (and nine-year marriage to) director Peter Bogdanovich.

Abramowitz describes Platt as “of a certain generation and temperament”, who put all her “energy and brilliance into making men brilliant” instead of realising her own dreams. As well as working closely with Bogdanovich on The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon, she played key roles in several huge studio films directed by men, including the Barbra Streisand-starring A Star is Born, Brooks’s Oscar-winning Terms of Endearment and box office smash The Witches of Eastwick. As a producer, she launched the careers of both Cameron Crowe and Wes Anderson, with Say Anything in 1989 and Bottle Rocket in 1996 respectively.

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Rewatching Broadcast News with Platt in mind made me less inclined to interpolate myself as its prickly but loveable heroine and instead to read Jane as a riff on Polly. In the podcast, excerpts of Platt’s unpublished memoir It Was Worth It are reproduced with permission from her daughter Sashy Bogdanovich and read by Mad Men’s Maggie Siff. Details about Platt’s turbulent love life suggest that despite the advent of second-wave feminism (and the women-in-the-workplace comedies of the late Seventies and early Eighties), it was difficult to maintain both a rewarding career and a healthy romantic relationship. The same is true for Jane. “I’m great if I’m helping your career,” she says to one of her suitors. “But when I’m a woman for a second, I immediately get fucked around by you!”

There are other similarities. Platt was frequently described as petite; Hunter is 5ft 1in. The camera draws attention and finds comedy in Jane’s height. Hunter is a small but potent tornado of energy, claiming the moral high ground as she cranes her neck up to converse with her colleagues. And as for the crying fits? Speaking to Abramowitz, Brooks hinted at Platt’s emotional volatility with warmth. The film’s depictions of Jane’s outbursts are affectionate, too. The cynical Aaron tells Jane that a wise man once told her, “You’re lucky if you can get out while you can still cry” – joking that he should’ve quit three years ago.

One story about Platt that endures is that during the filming of Broadcast News, she stopped a take to paint a door fire-engine red, knowing that it would make the scene “pop”. That anecdote reminds me of another moment in the film, in which Jane inserts a visual of Norman Rockwell’s 1945 painting Homecoming into a news segment, minutes before broadcast. Call it a producer’s intuition. Platt died of motor neurone disease at the age of 72 in 2011, but in Longworth’s podcast, and Broadcast News, she continues to run the show behind the scenes. 

“Broadcast News” is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video