Hollywood’s Fame Scholar Is Reinvigorated

Karina Longworth dug deeper than ever before to make the latest season of hit podcast You Must Remember This.

Photo: Emily Berl
Photo: Emily Berl

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Karina Longworth believes that Hollywood history is American history. Throughout the 20th century, when the country was at the center of the universe (for better or worse), Hollywood played a crucial and meaningful role in exporting American soft power throughout the world. Owing to that significance, Longworth approaches Tinseltown’s history and historiography with exacting seriousness, and in many of the stories on You Must Remember This, the podcast she’s made since 2014, she actively grapples with Hollywood’s many past abuses, injustices, and inequalities.

Earlier this month saw the conclusion of the podcast’s most recent season, “Polly Platt, the Invisible Woman,” which turned out to be some of Longworth’s most ambitious work yet. In it, she tells the story of Platt, the wildly accomplished screenwriter, production designer, and producer whose influence touches a great many movies you probably have strong feelings about: The Last Picture Show, The Bad News Bears, Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News, Big, and Say Anything…, among others. She’s directly responsible for Wes Anderson’s career by virtue of having produced his first film Bottle Rocket, and through a fluke of history — she reportedly introduced James L. Brooks to Matt Groening — she’s indirectly responsible for the creation of The Simpsons. And yet Platt is often still best known as the ex-wife of celebrated filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich, whose career and successes she was also involved in creating.

What makes the season particularly ambitious is the fact that Longworth built the ten-episode narrative based on Platt’s unfinished and unpublished memoir, which she had discovered a few years ago. Platt died in 2011, and so a good deal of the work that went into “The Invisible Woman” hinged on finishing Platt’s words for her — which, for Longworth, was a task that involved re-creating a sense of Platt through interviews with many people who were close to her, including her daughters with Bogdanovich. The season ended up being a remarkable telling of a remarkable life, and in an inspired spark of showmanship, Longworth’s efforts were further elevated by the choice to cast Maggie Siff to give voice to Platt in the podcast.

In some ways, “The Invisible Woman” is the ultimate You Must Remember This season. Platt’s story embodies many of the themes that run through Longworth’s historiographical work on the podcast. Whether the focus is on the overlooked women in the life of Howard Hughes or the many people condemned by the black list, Longworth has spent season after season interrogating Hollywood mythology, examining how historical narratives in the film business get preserved and distorted over time, and rescuing key figures — particularly women — on the verge of being lost to history.

Because of those sensibilities, You Must Remember This quickly became a cult hit after launching in 2014, going on to become a respected institution in the podcast world. There is an argument to be made that Longworth is podcasting’s equivalent to Ken Burns, but to make it would deny her own specificities. Longworth’s is a singular voice, idiosyncratic and endlessly interesting, and the feel of her podcast work has remained largely its own, even as the podcast world around it continues to grow bigger and more corporatized. It’s almost as if You Must Remember This exists outside the muck of capitalism.

I recently checked in with Longworth to talk about the season, but also to discuss the state of Hollywood and whether its capacity to create mythology has changed as we trundle deeper into the 21st century, which increasingly seems to be a point in history where the United States no longer finds itself the center of the universe. There was a certain providence to the timing of this conversation about Old Hollywood. Shortly after, Ben Smith, the New York Times’ media columnist, published a piece titled “The Week Old Hollywood Finally, Actually Died,” which strung together various events supporting the thesis: the death of Sumner Redstone; the dismissal of Bob Greenblatt, the chairman of WarnerMedia Entertainment; and the precariousness of the film industry, which finds itself in a world where streaming services are on the rise and Hollywood filmmaking — that potent American engine — no longer plays as meaningful a role in the production of American power.

Longworth has thoughts about all of this. Speaking with the film historian and former film critic, one gets the sense that although she remains in love with Old Hollywood movies, she has little love for Old Hollywood itself. It’s a tension that seems to sit comfortably with her scholarship, which finds a balance between challenging mythology and preserving its value.

You’ve been making You Must Remember This for half a decade now …
Six years!

Does making the show still animate you in the same way? How has your relationship with the podcast changed since you started out?
Talk about having a goal and then going after it, right? When I first started doing the podcast, I was at a point in my career where I just really didn’t see any job out there for me. I felt a little desperate, and that I have one more chance to just make something to show people what it is I can do, and maybe it would lead to something or maybe it won’t. So I put everything I had into the podcast when it was just a DIY venture, and I just got really lucky that people found it right away and it became successful pretty quickly.

After that happened, it was just like, “Well, maybe I should come up with some other goals. Now what?”

That’s kinda been what I’ve been trying to figure out over the past few years. I wrote a book about Howard Hughes. I sold a season of the podcast as a TV show, and have been working on that for a few years. Now I’m working with a producing partner to try to generate other TV stuff. I really, really want to make a TV version of You Must Remember This. Sort of like the E! True Hollywood Story as directed by Adam Curtis. Do you know who Adam Curtis is?

The BBC documentarian?
Yeah! What Adam Curtis is to the BBC archive, I want to be for the Hollywood archives. I don’t know, we’re trying to figure it out. I hope there’ll be news to report sometime within the next six years.

Basically, I keep trying to come up with new things to shoot for. My passion for the podcast itself has ebbed and flowed over the years, because it’s so hard to make. But as I’m talking to you, I feel more excited about it than I have in a really long time. I feel really proud of the Polly Platt season. I feel far more excited about telling stories in this format than I have in a long time. Because of the labor involved, usually when I finish a season, I feel like I don’t know if I ever want to do that again. But now I definitely want to keep doing this and I want it to be this thing that underlines my life and my work even if I’m doing other things at the same time.

“The Invisible Woman” seems to be the clearest embodiment of You Must Remember This so far. Looking back at the season, what does Polly Platt’s story mean to you now?
It just gets more and more meaningful. Really, it’s become a part of my life.

Polly was always somebody I had been interested in, but there simply weren’t many resources for learning about her. So when I heard about her unpublished memoir, and then I got to read it and form this relationship with her daughters to make the season, it just transformed from being one of many things in Hollywood history I wanted to learn more about into something extremely personal. I spent all this time taking a document she wrote, which when I read it was not available to the public, and did the work to flesh out her story and bring her voice to other people.

I agree on some level that it’s sort of the ultimate version of a You Must Remember This season. But it’s also become something really different because of how much labor it required from me — physically, intellectually, emotionally — to complete this unfinished story.

Can you walk me though the process of making this season?
It’s hard to separate the process from the time I started working on it. I began in earnest last summer, and I was still working hard throughout the first few months of the quarantine. So it might have been a different experience — at least, I hope so — if I would have been able to meet people in real life in March, April, or May. I got very, very, very lucky that I had pretty much finished archival research before March. That turned out to be a real accident of my own process. I like to do this thing where I read everything you can possibly read about a subject as the first step. So, I had done all that before all the libraries and archives closed.

I had spoken to Platt’s daughters a few times before this, but I really only started doing interviews in late February. I never actually got to meet most of the people I interviewed for it — the conversations were done over Skype, Zoom, and FaceTime. That gave the process not necessarily an ideal quality.

The quarantine changed a few things positively, though. Previously, a number of people were impossible to reach. They’d ignore the requests I made. Which is understandable — you might not want to talk to a stranger about something that happened 20 to 40 years ago. But many of the people I was pursuing were older, and they took quarantine very seriously. So all of a sudden I think they were happy to have someone reach out to them and to have a conversation — and they were also in an emotionally naked state. The people I was able to get to talk to me, they were extraordinarily open and vulnerable.

One theme from the season that stuck with me is how Platt’s historical undervaluing had a lot to do with the fact that she never directed a movie. Do you think that kind of distinction has changed over time?
In filmmaking, I still think it’s directors who are the most known in terms of the people who work behind the scenes. Second to that might be writers. In some cases, it’s the studio executives or moguls — people like Jason Blum, say — who become well known. In a way, Blum is the auteur of all his movies, right? Even when he works with a well-known writer or director, there’s a house style that comes from him, often more so than from the actual artist.

That’s really what this is: the auteur theory, which for a long time, at least in the American discourse about film and Hollywood, meant “director.” And there are still far fewer female directors than there are male directors. If there was a Polly Platt today — someone who spent the bulk of their career as a production designer, and then became a producer and writer, but never became a director — I still don’t know if it’s easier for their reputation to be as grand as it should be today.

Let me just say, directors should get a lot of credit for movies. In most cases, I don’t know that there’s anybody that works on a film that should get more credit than them. But there are people who were not directors who still built unique styles and bodies of work that can and should be talked about in the same way.

It’s really hard to talk about the state of cinema right now, because we really don’t know if it’s ever going to go back to “normal” in terms of how movies are going to be released in theaters. This isn’t just about the pandemic, but the economic crisis that’s going to affect movie production going forward. Because of that, it’s impossible to know how movies are going to be written about. It’s important to know what the Oscars or film festivals are going to be like, but those things certainly have put a lot of primacy on directors being the filmmaker, rather than maybe the head chef in a kitchen full of people doing work.

Do you feel like Hollywood’s capacity to manufacture mythology has changed in the 21st century, compared to the 20th?
It’s probably more the same than people want to discuss. There’s this idea that social media has changed everything, and maybe it’s changed a lot, but does anybody really feel like they’re getting an unvarnished glimpse into the lives of celebrities? It feels to me a lot like the way fan magazines used to be: “inside Joan Crawford’s living room,” or something. It’s an illusion of intimacy, but still it’s a publicity set.

One thing I can say is that movie stars don’t really exist in the way they did even 15 years ago. I’m still trying to get perspective on why that is. I do know that in 2005, everything Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt did was a really big deal, including the movies they were in. Now it feels like what celebrities do is a big deal because of their Instagram or where they’re photographed and things like that. Meanwhile, the actual things they’re supposed to be doing for a living — being in movies and TV shows, and so on — it feels like those almost don’t hit anywhere near the level of the products they put out there on their own social media.

I’m trying to figure out what that means in terms of power. This is a process that’s been going on since the ’80s, but it’s accelerated over the past 20 years with the globalization of the film and entertainment industry. I don’t think there’s a legacy film studio left that isn’t part of a global telecom or technology company, and that really changes the importance of filmmaking within the context of the corporate elite. It makes it so that obviously there’s a lot of other things going on, people’s attention is divided between the internet and video games and all these other sources. In the corporate context, movies are not the most important product anymore.

It almost sounds like it’s a supply-demand problem. We have way more celebrities than we’ve ever had, but our capacity to worship celebrities remains a finite resource.
I just think movies have become unimportant to younger generations. There’s a chicken-and-egg debate about why that is, and I don’t necessarily think one idea is correct and another one isn’t. I just find that when I talk to people who are significantly younger than me, it’s almost as easy to get them interested in the history of Hollywood as it would be to get them interested in contemporary Hollywood, because both things are kind of foreign to them. People don’t have the habit of going to the movies that my generation had. It’s just a different world.

There was a profile of you in The Atlantic in 2018 that drew attention to what seems to be your skepticism about fame, and about being public in general, which is something that comes from your historiographical work. That’s tricky as a person who makes media, because you’re putting stuff out into the public to be assessed, and if things work out, you end up achieving some level of recognizability. My sense is that you have achieved what can be characterized as “cult status.” Is that more or less your ideal level of fame?
I certainly don’t need any more of it. I’m married to somebody [the director Rian Johnson] who is more famous than I am, and I don’t think it brings anything good into your life other than more money. Even he gets recognized at just three specific kinds of places: movie theaters, record stores, and film festivals. That’s pretty much it. So that’s like the perfect level of fame for him. It’s nice when it makes your life a bit easier, and you’d want to stop when you reach the point where it starts to make your life harder.

Having done historical research on Hollywood for as long as you have, how has your understanding of why people are drawn to fame changed over the years?
I’ve developed greater empathy for the need that some people have for that kind of attention. And also, for the tragedy that a lot of those same people have experienced because when they get the thing that they’ve been struggling to get, they realize it doesn’t fulfill them. That manifests for many people in a lot of different ways and in fields that are not stardom-related. You have a goal and you chase after it, and then you get what you thought you wanted and then it turns out it doesn’t fill that hole inside you, or enough time has passed so that it isn’t actually what you wanted after all.

It’s just this super-fundamental human thing. Obviously, it’s something experienced by a lot of people in Hollywood over the course of entertainment history, but it’s also something that is experienced by a lot of humans in general. That’s one of those things where I can communicate universal emotions to people and have them understand it, which might then allow them to have some kind of empathic understanding or increased interest in the movies.

Decades from now, how would you like your work to be understood?
I hope that my work will help people understand the history of Hollywood, and how inextricable it is from American history. We’ll see how much damage is being done right now, but certainly in the 20th century, America was, for better or worse, the center of the universe, and Hollywood was the engine reflecting and projecting that. That’s what I want people to understand about the history of the movies, and I hope my work can help them do that.

Given your prominence as a veteran podcast creator, how much do you think about the legacy and influence of You Must Remember This? Do you have much of a sense of its place in the evolving podcast industry?
I have to admit that I don’t really think about the podcast industry as a whole, and I guess because of that, I don’t know how You Must Remember This fits into it. I have no idea if You Must Remember This is truly influential. It does seem like other podcasts have popped up in an attempt to rip me off, but I don’t think that’s the same thing as “influence.”

How would you like to be remembered decades from now?
There’s this actress, Kay Francis, who was a movie star in the 1930s, and she was a big star until Bette Davis came around. When she was asked questions like this one, she would respond, with her lisp, “I can’t wait to be forgotten!”

Hollywood’s Fame Scholar Is Reinvigorated