Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Truth as Evil (Or: Fritz Lang, Polly Platt, and Peter Bogdanovich)

So here's a story that has made me think.  It comes from Karina Longworth's great podcast You Must Remember This, the second episode of the recently-ended season devoted to the life and career of Polly Platt, the still underappreciated "invisible woman" of film from the 1960's until her death in 2011.

Here's what happened: In the late 1960's, in Hollywood, Platt and her then-husband, the filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich, became friendly with director Fritz Lang.  Lang was old, retired, and nearly blind at this time, living, despite the long list of remarkable films he'd made, in anything but luxury.  He lived alone essentially and liked to drink martinis.  Platt, of course, knew his films well, and in the unfinished memoir she wrote that Longworth takes passages from, Platt says that she thought his films were brilliant for the most part.  But she also says, "they were so evil that I hated them even as I admired them".  She goes on to say, "He was an evil man."

Evil? Why?  

Platt tells us she found this about Lang when Lang invited Peter and her to "his place" in Palm Springs.  She and Peter were very excited to receive the invitation and drove to Palm Springs, only to find that "his place" was a "decidedly decrepit motel surrounding a kidney-shaped pool".  Lang was a good friend of the motel's owner, and presumably, she gave Lang a deal.  In any event, one day Polly and Peter found themselves having breakfast in a pancake house with Lang, and they discussed the "international news in America".  Polly and Lang got into an argument about Vietnam.  Lang was a dove about Vietnam, Lang a hawk.  At one point, in the heat of the argument, Lang accidentally forgot Polly's name and called her Patty.  Polly immediately corrected him about her name, but the argument itself and Lang's forgetting her name so upset that she got up from the table and went back to the room she and Peter had in the motel.  Bogdanovich, though, stayed with Lang.

In her room, Polly thought Peter would be angry with her for having argued with the great man.  Polly says that she felt sorry too, but she felt that Lang was wrong about what they'd been discussing.  Later in the day, Polly went by herself to Lang's room to apologize, and as she says, "He was very gracious about it and we became friends again."

Weeks later, Lang, "very hush hush", called Polly and asked her to come alone to his house to have breakfast.  He told her not to tell Peter about this, but she did tell him, and with amusement between them, they wondered what Lang could possibly be inviting her over for.

After breakfast, Lang, as Katrina Longworth puts it, "dropped the bomb".

"Polly, I don't want to talk to you about how much your husband loves you or not, but you must remember, when you and I had an argument and you ran out, that Peter stayed with the great director, me, rather than side with you, his wife.  This is something for you to think about, no?"

Polly says that she never told Peter what Lang said because she knew it would hurt Peter.  And she admits that what Lang said was true.  But, as she explains, "That is why it was so evil.  It put a strange barrier between Peter and me."

She concludes by saying that years later, when she told Orson Welles this story, Welles said, "Lang was Iago."

I won't go on with much more about Polly Platt and Peter Bogdanovich's marriage because if you don't know the story about Peter and Cybill Shepherd and the making of The Last Picture Show and how Peter and Polly's marriage ended, you can easily look it up.  And even if you do know something about it, you'll learn more -- I guarantee you -- by listening to the podcast I'm talking about.

But my question: Putting aside the question of whether Fritz Lang's movies are evil, who thinks what he did here, making his "unwelcome intervention" into the Platt-Bogdanovich marriage, was evil? I understand why Polly Platt used the word, and she was someone who used words very precisely.  But it's a fascinating word to employ here, I think.  Fritz Lang made an astute observation (which would bear fruit in how Peter conducted himself later).  Is telling the truth like that, being ruthlessly candid like he was, even though nobody asked him to do that -- does that qualify as evil?



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