"It was a little late in the day for all that prissy business": The New Hollywood career of Jay Presson Allen

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Speaking to the Los Angeles Times in 1982, Jay Presson Allen offered a blunt assessment of her writing career thus far. “When I hear people talk about careers, I think it’s a joke”, she observed. “What is a career? Who plans one? I have no idea at all” (Rosenfield, 1982, p. C1). Such nonchalance toward her success was hardly new for a woman whose interviews frequently combined brutal honesty, wit, cynicism and a mischievous ability at slicing through any artistic pretentions levelled at her or her peers. “I’ve really written for the money” was a favourite mantra. And if comments like this provide a refreshing alternative to the more ostentatious posturing of some New Hollywood filmmakers, they also underplay her writing triumphs since the late 1960s. From films such as The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969), Cabaret (1972), Funny Lady (1975), Just Tell Me What You Want (1980) and Prince of the City (1981), to television series such as the critically-acclaimed Family (1976-1979), to stage plays and novels, Presson Allen’s work had demonstrated wide-ranging emotional and psychological depth. In different ways, her original screenplays and adaptations resonated with broader political, cultural and industrial issues bedevilling Hollywood throughout the period.

Drawing on a range of materials – draft scripts, interviews, trade and mainstream press reports – this essay examines Presson Allen’s career within broader debates on screenwriting of the late 1960s and 1970s. As has been well-rehearsed, popular and scholarly approaches to this period of film history have overwhelmingly privileged the (male) director as primary creative force. And while in recent years screenwriting scholars such as Miranda Banks (2016), Kevin Boon (2014) and Steven Price (2013) have begun to explore the status of screenwriters and their screenplays at a time of major transformation within the industry, the role of individual writers – and especially women writers – remains under-researched. The essay begins with an overview of Presson Allen’s career. Here, I examine her rise in Hollywood and establishment of her public persona as well as the key themes with which she worked, and continued to work, through the 1960s, 1970s and beyond. I then conduct close analyses of her screenplays for Cabaret and Just Tell Me What You Want, highlighting the ways in which these works offered a new spin on characters, themes and issues associated with the New Hollywood. Known for her complex, literate works and, often, for scripting strong female characters at a time when, it has been argued, Hollywood was increasingly turning toward male-centred narratives, Presson Allen makes for an interesting case study of the ways in which women screenwriters engaged with, and responded to, a changing cinematic landscape.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationWomen and New Hollywood
Subtitle of host publicationGender, Creative Labor, and 1970s American Cinema
EditorsAaron Hunter, Martha Shearer
PublisherRutgers University Press
ISBN (Electronic)9781978821811, 9781978821835
ISBN (Print)1978821808, 9781978821804, 9781978821798
Publication statusPublished - 12 May 2023


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