"The ultimate fusion of commerce and art": Waldo Salt and screenwriting in the 1970s

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)peer-review


Speaking to trade journal Variety in March 1970, the screenwriter Waldo Salt reflected on what he termed a “cultural renaissance in films today.” The creative freedoms afforded Hollywood filmmakers of the late 1960s had, in Salt’s view, laid the foundations for a politically conscious and thematically daring popular cinema – the “ultimate fusion of commerce and art” (Verrill, 1970, pp. 2, 61). Having just received an Academy Award nomination for his work on Midnight Cowboy (1969), the fifty-five-year-old Salt was in fact enjoying something of a “renaissance” himself. Blacklisted in the 1950s for his political affiliations, and the author of several critical and commercial failures in the early 1960s, his success with Midnight Cowboy signalled a career turnaround. Through the 1970s he would go on to pen critically and/or commercially successful features such as Serpico (1973), The Day of the Locust (1975) and Coming Home (1978). This essay examines Waldo Salt’s work within broader debates on screenwriting of the 1970s. Drawing on extensive archival research – draft scripts, correspondences and production documents – I focus on his contributions to political, formal and stylistic content, as well as the tensions between Salt and other creative practitioners as his films travelled from script to screen.

Scholars such as Miranda J. Banks (2016), Kevin Alexander Boon (2014) and Steven Price (2013) have begun to explore the discourses that impacted upon feature film screenwriters and their Guild, the Writers Guild of America West during a period of major upheaval in Hollywood. Locating Salt’s screenplays and public persona within a network of debates on issues such as censorship, authorship, industrial transformation and politics, I consider the ways in which he responded to broader exigencies of the 1970s. In particular, his work on Serpico, Day of the Locust and Coming Home offers a striking case study of the tensions and pressures that influenced mainstream political filmmaking, the revision of standard narrative and character tropes and the relationship between “Old” and “New” Hollywood.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationNew Wave, New Hollywood: Reassessment, Recovery and Legacy
EditorsNathan Abrams, Gregory Frame
PublisherBloomsbury Publishing Company
Number of pages19
ISBN (Electronic)9781501360381, 9781501360398
ISBN (Print)9781501360404
Publication statusPublished - 21 Oct 2021


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