"I'm going to be a great film star. That is, if booze and sex don't get me first." -- JAY PRESSON ALLEN
Jay Presson Allen (March 3, 1922, San Angelo, Texas – May 1, 2006, New York City) was an American screenwriter, playwright, stage director, television producer and novelist. Known for her withering wit and sometimes-off-color wisecracks, she was one of the few women making a living as a screenwriter at a time when women were a rarity in the profession. "You write to please yourself," she said, "The only office where there’s no superior is the office of the scribe."
Born as Jacqueline Presson in San Angelo, Texas, she was "never particularly fond of her given name", and decided to use her first initial when writing. According to the Dictionary of Literary Biography the more elaborate form, Jay, is the work of a Social Security Clerk.
The only child of a department store manager, she would spend every Saturday and Sunday in the movie house, from one o’clock until somebody dragged her out at seven. From that time on movies became very important to her, and Allen knew she wouldn't be staying in West Texas. Allen attended Miss Hockaday’s School for Young Ladies in Dallas for a couple of years, but came away with, in her words, as "having had no education to speak of." She skipped college and at eighteen left home to become an actress. In New York, her career lasted "for about twenty-five minutes" Allen says, when she realized that she only liked rehearsals and the first week of performance, and would rather be "out there" where the decisions were being made.
In the early 1940s, Allen married "the first grown man who asked me" and lived in the southern California town of Claremont during World War II. It never occurred to her to get into the movie business as she had always considered it to be exotic. Allen became a writer by default, and having always read constantly and being able to write pretty well, she decided to "write her way out" of the marriage and set out to become financially independent of her husband. She always claimed her first husband's big fault was marrying someone too young.Her first work, Spring Riot, was a novel published in 1948 which got mixed reviews. Allen's next effort was a play, which she sent to producer Bob Whitehead. Because he had produced Member of the Wedding, she thought he would like it since her play was also about a child, but the play came back from Whitehead's office rejected. Allen sat on it for a couple of months and sent it back, rightly figuring that some reader had rejected it instead of Whitehead himself. She was correct, and this time Whitehead read the play himself and instantly optioned it. The reader who had initially rejected her play was Lewis Allen whom she would later marry, but due to casting problems her play was never produced on stage.
Allen returned to New York and performed on radio and in cabaret, both of which she loathed, and would go through the whole performance wishing to be fired. In the meantime she started writing again, little by little, and sold some of her work to live television programs like the Philco Television Playhouse. When she married Lewis Allen in 1955, they moved to the countryside, where Lewis wrote and Allen in her words "didn't want to do anything." She had a baby, and spent two and a half "absolutely wonderful years in the country."
Eventually the couple came back to the city to work. By this time Bob Whitehead had become a good friend and encouraged Allen to write another play. She drew on her married life and wrote The First Wife, a witty script about a suburban working couple. It would later be made into the film Wives and Lovers in 1963, starring Janet Leigh and Van Johnson. When Allen read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark, she instantly saw play potential where no-one else did. After undergoing hypnotherapy to alleviate a year long bout of writer's block, Allen produce a draft of the play in three days.
While The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was still an unproduced script, Alfred Hitchcock read it and offered Allen the script for Marnie (1964). Hitchcock brought Allen out to California to work on the film at Universal Studios in the San Fernando Valley. Allen, who lived close by, would bicycle to work. This upset Hitchcock, who thought it was low-class and insisted that a limousine be sent for her every day, whether she wanted it or not. On days when she tried to walk to the studio, the limousine trailed along behind her.
In Allen's opinion, she couldn't learn fast enough to make a first-rate movie, although she thought Marnie did have some good scenes in it. She took a lot of the responsibility for what is considered a very flawed movie, since Hitchcock loved her script so much so that he did not make as good a movie as he should have. Hitchcock would have made her a director but she told him no. Said Allen: "It seems perfectly clear to me that any project takes a minimum of a year to direct. I like to get things on and over with. . . . Did you ever hear the phrase, 'the lady proposes, the studio disposes'? I didn’t make it up. I would never propose myself as a director." Under Hitchcock's mentoring, Allen developed the screenwriting talent she would use the rest of her career.
Allen wrote that she never felt discriminated against. While being one of the rare female screenwriter in Hollywood in the 1960s, she said "almost all of the men I worked with were supportive. If I was getting a bum rap somewhere, I didn’t know it."
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, about an iconoclast Scottish girl's school teacher would not premiere on the London stage until after Marnie's completion. Produced by Donald Albery, it premiered at the Wyndham's Theatre in May 1966 with Vanessa Redgrave and ran hundreds of performances. In January 1968, it opened in New York with Zoe Caldwell as Brodie and ran for an entire year. Said Allen “All the women who played Brodie got whatever prize was going around at that time. Vanessa did, Maggie [Smith] did.
After Jean Brodie, Allen had another success on Broadway with Forty Carats (1968); her adaptation of the French boulevard comedy by Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Gredy premiered in December 1968 with Julie Harris as the 42-year-old who has an affair with a twenty-two year old man. Harris would win a Tony Award for her performance. In 1973 Allen adapted her play for the screen, this time with a much too young Liv Ullmann and Edward Albert, Jr., which turned out to be a critical and commercial disappointment.
Travels with my Aunt
Bobby Fryer, who had produced the film of Jean Brodie, had teamed with Katharine Hepburn to make a film version of Graham Greene's Travels with My Aunt (1972), specifically for George Cukor to direct. Cukor for some reason wasn't getting any work and Hepburn was casting around for projects. They asked Allen to come on for the script, but she was busy and instead suggested Hugh Wheeler. After a few months, Fryer and Hepburn still weren't happy with Wheeler's script, and Allen agreed to give it a shot and wrote a very straightforward script for them. But Hepburn had just starred in the disastrous adaptation of Madwoman of Chaillot and didn't want, in Allen's words, "to play another crazy old lady". Hepburn was reluctant to let Cukor down and wouldn't admit her reservations and began to find fault with the script, even re-writing many sections herself. Consequently Allen finally threw in the towel, telling Hepburn that she ought to write it herself; which she did. Eventually, Hepburn provoked the studio into making her quit the project, leaving Fryer free to bring Jean Brodie's Maggie Smith on board to make the picture. One speech of Allen's remains in the script, otherwise it is all Hepburn's product. The Writer's Guild refused to put Hepburn's name on the script since she wasn't a guild member; Fryer refused to let Allen take her name off since she was the one he paid; and Wheeler was just burned that he received no credit at all.
Structure was what Allen brought to the screenplay for Bob Fosse's Cabaret. The producers hadn't wanted to film the stage script by Joe Masteroff and John Van Druten, and felt that not portraying the male lead as a homosexual was dishonest to the story. They wanted to go back to Christopher Isherwood's original novel Goodbye to Berlin of 1939, but the Berlin stories weren't structured in any linear fashion and Allen had to diagram the entire story. Allen and Fosse got along badly from the start: she found him "so depressed that it took two hours just to get him in the frame of mind for work." In Allen's opinion most of the humor from the original was lost; and believed Fosse didn't really like the lead character of Sally Bowles at all. She worked on the screenplay for ten months, but in the end Fosse and the producers were still unhappy with the final form, and having commitments elsewhere Allen handed the script over to her friend Hugh Wheeler.
In Allen's opinion, the problem with Funny Lady was that Barbra Streisand had not wanted to do a sequel to Funny Girl and was determined to give the director, Herbert Ross a hard time. Ray Stark had her cross-collateralized on three films and that she was, figuratively speaking, escorted to the set every day by a team of lawyers. The picture does however contain some of Allen's most satisfying work, some of which she doesn't remember writing and just seems to have come out of nowhere.
The idea for the television show Family was born in Aaron Spelling's kitchen, where he and Len Goldberg came up with the idea about a show that centered on the emotional life of a family. They pitched the idea to Allen and she liked it. Allen spent two weeks at the Beverly Hills Hotel while she knocked out a script. Len and Aaron loved it; it was touching and had marvelous moments of compassion, and was exactly what they had talked about in the kitchen. The pilot was great, but ABC didn't buy it. It wasn't until two years later that ABC entered a production deal with Mike Nichols, who turned all their ideas down in favor of the script for Family that his Connecticut neighbor Jay Allen had shown him. It was Nichols who brought in Mark Rydell for the pilot which premiered at 10:00pm Tuesday March 9, 1976; the series going on to run for four years and 86 episodes. Later in life Allen would remark about television: "I hate it, I hate it because the buck doesn't stop anywhere."
Just Tell Me What You Want!
"Male characters are easier to write. They're simpler. I think women are generally more psychologically complicated. You have to put a little more effort into writing a woman." - Jay Presson Allen.
Allen wrote the novel Just Tell Me What You Want in 1969, with the idea of turning it into a screenplay, and after having trouble getting together a production, Allen sent it to Sidney Lumet who surprisingly wanted to do it. In her opinion, Lumet is a wonderful structuralist but has his most difficult time with humorous dialogue; he hasn’t found a way to shoot humorous dialogue as brilliantly as he shoots everything else. Some of the humor was lost in Just Tell Me what you Want when Sidney gave the voice-over to Ali McGraw instead of Myrna Loy as was originally intended. But the collaboration worked wonderfully; unbeknown to each other they both had wanted to cast Alan King. This synchronicity in casting preference continued with all three Lumet/Allen movies.
Prince of the City
When Allen read Robert Daley's book, Prince of the City, she was convinced it was a Sidney Lumet project, but the film rights had already been sold to Orion Pictures for Brian DePalma and David Rabe. Allen let it be known that if that deal should fall through, then she wanted the picture for Sidney. Just as Lumet was about to sign for a different picture, they got the call that Prince of the City was theirs. Allen hadn't wanted to write Prince of the City; just produce it. She was put off by the book's non-linear story structure, but Lumet wouldn't make the picture without her, and agreed to write the outline for her. Lumet and Allen went over the book and agreed on what they could use and what they could do without. To her horror, Lumet would come in every day for weeks and scribble on legal pads. She was terrified that she would have to tell him that his stuff was unusable, but to her delight the outline was wonderful and she went to work. It was her first project with living subjects, and Allen interviewed nearly everyone in the book and had endless hours of Bob Leuci’s tapes for back-up. With all her research and Lumet's outline, she eventually turned out a 365-page script in 10 days. It was nearly impossible to sell the studio on a three-hour picture, but by offering to slash the budget to $10 million they agreed.
When asked if the original author ever has anything to say about how their book is treated, Allen replied: "Not if I can help it. You cannot open that can of worms. You sell your book, you go to the bank, you shut up."
Allen adapted Ira Levin's play Deathtrap (1982) for Lumet, exchanging a weak confusing ending for a more directly resolved one. Though not being able to do what a screenwriter needs to do to a play — "opening it up", taking it outside the original set or sets, make it bigger — she was limited to bookending the script with scenes in a New York theater. The plotting was so very tight which is what the studio had wanted when they bought it. It was up to Allen to cut away the underbrush, simplifying the rhetoric as much as possible and adding some realism to the characters.
La Cage Aux Folles
Allen returned to the stage with an adaptation for Angela Lansbury of A Little Family Business; a French boulevard comedy by Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Gredy. She was also hired by Broadway producer Allan Carr to adapt Jean Pioret's non-musical 1973 play La Cage Aux Folles as a musical reset in New Orleans. The never-to-be-produced production was called The Queen of Basin Street, and was to be directed by Mike Nichols with Tommy Tune choreographing and Maury Yeston writing the songs. Nichols, who was a producing partner with Lewis Allen, eventually quit in a dispute over profits; Tommy Tune followed him and Carr fired Jay Allen. When Carr finally produced a musical version, Allen was forced to file suit for payment from her work on the adaptation.
"What I really like to do is a very swift rewrite for a great deal of money. Then I’m out of it. There’s no emotional commitment at all — your name’s not on it, you’re home free", she would explain.
Twentieth-Century Fox brought Allen in for a rewrite when they were unhappy with the script that a young talented David Mamet had produced from Barry Reed's novel the Verdict, thinking he had deviated too much from the original material. She produced a script they were happy with, but then handed it to Robert Redford who began to tinker it to fit his persona. Eventually the producers took it away from Redford and offered it to Lumet, who had just seen a production of Mamet's American Buffalo with Al Pacino and preferred to use Mamet's original script. In the end the studio had paid both Allen and Redford and ended up with Mamet's original script anyway.
Allen tried to recapture the success of Family with Hothouse for ABC in 1988; the drama about the lives and work experiences of the staff of a mental hospital lasted eight episodes. Personally Allen thought it was some of her best work, though its short life was a mixed blessing for her, said Allen: "Unfortunately, ABC didn't have the courage of their initial convictions. They skewered it, they turned tail on it. However if they had picked it up I'd have had to turn out 26 episodes. I'd be in Forest Lawn now. Television is a killer. It is really not for sissies."
The 1991 Broadway production of Tru starring Robert Morse as Truman Capote was actually a request of the Lawyer for the Capote Estate. Allen was reluctant to write about Capote at first, but once she had researched him, she found the last ten years of his life not as off-putting as she had thought: "Capote had a kind of Gallantry in the face of a devastating situation." Friends of Capote were amazed at her accuracy portraying a man she had only met but not known, and there was much question about how many of the lines are Capote's and how much is Allen, she maintains that at least 70% of the dialogue is Capote's own.
When she wasn't writing, Allen and her husband were among the most visible of Manhattan's theater crowd. She would spend her later years as a script doctor and observing particularly salacious crime trials from the benches in Manhattan Criminal Court. Allen had just about given up writing any more movies from beginning to end, preferring to do rewrites for large barrels of money. It had stopped being fun for her. Script 'development' translated to 'scripts written by committee', but the upside was that "developed" scripts tend to need rewrites — from outside the "development circle".
"A production rewrite means that the project is in production. Big money elements — directors, actors — are pay or play. There is a shooting date. The shit is in the fan. And that’s where writers like me come in. Writers who are fast and reliable. We are nicely paid to do these production rewrites. . . and we love these jobs. Without credit? Never with credit. If you go for credit on somebody else’s work, you have to completely dismantle the structure. Who wants a job where you have to completely dismantle the structure? I only take things that I think are in reasonable shape. The director and the producer and the studio may not necessarily agree with me, but I think the script is in reasonable shape. Besides, no one but the writer ever knows how much trouble any one piece of work will be. Only the writer knows that. Only the writer. So I take what looks to me like something that is in good enough shape, yet which I can contribute to and make it worth the pay they are going to give me. . . There are more than one of us out there. These jobs are quick, sometimes they’re even fun, and you don’t have to take the terrible meetings. They’re not breathing on you. They’re just desperate to get a script. I’ve never taken anything that I knew I couldn’t help. They pay good money."
Her last film work was her screenplay for the 1990 remake of the classic, Lord of the Flies. However, she disliked the finished product and had her name removed.
The trick in adapting, Allen said in a 1972 interview with The New York Times, "is not to throw out the baby with the bath water. You can change all kinds of things, but don't muck around with the essence." Jay Presson Allen died May 1, 2006 at her home in Manhattan. She was 84 years old.