Jay Presson Allen

Author of the play and screenplay of 'The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie' and screenwriter for 'Cabaret'

Wednesday 01 April 2009 20:39

Jacqueline Presson (Jay Presson Allen), screenwriter and playwright: born San Angelo, Texas 3 March 1922; married secondly 1955 Lewis Allen (died 2003; one daughter); died New York 1 May 2006.

Jay Presson Allen was one of the most accomplished writing talents of stage and screen to emerge during the Sixties, with a particular flair for adaptation. Her hit stage transcriptions included The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Forty Carats (both made into films) and she wrote screenplays for directors including Alfred Hitchcock, George Cukor, Bob Fosse and Sidney Lumet, including the Oscar-winning Cabaret.

Often cited as particularly adept at creating intriguing on-screen female characters, such as Jean Brodie, Marnie Edgar and Sally Bowles, Allen herself said,

I also think I have a particular strength with male characters. 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.

Born Jacqueline Presson in 1922 in San Angelo, a small town in Texas near the Mexican border, she initially planned to be an actress and drifted into writing "by default", as she put it, after abandoning a stage career:

My father was a merchant, not very prosperous. I had no education to speak of. Texas public schools and a couple of years in a place called, in those days, Miss Hockaday's School for Young Ladies. I was a show-off kid, and wanted to be an actress from the earliest age and never presumed to be anything else.

She moved to New York in the early Forties, and on discovering that "I only liked rehearsal, I didn't like to perform", she married "the first grown man who asked me". She lived with her husband (whom she never named) in the academic town of Claremont, California, through most of the Second World War, but with the marriage failing she decided writing would give her the financial independence to end the union. She told the film historian Patrick McGilligan,

I'd always read an enormous amount of trash, and I couldn't imagine not being able to write as well as a great deal of the stuff I was reading.

Never having liked the name Jacqueline, she decided to use her first initial when writing. Her first novel, Spring Riot, was published in 1948, after which she returned to New York and wrote television scripts:

I knew I could make a living at it, but hoped I wouldn't have to. Writing always seemed like an exercise - like you were doing homework. Writing wasn't terrible, but you'd rather be out shopping, or playing tennis or poker . . .

In the early Fifties she wrote her first play, which she sent to the producer Robert Whitehead. It was read by one of Whitehead's assistants, Lewis Allen, who married Presson in 1955 and who became the producer of such off-beat movies as The Balcony, Fahrenheit 451 and Swimming to Cambodia, and equally eclectic Broadway fare including Ballad of the Sad Café and A Few Good Men.

That first play, The First Wife, was never produced, but was filmed by Paramount in 1963 as Wives and Lovers. Allen's second play, an adaptation of Muriel Spark's 1961 novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, was a big stage hit in London in 1966, starring Vanessa Redgrave, and it repeated its success on Broadway two years later starring Zoe Caldwell. Prior to its production, Allen was summoned to Hollywood by Alfred Hitchcock, who had read the play and wanted her to do the script for his film Marnie (1964):

I don't think I would have gone if it had been anybody but him. I didn't know how to write a movie. I certainly didn't want to spend any time in California. I had a child. I was going to have a play produced. There was every reason in the world not to go. I went out of curiosity as much as anything else.

Allen later praised the way the director guided her through the script:

He taught me more about screenwriting than I learned in all the rest of my career, and I think of his flair for visual shorthand whenever I get verbose. Alas, I couldn't learn fast enough to make a first-rate movie, though Marnie did have some good scenes in it. It is a very flawed movie, for which I have to take a lot of the responsibility . . . I think one of the reasons that Hitch was fond of me, and filmed a lot of the stuff I wrote, was that I am frequently almost crippled by making everything rational. There always has to be a reason for everything. And he loved that.

In 1968 Allen had her second smash hit on Broadway when she adapted a French comedy as Forty Carats, which ran for two years with Julie Harris, and later June Allyson, in the leading role of a 40-year old woman who falls in love with a 22-year old man.

Allen then wrote the screenplay for Ronald Neame's 1969 film of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which brought her a Writers Guild nomination for best script, and an Oscar for its star, Maggie Smith, as the unconventional teacher at a private girls' school in 1932 Edinburgh:

I thought the play could have been opened up an enormous amount, but, when producers pay a lot of money for a project, they want what they buy. I was a little disappointed that we couldn't make it richer.

For the 1972 screen version of the hit Broadway musical Cabaret, Allen deviated considerably from the libretto Joe Masteroff had provided for the stage:

I was approached by the producer, Cy Feuer, who said, "We do not want to do the book of the musical. We want to go back to Isherwood's book [Goodbye to Berlin] and start all over again."

On stage, the tutor hero had not been homosexual, and there had been a prominent romance between his landlady and a Jewish shopkeeper, which was jettisoned (along with the couple's songs) for the film. Although she did not get on with the director, Bob Fosse, she contributed one visual idea of which she was particularly proud:

When the camera pulls back from a young boy singing solo to show the chorus of Nazi voices rising around him - that was mine.

Cabaret won 10 Oscar nominations, including one for Allen, and took seven awards, including best film, best director, and best actress (Liza Minnelli).

Allen's friend the writer Hugh Wheeler did some uncredited work on the screenplay when another assignment prevented Allen from going to Germany with the unit, and the couple teamed again to adapt Graham Greene's 1969 novel Travels with My Aunt as a vehicle for Katharine Hepburn to be directed by George Cukor. According to Allen, the project was initiated by Hepburn to give work to Cukor. With the failure of her starring vehicle The Madwoman of Chaillot (1969), Hepburn decided against playing another eccentric old lady, but wrote most of the screenplay ("The script they went with had one big speech of mine. Otherwise it was all Kate's. It had nothing of Hugh's"). With Maggie Smith in the leading role, the film was released in 1972:

When I saw the movie I thought it was pretty darned good. When credit time came up, I got a call from the Writers Guild asking me what I wished to claim. I said, "I don't want any credit. That is Miss Hepburn's script." The guild's attitude was, in effect, "So what? She's not a member of the guild, no credit." Hugh was furious that I wanted my credit off - everybody seemed mad at me, so I just shrugged and left my credit on. But I've never made any bones about writing that picture.

Writing credits have often been the subject of controversy, and on her next film, Herbert Ross's Funny Lady (1975), a sequel to Funny Girl with Barbra Streisand as the comedienne Fanny Brice, Allen received co-credit with Arnold Schulman, who said, "I'm embarrassed, really, because most of it was her screenplay."

Funny Lady was produced by Ray Stark, who was married to Brice's daughter, and their stormy relationship is said to have inspired Allen's novel Just Tell Me What You Want (1975), filmed by Sidney Lumet from Allen's script in 1980. It starred Alan King as a megalomaniacal tycoon and Ali McGraw as his mistress, but is notable mainly as the final film of the actress Myrna Loy, superb as King's devoted secretary.

Allen and Lumet became good friends, and they collaborated again on Prince of the City (1981), based on Robert Daley's non-fiction book about a cop (Treat Williams) who turns informer on his friends and colleagues. Allen said,

Of all my work, Prince of the City is my absolute all-time favourite. I like scenes from everything else. That's the only one I like in totality.

Lumet and Allen teamed up a third time on a 1982 screen version of Ira Levin's hit play Deathtrap, but were unable to prevent the play's flawed contrivances becoming too apparent on the big screen.

In 1989 she had a final stage hit with Tru, a one-man show based on Truman Capote's writings, which she also directed and which won Robert Morse a Tony for his indelible performance.

Tom Vallance

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