Joan Micklin Silver made her own film ground

The director of Hester Street, Chilly Scenes of Winter and Crossing Delancey, who has died aged 85, didn’t take Hollywood’s closed studio gates for an answer.

Joan Micklin Silver

Her grandparents emigrated from Russia to the United States to give their children and grandchildren opportunities unavailable to Jews under the Tsar. Yet Joan Micklin Silver, the maker of Hester Street (1975) and Crossing Delancey (1988), would learn early in her career that a woman out to make a movie about Jewish immigrants to the US would find studio gates securely locked.

It was not the career she might have enjoyed were she born Joe Micklin Silver. But still, with the exception of Elaine May, Micklin Silver, who died on 31 December aged 85, created a filmography (seven features and seven television movies) that no other American woman of her generation was able to compile.

After receiving her degree from Sarah Lawrence in 1956, Joan Micklin wed Raphael ‘Ray’ Silver and moved to Cleveland where she taught music, wrote five produced plays and raised three daughters. When the family moved to New York in 1967, Micklin Silver wrote and directed shorts for the Learning Corporation of America, notably The Immigrant Experience (1972). She co-wrote Limbo (1972, Mark Robson), a movie anticipating Coming Home, about the spouses of American soldiers in Vietnam who become politicised. Otto Preminger tapped Micklin Silver to adapt Lois Gould’s novel Such Good Friends (1971), the one about the widow who learns that her late husband was philandering with all her chums, but found his new screenwriter too feminist for his taste. He replaced her with Elaine May.

Steven Keats as Jake and Carol Kane as Gitl in Hester Street (1975)

“Although I could get work as a writer, I couldn’t get work as a director at all,” recalled Micklin Silver in an oral history for the Directors Guild of America. Her ambition to direct was stalled as she watched young men who had made prize-winning shorts – as she had – moving on to direct films.

Her husband Ray, a commercial real estate developer, thought it patently unfair. He offered to find investors for her independent film, Hester Street (1975). It was set in New York’s Lower East Side in 1896, its characters Eastern European immigrant Jews. While the husband wants to embrace America and Americans, the wife (Carol Kane) wants to retain old-country values like fidelity and honour. It was shot in the manner of late 19th-century silent films and the language was Yiddish with English subtitles. Given the recent success of The Godfather, one prospective investor suggested to Micklin Silver that she change the ethnicity from Jewish to Italian Catholic. With $320,000 from private investors, Micklin Silver made the movie she wanted, an adaptation of Abraham Cahan’s novella A Tale of the New York Ghetto.

Happy ending, right? Not at first. Studios decidedly were not interested in distributing such a Jewish story (unless the director was Paul Mazursky or Woody Allen) not to mention such a feminist one. It looked like the only way to distribute it was on the synagogue circuit. One of Micklin Silver’s friends was Barbara Loden, the actress and director married to Elia Kazan, who looked at the film and told Micklin Silver to lose most of the husband’s story in order to emphasise that of the wife. Then John Cassavetes, in the middle of making A Woman Under the Influence, gave Ray the names of his backers, who helped the Silvers self-distribute the film. It went on to earn $5 million, more than 15 times its cost, broadening the reach of the American independent film movement. Carol Kane won an Oscar nomination for her performance, giving the movie – and Micklin Silver – industry credibility. The eventual outcome was both a happy ending and auspicious beginning for Micklin Silver.

Though her follow-up to Hester Street was a charming television adaptation of the 1920 F. Scott Fitzgerald short story Bernice Bobs Her Hair (1976) for PBS, these were Micklin Silver’s only costume comedies. Seen today, Bernice plays like a Jazz Age Mean Girls, with a protégé (Shelley Duvall) growing more popular than her mentor. After just two features, the hallmarks of a Micklin Silver project were already evident: she favoured shaggy, unconventional actors, lived-in settings and bittersweet material on which she could put her own spin. While much of her television work touched upon big issues – thalidomide babies and abortion in A Private Matter (1992), eating disorders in The Hunger Point (2003) – what you remember about them is not the issue but how the protagonists navigated the troubled waters around them.

Jeff Goldblum as Max Orlofff and Lindsay Crouse as Abbie in Between the Lines (1977)

Her next two feature films were the ensemble serio-comedies Between the Lines (1977), about the staff of an alternative newspaper on the verge of being sold to corporate interests, and Chilly Scenes of Winter (aka Head Over Heels, 1978), about an unlikely romantic (John Heard as a civil bureaucrat) obsessed with a woman estranged from her husband (Mary Beth Hurt), based on the novel by Anne Beatts. As both films chronicled idealistic baby boomers staving off disillusionment, they struck a nerve with the arthouse generation in the US. In these and so many other of her films Micklin Silver cast new faces, raising the profiles of actors such as Peter Riegert, Jeff Goldblum, Joe Morton and Lindsay Crouse.

Mary Beth Hurt as Laura Connolly and John Heard as Charles Richardson in Chilly Scenes of Winter (aka Head Over Heels, 1979)

A gender-reversed bookend to Hester Street, Crossing Delancey (1988), by general consensus Micklin Silver’s most buoyant film, had as rocky a gestation as her first feature. The tale of a modern assimilated Jewish woman (Amy Irving) introduced by a professional matchmaker to a pickle vendor (Riegert) who retains the religious and courtship traditions was immediately deemed ‘too ethnic’ (a euphemism for ‘too Jewish’) by the studios. That is, until Irving’s ex-husband Steven Spielberg suggested that Micklin Silver show Susan Sandler’s screenplay to his friends at Warner Brothers, which agreed to produce it. Like Hester Street, Crossing Delancey is gritty as a New York City fifth-floor walkup yet somehow gossamer as a fairytale because of the filmmaker’s lightness of touch.

Amy Irving as Izzy Grossman and Peter Riegert as Sam Posner in Crossing Delancey (1988)

Happy ending, right? In that the movie’s resolution makes us smile through misty eyes, in that she persisted, and in that 40 years later at least four Micklin Silver films are bona fide classics, yes, yes and yes.

  • Joan Micklin Silver, 24 May 1935–31 December 2020
  • Carrie Rickey, movie critic emerita of the Philadelphia Inquirer, is writing a biography of French filmmaker Agnès Varda.

Further reading