Joan Micklin Silver, the filmmaker whose first feature film “Hester Street” broadened the American independent film market and broke barriers for women directing, died Thursday at her Manhattan home. She was 85 years old.
Her daughter Claudia Silver said the cause was vascular dementia.
Ms. Silver wrote and directed “Hester Street” (1975), the story of a young Jewish immigrant couple from Russia on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the 1890s. It was a personal effort, a 34 day low budget location shoot that turned into a family project.
Studios said the story was too narrow and historically ethnic. For one thing, much of the film was in black and white in Yiddish with English subtitles.
“Nobody wanted to publish it,” Ms. Silver recalled in a visual history interview for the Directors Guild of America in 2005. “The only offer was to get it published on the Synagogue Market on the 16th,” she added, referring to the offer on 16 millimeters of film.
Ms. Silver’s husband, Raphael D. Silver, a commercial real estate developer, financed, produced and even distributed the film after selling it in some international markets while attending the Cannes Film Festival. Hester Street opened at the Plaza Theater in Manhattan in October 1975, then in cinemas nationwide, and soon made $ 5 million (about $ 25 million today), nearly 14 times its budget of $ 370,000 -Dollar. (Ms. Silver sometimes cited an even lower budget: $ 320,000.)
Richard Eder of the New York Times praised the film’s “fine balance between realism and fable” and declared it “an unconditionally happy achievement”. Carol Kane, who was 21 during filming in 1973, was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress for her role as Gitl, the newly arrived woman who, according to her husband (Steven Keats), assimilates humiliatingly.
“Hester Street” made Ms. Silver a good name, but the next time she wanted to portray Jewish characters and culture, the same objections came up.
Crossing Delancey (1988) was a romantic comedy about a nifty, single New York bookstore clerk (Amy Irving) who kept looking over her shoulder to make sure she found a clean way out of her Lower East Side roots.
With the help of her grandmother (played by Yiddish theater star Reizl Bozyk) and a traditional matchmaker (Sylvia Miles), she meets a neighborhood cucumber dealer (Peter Riegert) who has enough great qualities to make up for the fact that he’s just another nice guy (your taste went more towards Bad Boy).
The studios also found the film “too ethnic” – “a euphemism,” Ms. Silver told The Times, “for Jewish material distrusted by Hollywood executives.”
Fortunately, Mrs. Irving’s then-husband, director Steven Spielberg, loved Jewish history itself. He suggested that she send the script to a neighbor in East Hampton, NY – a top Warner Entertainment manager. The film grossed more than $ 116 million worldwide (around $ 255 million today).
It’s hard to say which woman was Silver’s most vicious antagonist, anti-Semitism, or misogyny.
“I had such obviously sexist things said to me by studio managers when I first started,” she recalled in an interview with the American Film Institute in 1979. She quoted a memorable comment from one man: “Feature films are very expensive to assemble and and women directors are another problem that we don’t need. “
Joan Micklin was born in Omaha on May 24, 1935. She was the second of three daughters of Maurice David Micklin, who ran a lumber company he and his father founded, and Doris (Shoshone) Micklin. Both parents were born in Russia – like the protagonists in “Hester Street” – and came to the USA as children.
Joan grew up in Omaha and then went east to Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers, NY. She married Mr. Silver, known as Ray, in 1956, three weeks after graduation. He was the son of the famous Zionist rabbi Abba Hillel Silver.
For 11 years the Silvers lived in Cleveland, his hometown, where they taught music and wrote for the local theater. They moved to New York in 1967 in order to bring them closer to film and theater contacts.
A chance meeting with Joan Ganz Cooney, co-creator of Sesame Street, at a political fundraiser led to her work with Linda Gottlieb at the Learning Corporation of America. Together they wrote and produced educational and documentary short films, including “The Immigrant Experience” (1972).
Ms. Silver had a love-hate relationship with film studios. She was one of several authors who were hired and fired by Paramount to adapt Lois Gould’s novel “Such Good Friends” (1971). Her first mainstream script was “Limbo”, written with Mrs. Gottlieb, about the wives of prisoners of war in Vietnam. Universal Studios bought the property but rewritten it and hired a director whose vision was the exact opposite of Ms. Silvers.
She wouldn’t allow that with “Hester Street”. And she didn’t.
Ms. Silver’s second film, “Between the Lines” (1977), was also a kind of assimilation story. The young, politically progressive staff of an alternative newspaper are taken over by a company that has radically different priorities and values. This film, whose cast included Jeff Goldblum, John Heard and Lindsay Crouse, was also produced by the Silvers.
Ms. Silver worked with United Artists on her third film, an adaptation of Ann Beatties’ capricious bestseller “Chilly Scenes of Winter”. The studio promptly changed the title to “Head Over Heels” (1979) and advertised the film as carefree romp. It featured Mr. Heard and Mary Beth Hurt as the lovesick officer and the married worker whom he adores a little too much.
After the bombing, the film’s young producers insisted on restoring the original title, giving it a new, less cheeky ending, and having it republished. This time it was received much cheaper.
Ms. Silver ventured into the Off Broadway Theater with mixed results. Mel Gussow of The Times wasn’t interested in Maybe I’m Getting It Wrong (1982), their revue of Randy Newman’s music. When Ms. Silver and Julianne Boyd conceived and directed the musical revue “A … My Name Is Alice”, it ran three runs in 1983 and 1984 and was described as “delightful” by Frank Rich of The Times. There were two sequels in the 1990s.
In the end, Ms. Silver made seven feature films. The other, all relatively foamy-themed comedies, were “Loverboy” (1989), about a handsome young pizza delivery man offering extras to attractive older women; “Big Girls Don’t Cry … They Get The Same” (1992) about divorced and remarried people thrown back together by a runaway teenage daughter; and “A Fish in a Bathtub” (1999) starring Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara as a couple with a pet carp.
Ms. Silver has also made over half a dozen television films, starting with “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” (1976) based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Her last was “Hunger Point” (2003) about a young woman’s eating disorder.
Ms. Silver’s survivors include her daughter Claudia, two other daughters, Dina and Marisa Silver; a sister, Renee; and five grandchildren. Mr. Silver died in 2013 at the age of 83 after a skiing accident in Park City, Utah.
Looking back on the interview with the Directors Guild, Ms. Silver acknowledged certain work preferences.
“The more alone I am, the better I do,” she said. “It’s not that I think I’m smarter than anyone or anything. Whatever my instincts are, it is better for me to bring these into play in my own work. “
In the same interview, she was asked about “Crossing Delancey” and confessed her favorite aspect of the experience: “I had the final cut.”
Alex Traub contributed to the coverage.