Women’s and Indie Feature Film Pioneer Joan Micklin Silver’s Journey in Cinema
To date, I have written a handful of extensive pieces on filmmaker Joan Micklin Silver, a seminal figure among women’s and independent feature filmmakers in America. This is one of those stories and the others can also be found on this blog. Sooner or later I will add a couple much shorter pieces I’ve written about her and her work and her thoughts on women directors in Hollywood. When Kathryn Bigelow made history by becoming the first woman to win the Oscar for Best Director (for The Hurt Locker), the first person I thought of was Joan, whom I called to get her to weigh in on what that breakthrough meant to her and to the other women filmmakers. Joan, who began making a lot of television movies in the 1990s, hasn’t made a feature in going on a decade or more, but she has been developing two feature-length documentaries – one on the Catskills and great Jewish women comedians and the other on the history of the bagel in America. I look forward to her completing the projects.
Joan Micklin Silver on the set
Women’s and Indie Feature Film Pioneer Joan Micklin Silver’s Journey in Cinema
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the Jewish Press
When Omaha native Joan Micklin Silver’s directorial feature film debut, Hester Street, proved an unexpected but unqualified critical and commercial success in 1975, women gained a stronger foothold behind the camera in American cinema. The breakthrough independent film, scripted by Micklin Silver and produced by her husband Raphael Silver, paved the way for more women to call the shots in the chauvinistic playground of moviemaking.
Twenty-five years later Micklin Silver has seen women go from being ignored to tolerated to, finally, respected.
“When I started, there were no women directing at all in the so-called industry. I actually had an executive say to me, ‘Feature films are expensive to make and expensive to market, and women directors are one more problem we don’t need.’ So, yes, it was that blatant. I couldn’t get a job directing at all. At that time the only job I was suitable for in the industry was writing,” she said by phone from her New York home. “But women are definitely in a better place today. Talented women do get opportunities. It’s not nearly as bleak a picture as it was.”
Informed by a strong feminist sensibility, Hester Street takes a gritty, witty look at the Jewish immigrant milieu of New York’s Lower East Side, circa 1896, and features a Best Actress Oscar-nominated performance by Carol Kane. It is really about the awakening of a meek, innocent emigre named Gitl (Kane) who, upon arriving in America, finds her husband an unfaithful scoundrel with no respect for her or their shared past. Torn between cherished old values and strange new ones, Gitl finds emancipation while remaining true to herself.
The idea of transforming one’s self without losing one’s identity is something Micklin Silver could readily relate to. “I’ve always loved film very much, and I wanted to make it in that field. I wanted to direct, but I didn’t want to be a man. I wanted to be a woman. I wanted to be myself,” she said by phone from her New York home. Her deep love for the movies was first nurtured in Omaha.
“I grew up in the days when you’d take the streetcar downtown and see double-features for 35 cents. Those were still the days of stage shows (preceding the main movie bill). It was just marvelous entertainment. It really was. I remember those theaters in Omaha very well. The Brandeis. The Orpheum. I think I was probably most influenced by the traditional Hollywood films I saw as a kid.”
Besides the movies, reading and writing held her interest. She attended Central High School (graduating in 1952) and Temple Israel Synagogue, writing sketches for school plays. Her departure from Omaha, at age 17, to attend Sarah Lawrence College in New York State occurred right around the time her father died. Later, she met Silver, married, and moved with him to Cleveland, where he worked in real estate. She bore three daughters and in between raising a family continued haunting cinemas and began writing for local theater.
Inspired by what was happening in film at the time, including the exciting work of independents John Cassavetes and Shirley Clarke, Micklin Silver yearned to be part of this vital scene. But Cleveland offered little hope for launching a project. Then fate intervened. At a party she met Joan Ganz Cooney, a founder of the Children’s Television workshop, who put her in touch with Linda Gotlieb, then an executive with an educational film company. Gotlieb fed her freelance script writing work and when Micklin Silver told the company head she wanted to direct as well, she got her wish — writing and directing three short educational films.
One short subject dealt with immigration, and in researching the piece Micklin Silver came across the novella, Yekl, she would later base Hester Street on.
Later, she and Gotlieb formed their own production company. Meanwhile, the Silvers moved to New York. With Joan’s properties lying dormant and no directing jobs in the offing, she despaired. Then, one of her scripts, Limbo, an anti-war story about the oblivion wives of Vietnam POWs and MIAs faced, sold to Universal Pictures and the studio brought her out west.
“A director there by the name of Mark Robson (Champion) wanted to do the film but he had a very different take on it. He saw it as more of a women-without-men kind of thing when it was meant it be a gritty look at the difficulties these women faced and the fact they really couldn’t get a straight story from the military as to where their husbands were or when they were coming home. I went out there and I explained how I felt about the film, and when I got back to New York I was told I was going to be replaced,” Micklin Silver said.
Despite being taken off the picture, she found an unlikely ally in Robson.
“Although I didn’t like what he did with my script, he knew I wanted to be a director and he invited me to come and spend any amount of time I wanted on the set. I spent about 10 days there for my first exposure to the Hollywood moviemaking apparatus…with all the cranes and dolleys and budgets and cast and crew. It was very helpful.”
Getting that close to a major motion picture further wet her appetite for directing. “It emboldened me to come back to New York and to make films right away. I said to my husband, ‘I don’t want anybody else to do that to a script of mine.’ And I always remember what he said: ‘Go ahead, jump in the water. If you can’t swim now, you won’t be able to swim 10 years from now. This is your chance to try and find out.’ If he had said, ‘Well, what do you know about it? Why don’t you apprentice at film school first?’ I would have probably said, ‘Oh, yeah, you’re right.’ But he didn’t. He gave me support and a sort of permission to try.”
That’s when she and her husband took matters in their own hands and developed Hester Street themselves (under the Midwest Film banner). Besides the novella Yekl, the guts of the movie grew out of Micklin Silver’s Omaha childhood and her beguilement with the tales her Russian-Jewish emigrant family told of their coming to America — their crossing, culture shock and assimilation.
Joan and her older sister Renee (who still resides in Omaha) are the daughters of the late Maurice and Doris Micklin. Their father founded Micklin Lumber Co. Joan said her father, who was 12 when he and his family arrived from Russia, “had very distinct memories of coming over and what it was like to be young, excited and terrified at having to learn a new language in a strange country…and he told those stories very vividly.”
Her mother, who was only a toddler when she arrived, had no recall of the experience, but her older siblings did and Joan’s uncles and aunts shared their memories with her during visits to the family’s Yiddish-flavored home.
“So many families don’t want to talk about the experience of immigration,” Micklin Silver said. “It’s traumatic. They want to become Americans as soon as possible and they want to leave it all behind them. But my family was of the other variety — that loved to tell the tales. I was always fascinated by all the stories they told. Of the people that made it. The people that didn’t. The people that went crazy. The people that went back. I remember sitting around the dinner table and hearing stories that were very funny and enjoyable and strong and interesting and serious. So I was attracted to those stories in the first place.”
Her immersion in those tales not only gave her the subject matter for her first film, but later informed her direction of the acclaimed National Public Radio series Great Jewish Stories from Eastern Europe and Beyond.
Joan Micklin Silver
Although not a Jewish director per se, she has often explored her heritage on film (14 years after Hester Street she revisted the Lower East Side to explore the intersection of old and new Jewish life in Crossing Delancey), most recently in the 1997 Showtime movie, In the Presence of Mine Enemies. Based on a Rod Serling TV script produced live on Playhouse 90, the made-for-cable film stars Armin Mueller-Stahl as a rabbi trying to hold his community and family together in the Warsaw ghetto of World War II. Mine Enemies marked the first time she dealt overtly with the Holocaust in her work.
In 1995 the National Foundation for Jewish Culture (NFJC) honored Micklin Silver with a Jewish Cultural Achievement Award in the media arts category, which she accepted in memory of her parents. Her fellow honorees included Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Arthur Miller.
Referring to Micklin Silver’s work, NFJC executive director Richard Siegel said, “In Hester Street and Crossing Delancey in particular she does something that very few other filmmakers have done, which is to look at the American-Jewish experience in some depth and with considerable insight, from the inside, as it were.”
In her acceptance speech the filmmaker explained how someone from such a goy hometown “could become so addicted to Jewish stories and characters.” She referred, of course, to the stories her family told “…dotted with a pungent Yiddish and much laughter at the human comedy of it all. Such were my introductions to the magnificent and terrifying history of the Jews. When I began making movies I was inevitably drawn to stories which had so much emotional weight for me as I grew up.” But, she added, “making movies about the Jewish experience is a dangerous prospect. Every other Jew has an opinion. You can never satisfy everyone. I learned this after an early screening of Hester Street.”
When, despite great reviews at festivals, Hester Street failed attracting a distributor, Ray Silver called John Cassavetes for advice and was told: “Distribute it yourself.” Ray, who has described it as the “most significant call I’ve made in the film business,” released the film with help from Jeff Lipsky. Made for $400,000, it grossed more than $5 million — then-record earnings for an indie feature.
She followed Hester Street with two decidedly non-ethnic features (Between the Lines and Chilly Scenes of Winter) that fared well with critics but less well with general audiences. In the past two decades she has directed numerous features as well as films for cable (including A Private Matter for HBO). She has worked inside and outside the Hollywood system. She’s also directed for the theater to great acclaim (A…My Name is Alice). Along the way, she’s become a leading figure in American indie circles and a guiding spirit for the vibrant new women’s cinema scene, serving on the advisory board of the New York Women’s Film Festival.
From Chilly Scenes of Winter
“I used to make it my business to go to every film directed by a woman, just as a kind of show of solidarity” she said, “but I could not possibly do that now because they’re all over the place. They’re making everything from music videos to television films to feature films.”
Often sought out for advice by new filmmakers — male and female alike — she’s glad to share her wisdom. “Of course, I’m flattered by it. I enjoy meeting with filmmakers and talking to them and comparing notes. They’re looking for almost any kind of help they can get that might help them get projects off the ground.”
More than most, she appreciates the progress women have made in film.
“Absolutely. It’s great.” She attributes this breakthrough as much to women pounding at the gates of opportunity long and hard enough to finally gain entry as to any contribution she and peers like actress-director Lee Grant (Tell Me a Riddle) made. Whether due to inroads made by these modern pioneers or not, once closed doors have undeniably opened. To wit, her daughters, who grew up on their mother’s movie sets, boast film careers of their own. Marisa has directed feature films (License to Drive), although these days she’s raising a family. Dina is a producer. And Claudia is a director with a new short film (Kalamazoo) out.
Of her daughters’ following her footsteps, Micklin Silver said: “I think they all felt at home with the process and I don’t think they had an unrealistically rosy view of it all. They’ve certainly been aware of the various things I’ve gone through, but they’ve seen for the most part that I’ve enjoyed it and am proud of what I’ve achieved and am still at and so on. So, I hope they’ve been encouraged by it.”
Yet, even after the success of Hester Street, she still could not get Hollywood backing for her next project, Between the Lines (1977), which examines an underground newspaper staff’s struggles to balance their revolutionary zeal with dollars-and-cents reality.
A major studio, United Artists, did attach itself to her third project, Chilly Scenes of Winter, a 1979 film that steers clear of cliches in charting the ups and downs of a romantic relationship. Micklin Silver’s association with UA turned sour when the studio ordered a new ending (to a less ambiguous one) and a changed title (to the frivolous Head Over Heels) against her wishes. Her critically praised film was a box office bust, but she ultimately prevailed when she got the UA Classics division to release her director’s cut in 1982.
A decade removed from the UA debacle, she finally danced with the studios again when her Crossing Delancey (adapted from the Susan Sandler play) was picked-up by Warner Bros. and when she was brought in as a hired-gun to direct two screwball comedies, Loverboy (a 1989 Tri-Star release) and Big Girls Don’t Cry (a 1991 New Line release), she did not originate. While she enjoyed doing the latter two projects, she prefers generating her own material. “In the end it’s more satisfying to me to be able to make films that I just feel more personally,” she said.
Her most recent work, Invisible Child, is a new Lifetime original movie drama starring Rita Wilson.
Along the way, there have been many unrealized projects. Not one to dwell much on what-might-have-beens, she feels an even playing field might have meant more chances but considers her career a validation of women’s gains, noting, “Well, you know, one always feels one could have done more. But I’ve managed to make films for many years now in a field that was extremely unfriendly to women and to make the films I wanted.”
She is quick to add, however, filmmaking is a tough field “for everyone. It’s extraordinarily competitive.” Besides her gender, she feels her own idiosyncratic vision has limited her options. Long attracted to exploring the complex give-and-take of intimate male-female relationships, the romantic partners in her films are far from perfectly happy and, indeed, often flounder in search of equilibrium if not bliss.
Her 1998 feature, A Fish in the Bathtub, illustrates the point. Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara star as a Queens couple, Sam and Molly, whose 40-year marriage finally goes on the fritz. “It (A Fish) falls into a special category of film I like very much — human comedy,” Micklin Silver said. “It’s real, wrenching and strikes a chord.”
Promotional image with Peter Riegert and Amy Irving from Crossing Delancey
Unafraid to tackle the silly, messy, chaotic side of relationships, she probes issues like obsession, desire, infidelity, possessiveness, loneliness, rejection, regret. Like the smart repartee associated with Lubitsch, Wilder, Cukor or Hawks, her films delight in verbal sparring matches that deflate gender myths and romantic idylls.
Micklin Silver’s men and women are equally strong-willed and neurotic. That is never more evident than in Crossing Delancey, where Sam (Peter Riegert), the pickle man, patiently waits for the upwardly mobile Izzy (Amy Irving) to come down off her high horse and finally see him for the decent if unflamboyant guy he really is. The story is also very much about the uneasy melding of old and new Jewish culture and the conflicting agendas of today’s sexual politics. Izzy is the career-minded modern woman. Sam is the tradition-mired male. Each pines for affection and attachment, but are unsure how to get it. In the end, a matchmaker and bubby bring them together.
About the male-female dynamic in her work, Micklin-Silver said, “That is something I’m quite interested in. Why? I have no idea, other than a life lived, I guess. In my own life experience I had a really wonderful father who was interested in me and paid attention to me and to my ideas… and God knows I have a wonderful, supportive husband whom I’ve had three great daughters with. I haven’t had the experience of abuse by men, so basically what I’ve done is more observe the differences (in the sexes) than the struggles.”
She and husband Ray (a producer and director in his own right) continue partnering on some projects and pursuing others separately. Their Silverfilm Production company is housed in offices on Park Avenue.
While rarely returning to her home state anymore, she did accept the Mary Riepma Ross Award at the 1993 Great Plains Film Festival in Lincoln. On that visit, she drove across state and admired the unbroken prairie.
“I Iove western Nebraska. It’s just so beautiful. I love a landscape that’s long and flat, and where there’s so little in the middle distance that your eye goes on and on.”
A landscape reminiscent of that is the backdrop for a hoped-for future project called White Harvest, a period piece set on a sugarbeet farm in far northeastern Colorado. “It has a great feeling for place. It’s also a wonderful love story,” she said. If the project ever flies, it would realize a long-held desire to capture the Midwest on film. “I’ve always wanted to shoot something in Nebraska. I want so much to come back to that world.” There’s also a film noir script she’s tinkering with.
Next spring she is slated to direct a film adaptation of a Paul Osborn play, Mornings at Seven, for Showtime.
Ideas are what feed her work and her passion. “I’m never without something I want to do. It’s your life. What you’re doing…what you’re thinking.” Meanwhile, she’s excited by the prospect of a more dynamic cinema emerging from the rich new talent pool of women and minority filmmakers. “Yeah, it’s going to be a much richer stew, and something all of us can enjoy.”
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