Joan Micklin Silver, A Maverick Filmmaker Who Helped Shape the American Independent Film Scene and Opened Doors for Women Directors
Something I tend to harp on is the tendency for my home state, Nebraska, to neglect the significant figures from here who have made their mark in film. One of my favorite Nebraskans in Film is Joan Micklin Silver. The Omaha native became a maverick filmmaker who helped shape the American independent film scene in the 1970s and opened doors for women directors. If her name and work are unfamiliar, then take the time to discover this artist. The following article for the New Horizons is one of a few major pieces I have done on her over the years. You will find my other stories about her on this same blog site. In some ways she was born too early to enjoy the increased freedom and opportunity that today’s women filmmakers enjoy, not that they haven’t had to overcome barriers themselves because the film world is still very much a male-centric arena. Let’s just say though that Micklin Silver is someone who deserves more recognition and that her films merit more viewers. Her feature film career lost steam in the mid 1990s, when she began directing movies for cable networks. More recently, she’s been developing some documentary projects. She would still like to realize a long held dream of coming back to Nebraska to direct a film. If she does, I will be there to cover it.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
For a sparsely populated state far removed from Hollywood, Nebraska has produced an amazing array of movie greats. From the daredevil highjinks of Harold Lloyd to the graceful arabesques of Fred Astaire to the rugged heroism of Robert Taylor to the dignified stature of Henry Fonda to the demure charm of Dorothy McGuire to the brooding machismo of Marlon Brando to the laconic swagger of James Coburn to the bright spirit of Sandy Dennis to the volatile bravado of Nick Nolte, Nebraska-born stars have been as beguiling as the Sand Hills themselves.
Besides these bigger-than-life performers, Nebraska has yielded a bumper crop of storytellers and starmakers who have helped shaped the movies. Darryl Zanuck was a case in point. The Wahoo native catapulted himself from Warner Bros. screenwriter to 20th Century Fox movie mogul, overseeing many Oscar-winning classics (The Grapes of Wrath, Twelve O’clock High) during Hollywood’s Golden Age. Decades later, a new generation of Nebraska filmmakers emerged to put their dreams on celluloid. Take Alexander Payne, for example. The Omaha native is a writer-director of small, edgy, wickedly satiric feature films (Citizen Ruth and Election) that have earned critical praise if not box office success.
In between the old Hollywood of Zanuck and the brash new screen world of Payne came Omaha native Joan Micklin Silver (Hester Street, Crossing Delancey), who arrived on the scene in the 1970s to help spark the American independent film movement and gain a fresh foothold for women behind-the-camera.
Based in New York, where she has lived the past three decades with her husband Ray Silver, she has made an indelible mark on the cinematic landscape. Born in Omaha in 1935, she is the eldest daughter of the late Maurice and Doris Micklin, Russian-Jewish immigrants who came separately to America in the wake of the Russian Revolution and met and married here. Her father later founded Micklin Lumber Co.
Micklin Silver’s deep love for the movies was first nurtured in pre-television 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,” she said by phone from her New York home. 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.
The stories told by her family of their coming to America — their crossing, culture shock and assimilation — held her enthralled from a young age. Micklin Silver 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, 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, when I began making movies, I was inevitably drawn to stories which had so much emotional weight for me as I grew up.”
Her beguilement with those tales informed her acclaimed first feature, Hester Street, a 1975 film scripted by Micklin Silver and produced by her husband. It 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. Unlike some period pieces that content themselves with depicting history in dull, flat terms, Hester Street sharply evokes the lives of a transplanted people at a particular place in time. Informed by a strong feminist sensibility, Hester Street 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, 64, 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.
Her departure from Omaha, at age 17, occurred right around the time her father died. She attended Sarah Lawrence College in New York State, met her future husband, 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 mavericks like 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 when she struck up a friendship with Linda Gottlieb (who went on to produce Dirty Dancing), then an executive with an educational film company, and ended up writing and directing a series of 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.
Meanwhile, the Silvers moved to New York. With her feature scripts 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. When it became apparent she and the veteran Hollywood director (Mark Robson) assigned to it had a “very different take on” the material, she was replaced. 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. It was very helpful.” She said seeing the process up close “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.’”
It took guts for a woman to try directing then because women were simply not taken seriously in the male-dominated film world. Chauvinism reigned supreme.
“When I started,” she said, “there were no women directing at all in the so-called industry. There were no women cinematographers. There were very few women producers, and the ones there were were usually partnered with a man. 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. Unless you’re of a certain age you can’t quite believe it was that awful, but it was. 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 followed Hester Street with a string of features that fared well with critics but less well with general audiences. Lately, she has directed television movies for HBO, Showtime and Lifetime (Her most recent work, Invisible Child, is a new original Lifetime movie drama starring Rita Wilson.). 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.
Often sought out for advice by new filmmakers — male and female alike — she’s gladly shares 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. Women are definitely in a better place today. Talented women do get opportunities. It’s not nearly as bleak a picture as it was.”
She attributes this breakthrough as much to women pounding at the studio gates long and hard enough to finally gain entry as to any contribution she and her peers 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 features (License to Drive), although these days she’s raising a family. Dina is a producer. And Claudia is a director with an acclaimed 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, Micklin Silver still could not get Hollywood backing for her next project, Between the Lines (1977), which examines an underground newspaper staff’s struggle to balance their revolutionary zeal with dollars-and-cents reality. With its large, talented ensemble cast, gonzo sensibility and free-wheeling look at office and bedroom politics, the story accurately captures its time yet remains utterly fresh today.
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 troubled 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, a 1988 film adapted from the Susan Sandler play, was picked-up by Warner Bros. While not a Jewish director per se, she often explores her heritage on film and with Crossing Delancey she revisited the Lower East Side, only this time focusing on contemporary Jewish life and its intersection with old world traditions. In the mid-‘90s she directed the acclaimed National Public Radio series Great Jewish Stories from Eastern Europe and Beyond. Most recently, she directed the 1997 Showtime movie, In the Presence of Mine Enemies.
Based on a Rod Serling TV script originally produced live on Playhouse 90, Mine Enemies stars Armin Mueller-Stahl as a rabbi trying to hold his community and family together in the Warsaw ghetto of World War II. The film 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.”
Showing her versatility, she followed Crossing Delancey as the hired-gun director of two decidedly non-ethnic, screwball comedies, Loverboy (a 1989 Tri-Star release) and Big Girls Don’t Cry (a 1991 New Line release).
Her career has also seen its share of 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.”
Long attracted to exploring the complex give-and-take of intimate male-female relationships, she has created a string of serio-comic pictures that compare favorably with the work of the best romantic comedy directors in history. The romantic partners in her films are far from perfectly happy and, indeed, often flounder in search of equilibrium if not bliss, as in her 1998 feature, A Fish in the Bathtub, starring Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara 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.”
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, she delights 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 to partner on some projects and to pursue others separately. Their Silverfilm Production company is housed in offices on Park Avenue. Upcoming projects include directing a movie adaptation of the Paul Osborn play, Mornings at Seven, for Showtime this spring. She eventually hopes to make a long-held film noir script.
Although she rarely gets back to her home state anymore, she did come to accept the Mary Riepma Ross Award at the 1993 Great Plains Film Festival in Lincoln. Her visit included a drive across Nebraska that reignited her passion for the 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 project she’s developing called White Harvest, which is set on a sugarbeet farm in far northeastern Colorado. Based on a book called Second Hoeing, it is a period piece about a young girl wanting to escape her tyrannical immigrant father. “It has a great feeling for the place. It’s also a wonderful love story,” Micklin Silver 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. It still hasn’t happened but I want so much to come back to that world.”
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