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Women’s and Indie Feature Film Pioneer Joan Micklin Silver’s Journey in Cinema

September 5, 2011 Leave a comment

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.”

Actor Peter Riegert Makes Fine Feature Directorial Debut with ‘King of the Corner’

May 12, 2011 2 comments

About three years ago or so I heard that one of my favorite actors, Peter Riegert, was going around the country with a feature film he starred in and directed, King of the Corner. His appearance in Nebraska took on greater import for me when I learned that the film was adapted from a group of short stories by noted author Gerald Shapiro, who teaches at the University of Nebraska. Long story short, I obtained a screener of the film and I really responded to it, and then I did a phone interview with Riegert, who proved a delight.  The resulting story appeared in the Jewish Press.  I highly recommend King of the Corner.  And if you don’t know his name or work, I recommend two essential Riegert films: Local Hero and Crossing Delancey, which also happen to be two of my favorite films.  Two of Riegert’s best films, Crossing Delancey and Chilly Scenes of Winter, were directed by Omaha native Joan Micklin Silver, the subject of an extensive profile on this blog under the title, “Shattering Cinema’s Glass Ceiling.”

 

 

Peter Riegert

 

 

Actor Peter Riegert Makes Fine Feature Directorial Debut with ‘King of the Corner’

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Jewish Press

For months now, noted stage and screen actor Peter Riegert has been taking his new film comedy about “crummy Jews,” King of the Corner, on the road. Best known for his work in front of the camera, he’s the director, co-writer and star of this engaging satire that critic Roger Ebert gives 3 1/2 stars. While this is the first feature he’s directed, Riegert won praise for helming the 2000 short By Courier, an Oscar-nominated adaptation of the O. Henry short story.

In March, he brought his new film to Lincoln, where he has a history showing his work and where his co-script writer, Gerald Shapiro, author of the short stories upon which the film is based, resides and teaches. Although they’d never met before their collaboration, Shapiro’s long admired Riegert’s work. A University of Nebraska-Lincoln creative writing professor, Shapiro utilizes one of the actor’s best known films, Crossing Delancey, along with an audio reading by Riegert of a famous Yiddish story by Sholem Aleichem, in his Jewish American fiction class.

“I was an admirer of his before I ever saw ‘Crossing Delancey’. I loved him in ‘Animal House’. I loved him in ‘Local Hero’,” Shapiro said.

Personally peddling his cinema wares to theater and video chains has Riegert appreciating the irony of schmoozing over a movie whose two main characters are Sol Spivak (Eli Wallach), an ex-door-to-door salesman with a Willy Loman death wish, and his son Leo (Riegert), a newfangled huckster beset by an Oedipal complex.

“I’m turning into Leo and Sol,” a joking Riegert said by phone.

The story revolves around Leo, the dutiful yet resentful son in the midst of an identity crisis that has him questioning everything, including his own religious heritage, and doubting advice given him, especially by his father.

From the very opening, Riegert portrays Leo as a man adrift. Sitting at his office desk, he’s the picture of apathy and narcissism as he sends a parade of wind-up toys marching over the edge into the abyss. This image instantly conveys he’s heading for a similar fall and one he’ll precipitate himself. It’s happens, too, but to Riegert and Shapiro’s credit, the crisis assumes richer, funnier, sadder dimensions than we could imagine.

Continually kvetching about his father wanting to die, his troubled marriage, his rotten job and his willful daughter, Leo acts the meshugina, but he’s really a guilelessmensch short on confidence and, therefore, judgment. More than once, he’s asked, “What do you want?” To his dismay, he doesn’t know.

Where family and colleagues see a protege angling for his job, Leo seems strangely unaware and unfazed by the threat. So depressed is Leo that even when their suspicions prove true, he can’t get angry.

He can’t feel anything, except lost. As men often do, his nonverbalized fears and frustrations drive him to act badly– impulsively pursuing a tryst in a kind of retro-adolescent daze. There’s no question he loves his wife (Isabella Rosselini) and family. But he gives into temptation and reaches for the nearest fix to feel something, anything, again.

In the surreal infidelity sequence Leo revels in his conquest in a most inappropriate way, only to have a moment of self-awareness–too late, as it happens–that’s delicious for how absurd and ashamed he feels.

Riegert has just the right ironic detachment, sardonic bemusement, pragmatic charm, cockeyed whimsy and simmering venom to make his character one we can both laugh at and empathize with. It turns out Leo is a lot like Shapiro.

The actor’s career revolves around New York and L.A., but his many ties here extend to filmmaker Joan Micklin Silver, a native Omahan based in New York. He first worked with her as the wry friend to John Heard in her Chilly Scenes of Winter and next as stand-up Sam, the lovelorn pickle man (opposite Amy Irving), in her Crossing Delancey. For his new film, he’s teamed with transplanted Nebraskan Shapiro, whose book Bad Jews and Other Stories supplied the plot and characters adapted into King of the Corner.

The film falls into that cinema limbo where many good, small, character-driven movies, either owing to limited distribution or poor studio marketing, end up, which is anywhere but your local cineplex. As unusual as it may seem for someone to make the circuit with their picture, “it’s not an uncommon thing,” Riegert said, for moviemakers “to be out there hustling their film. (John) Cassavetes did it. I’m pretty sure Mel Brooks did it with ‘The Twelve Chairs’. I’ve met lots of indie directors who do it.”

Indeed, Joan Micklin Silver and her producer-husband Raphael Silver made the rounds with her Oscar-nominated feature debut Hester Street and again with Between the Lines. If you want your film shown in theaters, self-distribution is the only route left when your pic fails to win a traditional studio release, as was the case with King. It’s not something entered into lightly, but Riegert almost sounds fortunate when he says, “Basically, I’ve had to learn every part of making movies”–from producing to writing-directing to marketing.

“I didn’t want to distribute the movie myself, but I didn’t find the help I felt the movie needed. I didn’t want somebody to just release it. I needed somebody to nurture it, because it’s that kind of a movie, and nobody was stepping up in any particularly enthusiastic way. So, now I’m learning about every part of movies, and in a way that’s not only theoretical but practical.”

The experience should inform whatever project he directs next. His efforts to get his film more widely seen were bolstered when a national chain took it on.

“I booked the first three months of the tour and then Landmark Theaters, which specializes in independent films, picked me up for June, July, August and September,” he said. “So, that was a big help and a nice endorsement in terms of their confidence. In general, the reviews have been very good and people have been coming out to support the film. We’ve been held over in Chicago, Detroit, Buffalo, San Francisco. What I believed, which is that there’s an audience for the movie, has proven true. So, I’m seeing there is some kind of word of mouth.”

 

 

 

 

Yes, there’s a nice little buzz about it, but to do any real business–the kind that gets Hollywood’s attention –a big fat exploitation campaign is called for, which is just what Riegert and Elevation Filmworks can’t afford.

“What I’ve learned is that as valuable as word of mouth is, you have to help it along and that’s where a marketing budget comes in. I essentially don’t have one. I don’t have the clout to buttress it with advertising support and I can’t get national press for it” without it being in theaters everywhere.

Minus a wide release and cushy press junket, he pushes King “one city at a time.” On the other hand, he gets to know its audience more intimately than he would otherwise. For example, he conducts Q & As after select screenings. He said he enjoys “my conversations with audiences,” adding the sessions have “reinforced my instinct” about the film resonating with people.

As much as he believes in his film, he knows its real worth will be measured by box office-rental-pay-per-view dollars and by how it stands up over time.

“Anybody who makes a film, or makes anything for that matter, has to have a certain kind of crazy courage or arrogance about it,” he said. “You have to believe in yourself. The audience eventually tells you whether you’re right or wrong. And then, of course, time really tells you whether you’re right or wrong.”

Last winter, Riegert’s road show took him to Lincoln, where King played the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center (His picture has yet to be screened in Omaha.). The visit brought Riegert and his project full circle. His appearance there a few years before, for a screening of his own By Courier, proved fortuitous as it was then he was first introduced to Shapiro’s work. The author got someone to slip the actor a copy ofBad Jews. The stories struck a chord in Riegert.

“The title made me laugh out loud and I thought if the book is half as funny as the title then maybe I’ve found what I was looking for, which was material for a feature. I read the book on a plane back to L.A., where I was working, and just thought this guy is fantastic. I called him up the next day and began a process of collaborating.”

Directing is something Riegert’s longed to do since college, when he made a promising short film. When his acting career took off, years passed before he realized he hadn’t followed up on his passion. By Courier was his “if I don’t do it now, I’m never going to do it” project.

In Shapiro, Riegert found an artist with a shared world view that sees “the sense of outsidedness many of us feel” and “how we’re the engineers of our own problems.” He also admires Shapiro’s appreciation for how “the drama and comedy in our respective lives co-exist at the same time, which is what I think makes his material so rich.” Shapiro said the two share “a dry sense of humor. I think both Peter and I tend to laugh at things that are not especially funny. There’s something so Jewish about that as well. But where he’s more optimistic, I’m gloomier.”

In the end, Shapiro feels King stands alone as more Riegert’s vision than his own. “I think it has its own voice and its own validity,” he said. “To be perfectly honest, what it captures is Peter’s voice, and that’s how it should be, because he is the author of that film. The thing I learned from watching this film get made is the director really is the author of the film, and in the case of ‘King of the Corner’, it’s Peter’s movie from top to bottom. His vision and his voice are everywhere.”

 

 

Gerald Shapiro

 

 

For Shapiro, the experience of writing the film entailed a series of firsts. It was his first screenplay, collaboration and adaptation.

“I’m not used to working with anyone. I’m not used to hearing someone else’s input or having someone listen to me. So, that was strange. Not having the tool of narrative to work with as a writer–having to have everything visual or come out of someone’s mouth–it’s a huge difference. My voice as a fiction writer is much more than my dialogue. Most useful to me with ‘King of the Corner’ were the staged readings Peter arranged in New York and Los Angeles that I attended. It’s wonderful to hear the screenplay read aloud by talented actors before a live audience, especially if you’re writing comedy. You get to hear if the jokes work. You get to hear the pacing. Because that’s really what a lot of it is hinging on.”

Many of the actors at those readings wound up in the film, including Eli Wallach, Beverly D’Angelo, Harris Yulin and Eric Bogosian.

As funny as it is, the film’s humor springs from heavy, Death of a Salesman themes. Sol’s bitter over a life spent lived out of cars and motels, schlepping a heavy case to support his family. He bears Leo’s disdain and rues his only child’s weakness. Leo shrinks at the notion he’s anything like his dad. Despite an office, a three-piece suit, a fancy title and his focus groups, he’s ultimately a peddler, too.

In his wallowing Leo recalls the bad times. It’s only much later, after his dad’s gone, he looks past the negative to see a more balanced truth.

Near the end, there’s a marvelous monologue, lifted nearly verbatim from Shapiro’s book, in which Leo delivers a raw, hilarious excoriation of his “crummy” Jewish roots. Riegert said the intent was to make Leo’s from-the-gut rant as unvarnished as possible.

Perhaps the most moving scene is the funeral service. Sol’s died a most unflattering death. Leo’s given the freelance rabbi with the silly name, Evelyn Fink, nothing but dirt to say about the old man. Fink runs Sol down so much even Leo’s offended. Finally, he can’t take it anymore and launches into an impromptu kaddish that’s equal parts confessional and atonement. In a sad-comic soliloquy, Leo properly memorializes his father, poignantly coming to terms with the man and his legacy, which is to say, himself.

At the end, Leo’s found himself again. Even though his fate’s unclear, he can dare to dance his troubles away.

The film’s charm is that it’s so real in adeptly showing the fine edge in comedy-pathos, levity-gravity, absurdity-profundity, and how we slip so easily from one to the other. It helps that all the actors underplay their roles in the naturalistic style Riegert prefers. “What I knew as an actor I’m now becoming more confident in as a director and writer,” he said, “which is to let go of whatever control I think I have and just let my imagination loose and figure out what it means later.”

While Riegert searches for his next directing project, Shapiro’s shopping around a new script, drawn from both his novella Suskind: the Impresario, and Bad Jews. The story focuses on a PR man in San Francisco (where Shapiro once lived) struggling with his job, his estranged family and the new woman in his life.

“It’s a comedy,” he said. Producers are reading it, but Shapiro, like Leo, isn’t one to boast. “I’m amazed anybody would ever want to do anything with anything I wrote. I’ve not had the kind of success that leads to the raging self-confidence I see in other people.”

Joan Micklin Silver, A Maverick Filmmaker Who Helped Shape the American Independent Film Scene and Opened Doors for Women Directors

October 10, 2010 1 comment

"Hester Street, New York City"

Image via Wikipedia

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Joan Micklin Silver, A Maverick Filmmaker Who Helped Shape the American Independent Film Scene and Opened the Door for Women Directors

©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 WrathTwelve 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 StreetCrossing 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.”

 

 

The Silvers developed Hester Street under the banner of their Midwest Films. When, despite great reviews at festivals, the film failed attracting a distributor, Ray Silver called 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 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 90Mine 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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