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Carol Kane Interview

August 20, 2012 Leave a comment

A filmmaker who doesn’t get nearly the attention she deserves is writer-director Joan Micklin Silver, whom I’ve written about over the years.  Many of my stories about her can be found on this blog.  Her 1975 debut feature, Hester Street, was a phenomenon for its time because Joan and her producing partner husband Raphael (Ray) Silver were forced to go totally independent when all the studios rejected the script.  Thus, the couple raised the few hundred thousand dollars needed from investors, gathered a cast and crew, completed the film on time and on budget, then distributed the picture themselves.  It all came together, too.  The period piece looked like it was done on a much larger budget.  The performances were stellar.  Most amazingly the film found a large enough audience at theaters to make millions at the box office, making it one of the most successful indie films up to that time.  The capper was star Carol Kane getting an Oscar nomination for Best Actress for her sensitive and insightful performance as Gitl, a traditional Jewish immigrant wife and mother who undergoes a transformation in the face of the new world she enters and the gulf that’s grown between herself and her husband.  It’s a powerful and moving portrayal of emancipation and empowerment as Gitl finds a path of her own from her and her son.  The impish film-television-stage actress recently spoke with me about working with Joan on the film and what it meant to be part of a movie that’s now part of the National Film Registry.  She’s a delightful interview.

Look for coming Q&A’s with Robert Duvall, Martin Landau, Danny Glover, and legendary cinematographer Bill Butler.

 

 

Carol Kane

 

 

Interview with Carol Kane

©by Leo Adam Biga

LAB: So what are your thoughts about Hester Street being included in the National Film Registry?

 

CK: “I had no idea about it until Joan wrote me a couple days ago saying she’d talked to you. I didn’t know. I’m so glad you’re doing this because I didnt know about the movie getting this status and I think it’d be fun for us to have people know about it.”

LAB: It’s selection in the registry pretty much ensures it will be part of the American film canon going forward.

CK: “Isn’t that wild? It’s a wonderful feeling to feel like something we did was authentic enough and true enough to be valued as something which should be preserved. You know that’s an extraordinary thing because so many movies are made every year and a lot of them just disappear. And it’s wonderful to know that ours will be preserved and, of course, I’m proud to be part of it.

“I always loved the story, it’s just a great, great story. When I read the script I saw the movie in my mind. She (Joan Micklin Silver) wrote the movie so beautifully that you could see it, and so I’m just so glad that it materialized in the way it read.”

LAB: I understand that Joan first saw you in the Canadian dramatic feature, Wedding in White.

CK:  “Yes, I co-starred in the movie with Donald Pleasance when I was 19 actually, and I guess somehow she saw it. It was voted best film in the Canadian Film Festival I believe. Donald and I were disqualified because neither of us were Canadian. But it got very lovely reviews in the New York Times and in other publications and I guess her being an independent film gal she went and saw it.”

LAB: Joan told me she assumed that you were Canadian and therefore it would be difficult to get you to come on location for a small indie pic on New York’s Lower East Side.

CK: “Oh, I didnt realize that or I forgot about it. But I do know at that point a lot of people did think I was Canadian because somehow I was working a lot in Canada when I was young.”

LAB: In fact you’re a native of Cleveland, where coincidentally Joan settled after college and that’s where she got her start in theater and in film. By the time she was casting Hester Street she and her husband Ray lived in New York, where you had moved as well.

CK: “Yes, and did she tell you that my dad and Ray knew each other in Cleveland?”

LAB: No.

CK: “Yeah, because my dad was an architect, Michael M. Kane, and Ray’s dad was a rabbi, Rabbi Silver. I think I’ve got that right. And my dad did some work with the temple at that time and so they knew each other in this other life, you know. Ray also was involved in pre-fab housing when we made Hester Street. I don’t know if that’s still his business or not or whether he gave it up for the love of the movies. Yeah, so the Silvers and the Kanes knew each other in Cleveland. It’s a strange aside, right?”

LAB: Yes, I love that kind of thing. In checking your IMDB page…

CK: “Oh my God, I’ve got a movie on there that I’ve just begged them to take off from mine and they won’t. It’s some movie (supposedly) like early on in my career, and I have no idea what it is, and they also say I’m also known as this other person that’s in that movie. It’s still there and I can’t get it off.”

LAB: Before even doing Hester Street you had already made Wedding in White, Carnal Knowledge and The Last Detail, which was an incredible start to your career and found you working with some impressive talents like Pleasance, Nicholson, Mike Nichols, Hal Ashby, Randy Quaid.

CK: “I know, I’m so lucky.”

LAB: When you got the part in Hester Street did you give much thought to the prospect of working with a woman filmmaker?

CK: “I don’t think I thought of a woman or a man…Like I told you, I read that script and saw it and I just wanted to be in it, but I don’t think I thought, ‘Hmmm, what’s it going to be like to have a woman in charge?’I didn’t really feature that, and I still don’t. I mean, I just think a good director is a good director and the sex doesn’t feature in that much. But I do think at that time some female directors were very tough because they had to be. That’s not my main recollection of Joan. But I know there was a time when there was such a battle to make a movie that some of them were pretty tough.

“But the Silvers had this sort of unit of belief in the fact that if something was good and worthwhile it would happen, which was very nice. And of course it was a time in film history when that was coming true, when a lot of strange little movies somehow were happening from beautiful scripts about people rather than you know giant events. So it was the right time for this little story I guess.”

LAB: What about working with Joan and the tone she created on the set?

CK: “Well, it had to be very serious because it had to happen very fast because we didn’t have a lot of money. We had less than $400,000 I believe, so you know we didn’t have any time to waste but she would never sacrifice the essence of a scene for that. Ray was producing. They both had to be very, very, very prepared, which she was, and I think I was too. I think there was a lot of research and work that happened before the camera rolled.

“Our art directors were so brilliant, the costume designer, makeup and hair, our DP (director of photography), everyone was so prepared. And as an actress that was so so helpful to me that I would look around and what I was seeing was what would have been. I was wearing clothes from that time and earrings from that time. Our little set was just a little apartment, and it was so real. The settee the boarder had to sleep on was so tiny and you would think, ‘How could a grown man sleep on this behind a curtain?’ You know, it was all there. And everybody was so prepared in working as fast as they could but with a very determined view toward it being right and real. I don’t mean right as in there’s only one right way but it had to ring true before we moved on.”

LAB: Joan described to me that there was a particular article of wardrobe you wanted to take home with you and the costumer balked at letting you do that until she approved it.

CK: “I don’t know if you’re talking about the sheitel (a wig or half wig,) which I believe I did take home and wear around, or maybe my nightgown. But I do remember taking the sheitel and wearing it somewhat. It’s so interesting what we go through in falling in love with our characters. For awhile I was thinking that sheitel was really beautiful, that I looked really good in it, and then if you look at it objectively it’s like, ‘What? What is that thing on my head?’ But I became very happy with it, very comfortable with it because you have to get used to the fact…I mean, that’s my partner and it’s very important to an Orthodox woman. So they did let me take it home and wear it.”

LAB: What is your take on your character and her transformation and awakening?

CK: “I haven’t seen it (the film) in awhile I must confess. I think the last time I saw it was when the film was going to come out on DVD and Joan and I recorded commentary for it.

(Speaking of her character Gitl in the first person):

“I just think I came here to America with kind of a pure hope and attitude and feeling that my life with my husband and child would continue very much as it had been and of course I arrive to find out that’s completely untrue and that I’m somehow kind of an embarrassment to my husband and not ‘modern.’ Because I’m very religious in the beginning I’m not flexible about practicing the things I practiced in the old country, like wearing the sheitel or not looking at men in the face and not using American names for my son and husband as he wants me to.

“I think life teaches me that I have to change. I think of Gitl as very, ver,y very strong but not tough. Very strong to be able to change in a way that would make her life and her son’s life feel rich while getting divorced, which you know is a huge traumatic scandal. She works so hard at learning English. People always say to me, ‘What do you think happened to Gitl afterwards?’ and I always think she probably went on to run Macy’s. You know how were walking down the street at the end and we talk about opening a store and I tell Mr. Bernstien that he’ll study and I’ll sell? I have the feeling we did quite well.

“Who knows what would have become of me if we hadn’t had a son, which I think is a story that’s repeated very frequently throughout history. Women have to learn to be strong because they are responsible for a child and that brings out things in one that one didn’t think were there, and thats true of Gitl.”

 

 

Carol Kane as Gitl in Hester Street 

The emancipation of Gitl

Montage from Hester Street 

 

 

LAB: I don’t know how you feel but I regard Hester Street as one of the great immigrant experience depictions in screen history.  There aren’t that many.

CK: I think The Godfather II, don’t you?”

LAB: Yes. And Kazan’s America, America.

CK: “Right. I have to say, I don’t know how, it just seems impossible to me those people (immigrants) did what they did. How did they do it? I mean, get on a boat to someplace they’d never even seen a picture of and don’t know the language. My grandmother came over and taught English and she barely spoke English. You know, the resourcefulness is just…It’s scary enough nowadays in the modern age –with the computer and you Google where you’re going and you see the pictures of the hotel where you’ll be staying – to go to an unknown country where you don’t speak the language. To just leave your life and start over from scratch like that, the bravery is just unimaginable to me.

“Can you possibly picture yourself doing that?”

LAB: No, I can’t.

CK: “I can’t either.”

LAB: “Both sets of my grandparents made the immigrant journey from Europe – my father’s parents from Poland and my mother’s parents from Italy – and I regret not knowing more about how they did it and why they did it.

CK: “I think we all lost a lot of opportunities to find out what that was like and what drove them to be brave enough to do it. Gosh. My relatives went to Cleveland. It’s not like, OK, the boat lets us off by the Statue of Liberty and we’ll just stay there.”

LAB: And my people ended up in Omaha, right in the middle of America.

CK: “That old cliche which is so true about necessity being the mother of (invention). I guess that was the main thing, people reinvented everything about themselves.”

LAB: It’s often said that completing any film is a small miracle and getting it seen in theaters and having it be well received is perhaps even more miraculous. But in the case of a small indie film like Hester Street that saw the filmmakers raise the money, produce the picture and get it distributed themselves, and have the film find an audience and do quite well is the rarest of all miracles, especially in that era.

Joan Micklin Silver busy directing

 

 

CK: “Oh, I know. And by the way yours truly big mouth here was adamant against that (self-distribution). I tried to explain to Ray it was impossible (laughing), but you know he talked to my later to become dear friend John Cassavetes and I think John was very inspirational and helpful as he was all the time with every artist he ever spoke to and in business too because he was such a maverick. He was an immigrant in Hollywood, you know. He did such a brilliant job, Ray. Where I’ve done other wonderful tiny little movies like this, like a movie called In the Soup that Alex (Alexandre) Rockwell directed and you know the distribution part is so critical and it doesn’t always work. And Ray (and Co.) just did a great job.”

LAB: I understand that it was Joan who had the thrill and privilege of calling with the news of  your Oscar nomination.

CK: “Well, that’s the craziest thing in the world isn’t it?”

LAB: I’m sure you never saw that coming.

CK: “Uh, no, no I didn’t think of anything like that. I think when I was nominated I was 23. I know it’s crazy.”

LAB: I assume you attended the Academy Awards ceremony?

CK: “I did but I really think I was pretty much in shock.”

LAB: What do you recall of it?

“Well, the thing was again Joan and Ray had done sort of a maverick thing and hired this wonderful man named Max Bercutt who had worked in PR in the studio system (at Warner Bros. publicity from 1948-1968, where he headed the department for 15 years, before working as a consultant from 1968-1984). He was retired and he was a man who loved to gamble and he loved to gamble on a dark horse and he had done Julie Christie’s campaign for Darling and she had won for a similarly tiny movie. And he came out of retirement to do my campaign. Oh, he was just so great. I think for me the biggest disappointment was not winning for Max because I had hoped to be one of his dark horses. But I mean the fact I got nominated was amazing. I know he went around with a can of film under his arms and went over to Roz Russell’s house and had her invite six people, he went to these dinner parties with the film and people sat down and watched it and that’s why I got nominated – because of him schlepping it around.”

LAB: Yeah, but you overcame such huge odds just to get nominated.

CK: “I did but I still do feel sad that I didn’t go the distance for him. But I think it was a pretty big distance to get where we got. I tried to track him down after and I never found him. And he was just as you would have imagined, with a cigar and scotch. Anyway, he was tremendously kind to me and you can imagine I was way out of my league and he was a great guide in a very human and humane way through this strange experience.

“And the other thing for me that was very moving was that that was the year Jack (Nicholson) was nominated for Cuckoo’s Nest. That year Cuckoo’s Nest won everything. So I was there and it was so sweet and surrealistic for me to be sitting a stone’s throw away from Jack, whom I had done my first movies with, Carnal Knowledge and The Last Detail. The most amazing thing was the next day. In the days before you’re at the Beverly Hills Hotel or whatever and every one sends you flowers and calls. People come out of the woodwork to celebrate you and it’s lovely but it’s just completely overwhelming and then the next day it’s like the phone doesn’t work, there’s no ringing. Suddenly the phone stops ringing, there’s no flowers, and who calls me but Jack and he invites me to go with my friend Angelica (Huston) at the time and they took me to El Cholos for lunch. Only Jack would understand what that day is like and what it meant to be included.”

LAB: What a graceful thing to do.

CK: “Oh, so graceful, he’s a very graceful person. It’s almost like when I tell that story I think it can’t be true because it was so graceful but it is true and it is quite a strange thing to wake up the next morning and to realize the air has been completely changed in your room. Everything about it is different.”

LAB: Were you surprised by Joan’s subsequent success after Hester Street, when she went on to make two of the better comedies of the late ’70s-early ’80s period in Between the Lines and Chilly Scenes of Winter, respectively, and had her greatest triumph with Crossing Delancey in the late ’80s? I mean, I think she has one of the best bodies of work from that era.

CK: “Yes, she does. Amy Irving (the star of Crossing Delancey) and I are very close friends and we had lunch the other day and we were saying wouldn’t it be fun if somebody did a program, a double feature with Crossing Delancey and Hester Street (the films look at Jewish life on the Lower East Side from contemporary and turn-of-the-last-century lenses, respectively). I think that would be very fun.

“Joan and I tried to do one or two other things together and never got them off the ground and that’s what surprised me more than any success – that it wasn’t a guarantee you could pick up and tell more stories (together). There was another book that was a true story that we had really tried to get done but it didn’t happen. But there’s still time. And we worked for awhile on a play together that also has not yet happened but we really enjoyed working on it. But I’m not at all surprised by any success they have had or would have in the future.”

LAB: I note that you say ‘they’ and so I take it you think of Joan and Ray as a team?

CK: “Yeah, I guess I do. I know that they obviously perform very different functions on a set but at least on Hester Street I did think very much of them as a team.”

LAB: The fact that they’ve endured as a couple for all these years in an industry that’s not conducive to long term relationships certainly indicates they have something very strong together.

CK: “Yes, very unique, very non-show biz.”

LAB: I really appreciate your taking the time to speak with me.

CK: “Sure, and if like in the middle of the night you think of another question, give me a call, but don’t call in the middle of the night, wait till the morning (laughing).”

‘The Bagel: An Immigrant’s Story’ – Joan Micklin Silver and Matthew Goodman Team Up for a New Documentary Film

March 16, 2012 3 comments

A highly anticipated project long-in-the-making is Joan Micklin Silver’s documentary, The Bagel: An Immigrant’s Story.   She’s best known as a feature filmmaker (Hester Street, Between the Lines, Chilly Scenes of Winter, Crossing Delancey).  With this project she has a great take on a favorite and familiar food that’s too easily taken for granted.  Like any food that has ethnic origins, the bagel didn’t just show up out of nowhere in the States, it was brought here, in this case from Europe, and then it experienced its own assimilation process that saw it go from obscure ethnic enclave staple to ubiquitous item found in most any grocery store or bakery or coffeeshop or convenience store.  It’s even in some vending machines.  The bagel’s become Americanized to the point few people associate it anymore with its Jewish provenance.  But the bagel has a very particular history and heritage and its journey to America and its experience in the America melting pot parallels that of the human immigrants who brought it here, complete with its own labor disputes.   Former Food Maven columnist and best-selling author (Jewish Food: The World at Table) Matthew Goodman is the documentary’s writer.  I don’t know when the film will be completed and officially ready for screening, though you can find excerpts and rough cuts of it on the Web.  My story below about the film actually appeared some years ago when Silver and Goodman were just launching the project and trying to find investors and sources for it.  You’ll find several more stories by me about Joan Micklin Silver on this blog.

The Bagel: An Immigrant‘s Story’ – Joan Micklin Silver and Matthew Goodman Team Up for a New Documentary Film
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Jewish Press
Bagels occupy much of acclaimed feature filmmaker Joan Micklin Silver’s time these days. That’s because the Omaha native and Central High School graduate, best known for Hester Street (1975) and Crossing Delancey (1988), two films about the Jewish experience in America, is preparing to shoot a new documentary that tells the history of the bagel in the U.S. in terms of the classic immigrant success story.  The film is slated to be called, The Bagel: An Immigrant’s Story.
Joan Micklin Silver

 

 

Silver was turned onto this story by noted food writer Matthew Goodman, author of the book Jewish Food: The World at Table and the former Food Maven columnist for The Forward. Co-producers on the project, Silver will direct Goodman’s script.

The bagel film project arose from a meeting Silver arranged with Goodman for his insights into the food of the Catskills, the famous East Coast Jewish resort that is the subject of a second documentary Silver is prepping. In the course of their Catskills conversation he mentioned his findings on the bagel and suggested it might make an interesting film.

According to Goodman, long an admirer of Silver’s films, she said, “’Would you like to work together on it?’ Of course, I was delighted. I think she has a wonderful literary sensibility when it comes to her work.”

As research by these first-time collaborators reveals, the rise of the bagel has strong reverberations with the greater immigrant story in America and the assimilation and discrimination that is part of it. “It came from Poland, it struggled and strained and went through everything most other immigrants do before it prospered,” Silver said. “That caught my imagination so totally when we figured that out that we decided, Okay, let’s do this.”

Immigrant tales have long fascinated Silver, whose parents, the late Maurice and Doris Micklin, came here in the wake of the Russian revolution. Hester Street explores turn of the century life for newly arrived Jews on the Lower East Side and their struggles to blend in. Crossing Delancey eyes contemporary Jewish life in Manhattan and the conflict of traditional versus modern values.

The now ubiquitous bagel was brought here by Eastern European Jews, among whose members were artisan bakers steeped in the closely guarded tradition of Old World–read: handmade–bagel baking techniques.

“This was artisanal baking. These guys were the holders of the keys of the kingdom, as it were, when it came to bagels. This was the knowledge of the correct way to bake a bagel that had been passed down from generation to generation, going all the way back. The way to do it was a pretty tightly held secret,” Goodman said.

“They took great pride in their ability. It was not easy to do. The ovens were not easy to work. The dough unwieldy. It took a long time. You had to apprentice awhile before you became a member. So these guys really were craftsmen,” he said.

Unfortunately one of the things lost over time is that sense of artisanship, he added.  “They were masters at making bagels. There was an art to it,” Silver  said. “They were artists and they really cared about the quality of the product.”

Old-style bagels, much smaller than the modern variety, were distinctive for their hard crusts, chewy interiors and savory flavor. The International Bagel Bakers Union Local 338 formed to protect the recipes, methods and interests of the master bagel bakers. Only sons or nephews of current members could join. Every bagel in New York City came out of a union shop.

 

 

With the advent of bagel-making machines that churned out bagels faster than any hands could, the oldways became obsolete and the bagel assimilated into the cultural melting pot, turning blander and fatter in the process.

“Part of the story we’re telling in this film is that the demise of the union really led to the demise of the bagel as well,” Goodman said. “The machine just couldn’t make as good a bagel as the men could, for a number of reasons. One reason being the traditional bagel dough was too stiff to go through the bagel machine. It kept breaking down the machines. So bakery owners started adding water to the dough so it would go through the machines better, but that ended up making the bagel softer. And bagels since that time have gone through all sorts of changes with the addition of dough conditioners, which most bakeries use now, to relax the gluten in the dough immediately so bagels don’t have to sit overnight. It’s a big money saver for the bakery owners, but it reduces the flavor of the bagel significantly.

“A lot of places don’t even boil their bagels anymore before baking them, which is the hallmark of the bagel — boiled before baked. They just sort of steam them because they don’t want that hard crust. They think people don’t want to chew that hard.”

Goodman said the bagel’s transformation from hand-crafted, ethnic food stuff to homogenized, mass-produced staple reflects “the American public’s taste. The American public likes big, soft, bland, white baked goods. But that’s part of the story, too — that as the bagel became less Jewish and more mainstream American it had to take on more of mainstream America’s tastes.” A similar thing happened with pizza and many other ethnic foods whose authentic characteristics were diluted or distorted on the path to Americanization.

The story of the bagel in America is also the story of the IBBU Local 338. Bagel bakers fought hard to improve the arduous conditions they worked in, using their union as leverage in negotiations with employers.

“The conditions were terrible. The heat of the bakery while they were baking got to be like 110 degrees. Bakers often slept on benches in the bakery. They went through a lot. After a great deal of effort, they built a strong union. It was a terrific thing,” said Silver, who is doing much of her studies at the famed Yivo Institute of Jewish Research in New York, where former Omaha resident Leo Greenbaum is associate archivist-acquisitions archivist.
Goodman “discovered” the IBBU while doing research for an essay on the history of the bagel published in the Harvard Review. He’d never heard of the union.

“I just thought it was a fantastic thing, you know, a union composed entirely of bagel bakers,” he said. “And the more I looked into it the more fascinated I became by the story of a union that for several decades controlled all of the bagel bakeries in New York City and then within a span of less than a decade had been wiped out. I thought this was a really poignant story. It’s a little-known story. And also a story that allowed the telling of a larger story about the way ethnic foods assimilate in the larger society and also the demise of the labor movement.”

 Murray Lender helped speed along the bagel’s assimilation

 

 

The IBBU, whose exclusive ranks never exceeded 300-some members at any one time, reached beyond New York, although that’s where it was centered.

“My sense of it is if you were a bagel baker anywhere in the country you were a member…It happened that the vast majority of bagel bakers were in New York, but I believe there were members in places like Chicago and Boston,” Goodman said.

Long before bagel machines replaced them and broke their union, Local 338 brethren faced challenges from bakery owners, who, Goodman said, used “strikebreakers and scabs” to try and crush their solidarity. Resistance to the union included the emergence of “non-union shops,” said Goodman, “many heavily subsidized by organized crime. So, there was certainly a lot to deal with.”

By the mid ’70s the union was no more.

“The older guys retired. Some ended up working in non-union shops, working in much poorer conditions than they had been working in previously. Some joined the general bakers union and went to work in other union shops, not necessarily baking bagels. A lot of the guys left New York and took off around the country to open their own bagel shops. That’s how bagels really got introduced to different parts of the country that had never known bagels before. That’s the first time places like Albuquerque or Sacramento had seen fresh baked bagels,” he said.

Goodman and Silver say a fair number of IBBU bakers are still around, but no one’s quite sure exactly how many. The filmmakers’ plans call for on-camera interviews with many of these men, some quite aged now. There’s a sense of urgency to record and preserve the bakers’ stories before the legacy of their craftsmanship and union is irretrievably lost. For his Harvard Review essay on the bagel Goodman interviewed some of the men, tapping memories of long ago.

Memories of favorite foods, especially aromas, are known to be among the strongest our brains store. As the bagel is a food bound up in ritual, whether along family ethnic lines or urban lifestyle lines or breakfast staple lines, it is a food that serves as a nostalgic “touchstone,” Silver said.

“People think about it and it’s sort of like Proust’s (Marcel) madeleines. It has kind of ringing memories for people.” Her own remembrances of things past take her back to when she was a little girl and her father brought her to a downtown Omaha bakery for “the best rye bread you can imagine and wonderful bagels.” Goodman too recalls the traditional bagels of his childhood.

The filmmakers are counting on the public’s bagel nostalgia, including memorabilia, to help illustrate their story. In a letter recently emailed to Jewish newspapers nationwide, the filmmakers made an appeal: “As part of our research for the film, we are interested in obtaining all manner of visual material concerning the history of bagels in America: old photographs of bagel shops or bagel bakers, home movies that include bagels, newspaper or magazine advertisements for bagels, etc.”

Readers with materials are asked to respond to bagelmovie@hotmail.com. The filmmakers’ letter ends with, “We would be very grateful for any assistance you might provide. We look forward to hearing from you.”

The pair hope to start production in late fall. They must first secure funding.

In a new immigrant twist on the bagel’s evolution in America, the filmmakers say the rare bagel made today in the traditional manner is usually crafted by…Thais. Oy vey!

Joan Micklin Silver’s Classic ‘Hester Street’ Included in National Film Registry

February 9, 2012 5 comments

 

Women feature filmmakers were fairly abundant at the start of motion pictures but by the time the sound era took off in the early 1930s they were pushed out of the male-centric industry’s directing ranks, save for Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino, and really didn’t return again, except for underground or art house filmmakers like Shirley Clark and Barbara Loden, until well into the 1970s.  Elaine May made a big dent in the boys only network with her early 1970s films The Heartbreak Kid and A New Leaf.  Joan Micklin Silver followed with her own breakthrough, courtesy her 1975 feature debut, Hester Street, whose unexpected success helped open doors to more women filmmakers the remainder of that decade and especially in the 1980s.  Silver and Hester Street are of particular interest to me because she is a fellow Omaha native and her film stands as a landmark screen portrayal of the immigrant experience in early 20th century America alongside Elia Kazan‘s America, America and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather II.  As the following story details, the film overcame all odds in just getting made and released and then defied all expectations by becoming a darling of critics and audiences, earning a then-astounding box office take for a small indie film – $5 million, plus a Best Actress Oscar nomination for star Carol Kane.

I have been following Silver for many years – you’ll find some of my other stories about her on this blog – and I recently had the pleasure of interviewing her again in the aftermath of Hester Street being included in the National Film Registry.  I also interviewed Hester Street star Carol Kane, though I won’t have a chance to post anything from my conversation with her until a later date.  Silver, by the way, is one of the most underrrated filmmakers of her or any time.  Her body of work in the 1970s and ’80s, though quite small, can stand with nearly any director’s.  I highly recommend Hester Street, the rarely screened Between the Lines and Chilly Scenes of Winter (also known as Head Over Heels), Loverboy, and Crossing Delancey, which for my tastes is one of the best romantic comedies ever made.

The grapevine tells me Silver may be coming back to Omaha (a rare occurrence) for a Film Streams program that Alexander Payne is arranging.  After years of interviewing her by phone and writing about her, I hope to finally meet her.  Stay tuned.

 

 

 

Joan Micklin Silver’s Classic ‘Hester Street’ Included in National Film Registry

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to be published in the Jewish Press

 

Long before Kathryn Bigelow struck a blow for women filmmakers by capturing the Best Director Oscar, Omaha native Joan Micklin Silver made her own Hollywood inroads as a feminist cinema pioneer.

With her 1975 directorial debut Hester Street  she joined a mere handful of women directors then. Just completing the film and getting it released was a major feat. The low budget, black-and-white independent told a period Jewish immigrant story partly in Yiddish with English subtitles.

“With great effort we made the film,” says Silver.

Her script adapted the Abraham Cahan novel Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto. As the eldest daughter of Russian Jewish immigrant parents, the story held deep reverberations for Silver, who says she gloried in her father’s tales “of what it was like in Russia and what it was like coming over and his first banana.” Hester Street allowed her to commemorate on screen the immigrant experience she sprang from. “I cared a lot about the ties I had to that world,” she once told a reporter.

That the film became a sensation was a small miracle.

“One thing I thought as I was making the movie, ‘Well, who knows if I’ll ever get to make another film,’ and I say that because things were pretty dire for women directors and I really wanted to make one that would count for my family. The immigrant experience was a very big part of my family’s experience.”

Silver feels the film strikes a chord with viewers because “it tells an immigrant story in an interesting, believable and honest way.”

Last November Hester Street’s impact was confirmed when the National Film Preservation Board included it among 25 new selections in the National Film Registry, a U.S. Library of Congress-curated archive of significant American movies. Its citation notes the film’s been “praised for its accuracy of detail and sensitivity to the challenges immigrants faced during their acculturation process.”

The honor took Silver by surprise.

“I was really pleased, I had no expectation, and I was delighted to be on the same list with a John Ford movie (The Iron Horse) and a Charlie Chaplain movie (The Kid). It’s pretty exciting,” the longtime Manhattan resident says.

 

 

 

 

The recognition is doubly satisfying given the difficulty of getting the movie made and released. She recalls one Hollywood executive who rejected the project suggested she change the story to Italians. When no studio would finance the story of early 20th century Eastern Jewish immigrants, her husband Ray Silver, who worked in real estate, raised the $350,000 to do it. He also produced the picture and made sure it got seen.

“Certainly he’s the hero of my story,” she says.

Much of the film was shot where the film is set on New York’s Lower East Side. The tight production schedule meant added pressure. “It was really scary” says Silver. “I remember one day when I went to shoot a scene and the location had not been secured and it took two hours to secure it, so I was two hours behind, and the whole time I was directing the scene I was thinking, How do I make up the two hours? It isn’t what you should be thinking about when you’re directing a scene.”

She’s forever grateful to her collaborators.

“I had a chance to work with such good people. I had a wonderful cameraman and production designing team and costumer, and that makes all the difference in the world to somebody just starting out. And I had such a good cast (Steven Keats, Paul Freedman, Doris Roberts, Mel Howard, Dorrie Kavanaugh) and I’m still really close and friendly with Carol (Kane).”

Silver first saw Kane in the Canadian drama Wedding in White and thought her perfect for Gitl, a naive new immigrant wife-mother whose painful assimilation leads to her emancipation. As Silver assumed Kane lived across the border she despaired her meager budget could not afford putting her up for the shoot until learning the actress resided in NYC.

The two felt a connection as Kane came from a Jewish immigrant family not unlike Silver’s and grew up in Cleveland, where Silver once lived. The filmmaker recalls Kane as “a very conscientious, serious, careful, lovely young woman” who went home to rehearse in the sheitel and period jewelry provided for the part.

After all the hard work to finance the film, meticulous research to ensure authenticity and stress to complete the project on time, no studio wanted to distribute it. Silver was heartbroken.

“I went through a bad period thinking, I’ve made this film nobody will distribute, what am I going to do? how are we going to pay the money back?”

On the advice of maverick filmmaker John Cassavetes, the couple distributed it themselves through their own Midwest Films company. And then a remarkable thing happened. Ray entered the film in the Cannes Film Festival and it was accepted. More prestigious festival showings followed. As the film proved a critical and popular darling more theaters screened it. Hester Street became a surprise hit, earning $5 million at the box office and gaining enough industry notice for Kane to be Oscar-nominated, both unheard of accomplishments for an indie pic then.

 

 

 

 

Silver had the thrill of informing the actress she’d been nominated.

The project established Silver’s reputation as a bankable director. Her subsequent theatrical films include Between the Lines and Chilly Scenes of Winter. Perhaps her crowning achievement was Crossing Delancey, when she revisited Lower East Side Jewish culture in a modern love story poised between Old and New World values. She later directed many made-for-television movies (Hunger Point).

The Central High graduate left Omaha in the early 1950s to pursue a love for writing, theater and film nurtured here. After graduating from Sarah Lawrence College she settled in Cleveland, where plays she wrote were performed. In New York she wrote and directed educational films

Her dream of a Hollywood breakthrough was partly realized when her story about the wives of American POWs, Limbo, was optioned and she worked under veteran studio director Mark Robson adapting it to the screen.

“In the end I was replaced as the writer (sharing screenplay credit with James Bridges) on the film. Not knowing very much, I disagreed with the director in meetings and he said, ‘Thank you very much,’ and replaced me, which is the privilege of the director.

“But he then invited me – because he knew what I really wanted to do was direct as well as write – to come to the shoot and stay as long as I wanted to avail myself of    anything I wanted to learn about. Of course, I felt very upset I had been let go but I got past it and I said, ‘OK, I’m coming,’ and that was a tremendous learning experience for me.”

Robson’s largess was rare in the misogynist, male-dominated movie field. Besides, Silver notes, “Who wants a disgruntled screenwriter around? So that was very generous of him. He let me look through the camera, he let me review the film’s budget, he let me talk with any of the actors, and I did. It was marvelous. I gained a real understanding of how one sets up a budget for a feature film.”

For Silver, who never formally studied filmmaking, it was her film school. Confident in her abilities, she vowed her work would never be compromised again.

“I think almost everybody who gets along in film seems to have experiences like that because it’s a pretty tough field and you need guidance and you need friendship and generosity, and I was very lucky to have it myself.”

In a sense Silver prepped all her life to make Hester Street. The stories she absorbed from her father previously led her to make The Immigrant Experience for the Learning Corporation of America. For her first feature she again fixed on subject matter close to her heart.

“My father was ill during my teenage years and he was home a great deal, so I spent a lot of time with him. He was looking for somebody to talk to and believe me I was there and I was really happy to talk to him. I’ve always thought immigrants fall into two experiences: those who don’t want to talk about it at all and those who want to talk about it all the time and that was my father – he loved reminiscing about it. As a very bright, questioning man, he was also interested in the world, politics, current events and books. I was so lucky to have talk after talk with such a wonderful father at a time when it was unusual for fathers to talk to their daughters.”

He father died before she became a filmmaker, but her mother lived to revel in her Hester Street triumph. “One of the first things she did when Hester Street came out was make the cover of what would be a scrapbook. Yeah, she loved it and she was thrilled for my success.”

Silver’s interest in immigrant tales continues with her in-progress documentary The Bagel: An Immigrant’s Story. She has a feature script in development. Meanwhile, she’s struck up a friendship with fellow Omaha native filmmaker Alexander Payne. The two are discussing a possible Film Streams program with her and her work.

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.”

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.”

Joan Micklin Silver, Shattering Cinema’s Glass Ceiling

May 18, 2010 1 comment

cracked glass

Image by snacktime2007 via Flickr

I’ve always been fascinated by the many film artists who have come out of my home state Nebraska to forge significant careers in and out of Hollywood. Almost from the very start of the film industry Nebraskans have played major roles in every facet of production.  I mean, just consider this partial list of Nebraskans in film from the silent era through the present day:

Harold Lloyd, Darryl Zanuck, Ann Ronnell, Fred Astaire, Robert Taylor, Ward Bond, Henry Fonda, Dorothy McGuire, Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, Lynn Stalmaster, David Jansen, James Coburn, Sandy Dennis, William Dozier,  Lew Hunter, Joan Micklin Silver, Nick Nolte, Swoosie Kurtz, Marg Helgenberger, Mike Hill, Monty Ross, Alexander Payne, Gabrielle Union, Patrick Coyle, Jon Bokenkamp, Nik Fackler.

Oscar winning cinematographer Mauro Fiore (Avatar) has made Nebraska his adopted state. Leading editor Tom Elkins, who will be directing a big budget horror film this fall, has made Omaha his adopted hometown.

I’ve never thought the state has done a good job of celebrating its film heritage.  For example, few Nebraskans know that one of the most important filmmakers from the 1970s and ’80s – Joan Micklin Silver – grew up in Omaha and still has family here.  Micklin Silver may not be a household name today, but her films Hester Street, Between the Lines, Chilly Scenes of Winter, and Crossing Delancey were among the best of that era and were all the more significant because she was the rare woman making features films then.  Her work in the industry helped open doors traditionally closed to women.

She fought many battles to get as far as she did and took a hard, lonely path to get there as an independent.  When Kathryn Bigelow won for Best Director at this year’s Oscars the first person I thought of was Joan.  I called her and she expressed great admiration for Bigelow’s film and described it as a great moment for women in film and perhaps making it more possible for women to be viewed on equal terms with men in such a male-dominated field.

The following story appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com) more than a decade ago and is my attempt at putting Joan’s career in proper perspective.  This long piece appeared more or less as is in an era when newspapers and magazines were more prone to running stories of length like this. Today, it would be chopped by a third or in half.  Look for more of my Joan Micklin Silver stories in future posts.  My blog also includes a story on Peter Riegert and his fine feature directorial debut, King of the Corner, which he also stars in.

Joan Micklin Silver, Shattering Cinema’s Glass Ceiling

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in a 1999 edition of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Aside from a brief golden time early this century and then again only until quite recently, the mere suggestion a woman might direct a motion picture was met with outright scorn by movie moguls. While Hollywood rewarded screen sirens and goddesses with huge fees and royal perks, it was loathe to share with women the reins of power men wielded behind the scenes.

It is only in the last two decades chauvinism softened enough for women to reemerge as a viable force behind the camera. Nora Ephron, Jane Campion, Martha Coolidge, Penny Marshall, Barbra Streisand, Jodie Foster, Mira Nair and Joan Micklin Silver are just a few of the directors shattering the cinema’s glass ceiling.

From the start women challenging the unwritten rule that directing is a man’s job were branded troublemakers or worse. How bad did it get? Just listen to writer-director Joan Micklin Silver, an Omaha native whose 1975 debut feature Hester Street, along with her later work, helped open doors for women in film:

“When I started, 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 said in a phone interview from her New York home.

 

 

The film history traditionally taught in schools has made it appear women played no significant part in the medium’s formative years. Not true. Sure, the one-time street peddlers-turned-dream merchants who transformed the flickers from mere storefront curiosities into must-see movie palace phenomena were men. And, like other industries, the movies operated as an Old Boys Network relegating females and racial minorities to narrowly defined roles on-screen and off.

But, it turns out, more than a few pioneers bucked the system.

Recent books, videos and CD-ROMs point to the vital contributions of such silent era women directors as Alice Guy Blache´, Nell Shipman and Lois Weber. Hardly household names, sure, but the point is, other than D.W. Griffith, Cecil B. De Mille, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Erich von Stroheim what influential male silent Hollywood directors can you name?

The sound era introduced many lady trailblazers but perhaps none more potent than Mae West, who scripted wicked double-entendres and personified sexual liberation in pushing the boundaries of film content. In the 1920s and ‘30s, editor-turned-writer-turned-director Dorothy Arzner helmed a diverse mix of films (Working Girls) for major studios. In the 1950s, actress-turned-director Ida Lupino made several hard-edged independent films (The Hitchhiker) for her own company before settling in TV land. Despite this proven track record, the directing ranks soon became a men’s only club. What happened? Well, consider that Hollywood was a brash, anything-goes town and the medium itself a still developing mode of expression unrestricted by social convention. In such a climate, coinciding as it did with the Suffragist movement, women flourished behind the scenes.

But with the dawn of talkies the movies grew fatter and more conservative. By the advent of wide screen epics and blockbuster pics, the stakes got ever higher, and thus, the keys to the kingdom fell into fewer and fewer hands. What few women filmmakers there were were confined to directing underground, avant garde or experimental work.

Then, taking a cue from the cinema-verite, guerilla-style approach of John Cassavetes (ShadowsFaces) and the maverick model of Ida Lupino, women like Shirley Clarke (Jason’s Story), Barbara Loden (Wanda) and Elaine May (A New Leaf) made their voices heard. In classic independent fashion each worked outside the Hollywood mainstream to complete personal features that, if not commercial hits, proved once again women could persevere to get their vision on-screen despite filmmaking’s inherent obstacles, especially the low budget variety.

Another turning point came when Joan Micklin Silver’s Hester Street proved an unexpected but unqualified critical and commercial success. The film, scripted by Micklin Silver and produced by her husband Raphael (Ray) Silver, 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. Fourteen years later the filmmaker revisited the Lower East Side for the winning Crossing Delancey, only this time focusing on contemporary Jewish life and its intersection with old world traditions.

 

Hester Street

 

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 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.”

Among her favorite early moviegoing experiences were film noirs. “I remember very specifically a movie I saw then called Shadow of a Doubt. It’s a great Hitchcock film, and I can remember how terrified I was. I’ve always loved film noirs.” A genuine cinephile, she started collecting movies on videocassette in the ‘80s. “I still have a fantastic collection of them. I would say the best course in feature filmmaking is just watching films.”

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, occurred right around the time her father died. She attended Sarah Lawrence College in New York State, 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 like Cassavetes and Clarke, Micklin Silver yearned to be part of this vital scene. But Cleveland offered little hope for launching a project.

“You need other people to make films with, and in those years there wasn’t much of a film community yet in Cleveland.”

Then fate intervened. She explains: “I was at a party for Carl Stokes, who was then a mayoral candidate in Cleveland. At that party I met Joan Ganz Cooney (a founder of the Children’s Television Workshop), who was writing the grant proposal for Sesame Street, and I talked to her about what I was interested in doing. She gave me some names, and one of those names was Linda Gottlieb (who went on to produce Dirty Dancing), then an executive with an educational film company. I met Linda and we hit it off. She gave me some freelance (script writing) work. Then I went to the head of the company and I said, “I want to direct as well as write’. He said, ‘Why, so you can make your mistakes on me?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ He told me, ‘Go ahead,’ and thank goodness he did. I wrote and directed, and Linda produced, three short educational films. They were like little features.”

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, Linda and I formed a production company of our own. The idea was that I would write and she would produce and I would eventually start directing.”

Meanwhile, the Silvers moved to New York. With Joan’s properties laying 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,” she 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. 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.’ 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.”

The Silvers developed Hester Street under the banner of their Midwest Films. Besides the novella Yekl, the guts of the film 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, 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. Although not a Jewish director per se, she has often explored her heritage on film, most recently in the 1997 Showtime movie, In the Presence of Mine Enemies. Based on a Rod Serling TV script originally produced live on Playhouse 90, the 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 she 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,” she said.

When, despite great reviews at festivals, Hester Street 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 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 cable films for HBO, Showtime and Lifetime. 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.

“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 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 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 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.”

Ironically, it took the doggedness of Micklin Silver and others to finally position women back in film where they had been decades before. 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 struggle to balance their revolutionary zeal with dollars-and-cents reality. With its large, talented ensemble cast (John Heard, Jeff Goldblum, Lindsey Crouse, Marilu Henner), gonzo sensibility and free-wheeling look at office and bedroom politics, the story accurately captures its time yet remains utterly fresh today.

 

John Heard and Mary Beth Hurt from Chilly Scenes of Winter

 

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 (the lovers are brilliantly played by John Heard and Mary Beth Hurt). Micklin Silver’s association with UA turned sour when, after completing the picture, the studio ordered a new ending (to a less ambiguous one) and a changed title (to the frivolous Head Over Heels) against her wishes. Apparently, execs deemed her achingly honest, funny and painful modern romance too offbeat despite the fact UA fully embraced Woody Allen’s “relationship” comedies Annie Hall and Manhattanand took a hands-off policy concerning them. 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), which she did not originate. While she enjoyed doing the latter two projects, she far 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 original Lifetime 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. There are many, many, many more people who want to be in film than there are jobs.”

Besides her gender, she feels her own idiosyncratic vision has limited her options. “I think that my own bent has always been that I want to make certain kinds of films, and they aren’t necessarily the films that are seen as Hollywood-type films.” 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.

In Chilly Scenes the single Charles (Heard) is lovesick over the unhappily married Laura (Hurt), whom he can’t forget despite her breaking off their affair. While still attracted to Charles she feels guilty at having cheated as well as smothered by his aggressive wooing of her. She tells him, “You have this exalted view of me, and I hate it. I can’t live up to this thing you have about me.” He pleads, “Why would you choose someone who loves you too little over someone who loves you too much?” She replies, “Because it makes me feel less of a fraud.” Exasperated, he can only think to say what he feels, “Oh, I’m going to rape you.”

Micklin Silver’s men and women are equally strong-willed and neurotic. Despite their flaws, the men remain sympathetic figures for risking love in the first place and for staying true to themselves in the process. 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.

 

Peter Riegert and Amy Irving in Crossing Delancey

 

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 all the rest of it. 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.

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. On that visit, she drove across the state and was reminded just how “beautiful” the endless horizons of far western Nebraska are. “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.” There’s also a film noir script she’s been honing and still hopes to make. Next spring she is slated to direct a film adaptation of the 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,” she said.

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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