Joan Micklin Silver, director of 'Hester Street', passes away at 85

Silver gained a respected reputation when Hester Street debut though she still faced sexist and antisemitic remarks from Hollywood executives.

Joan Micklin Silver at the premiere of the film "A Private Matter" at the Director's Guild Theater in Hollywood, Calif., June 14, 1992. (photo credit: RON GALELLA LTD/RON GALELLA COLLECTION VIA GETTY IMAGES)
Joan Micklin Silver at the premiere of the film "A Private Matter" at the Director's Guild Theater in Hollywood, Calif., June 14, 1992.
Joan Micklin Silver, the movie director who died last week at the age of 85, was best known of a quartet of beloved movies – Hester Street, Between the Lines, Chilly Scenes of Winter and Crossing Delancey – that have all become classics of a sort.
These movies were gems, but they don’t tell the whole story of Silver’s importance. She and her work were groundbreaking in several ways. First, she was a female director at a time when this was so rare that it was a curiosity. While by the 1970s, the feminist movement had made important inroads in politics, medicine, law and just about every other field, the movie industry lagged behind – and it still does. To date, there have been only five women nominated for Best Director Oscar and a single female winner, so when Silver moved from theater and television to film, it was a steep uphill battle for her to get her movies made.  
She also chose projects that were unabashedly uncommercial, including several that spotlighted her Jewish heritage, notably Hester Street and Crossing Delancey. Hester Street (1975) is an especially unusual case, in that it was a period drama about Jewish immigrants to New York. It was based on a novel by Abraham Cahan, the founder of the Forward, and much of it was in Yiddish. While French and Italian movies had arthouse cachet at that time, a movie in Yiddish was an oddity – much more foreign to moviegoers than even a movie set in outer space. Yet it was a success, winning rave reviews and generating lots of buzz, eventually earning $5 million on a budget of less than half a million dollars. Its young star, Carol Kane (who went on to play Simka on Taxi), was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for her performance, the first and probably the last time someone will get a nomination for acting in Yiddish. Of course, there were many Jews behind the camera in movies in that era and lots of movies included characters who were obviously Jewish, often wise-cracking best friend types. But to make a movie about the unglamorous struggles of Yiddish-speaking immigrant characters was unheard of, and for Silver to make the movie and have it distributed widely enough to draw the attention of the Motion Picture Academy was unprecedented and a tribute to Silver’s tenacity.
Crossing Delancey, made in 1988, revisited the same Lower East Side neighborhood featured in Hester Street to tell the charming story of a literary young woman (Amy Irving) who ends up falling for the pickle man (Peter Riegert), a mensch she is introduced to by the matchmaker (Sylvia Miles) her bubbie (Reizl Bozyk) hires. Again, Jews on screen in this era were commonplace, but a movie that showed Jewish life as it really was and the conflict between family traditions and the sophistication of the intellectual world was unusual. And of course, any movie this lovely and romantic, that hit all the right notes, is always a rarity.
IN ADDITION to her devotion to her Jewish roots, Silver was unusual in that, at certain times in her career, most notably with Hester Street, she was an indie filmmaker at a time when the concept didn’t really exist yet. There were underground movies, avant-garde and arthouse films from Europe and Asia, but American movies designed for general audiences made outside the studio system were extremely unusual. Her husband, Raphael Silver, the son of the celebrated Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, raised the money and produced Hester Street, as well as a number of her other films. After she fought for and won the opportunity to direct, she continued to assert herself, sometimes coming into conflict with movie executives. When the suits at United Artists decided to change the title of her adaptation of Ann Beattie’s novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter, to the more generic, Head Over Heels, she fought hard and eventually won out.
Another way in which she forged a path that other filmmakers have followed in droves was in her on-screen portrayal of 1960s radicals facing 1970s disillusion. In 1977, before John Sayles’s Return of the Secaucus Seven, before Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill, she made Between the Lines, about the staff of an alternative Boston newspaper, based partly on The Phoenix and The Village Voice (where Silver had worked), fighting for their ideals at a time when advertisers and not idealism, dictated the content of the paper. Between the Lines is a brilliant ensemble comedy/drama starring an extraordinary group of young actors, many of whom went on to high-profile roles, including Jeff Goldblum, Bruno Kirby, John Heard, Lindsay Crouse, Jill Eikenberry, Gwen Welles, Joe Morton, Stephen Collins and Marilu Henner.
She followed this up with Chilly Scenes of Winter, another film with a similar vibe, an offbeat romantic comedy which is the probably the best movie you’ve never seen.
Like many, if not most of her films, Chilly Scenes was an adaptation of a novel and much of Silver’s work revealed a literary sensibility. She knew the literary world in a way that most movie directors don’t. In Between the Lines, there are conversations about getting an agent among idealistic young journalists who have decided that if they are going to sell out, they want to sell out to the highest bidder. In Crossing Delancey, the heroine works for an acclaimed poet and longs to be part of the downtown literary scene.
SILVER’S LITERARY acumen was on display in her 1976 adaption of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story, “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” as part of a project for the National Endowment for Humanities that was shown on television. It’s a brilliant short film and hands-down the best adaptation of any work by Fitzgerald, the only dramatization that captures his social commentary, sly humor and skill at getting us to love the protagonist, as well as his storytelling genius. It stars Shelley Duvall in one of her best performances.  
Almost all of Silver’s work is available on one platform or another online and now that you know about her movies – see them. May her memory be a blessing.