in memoriam

Joan Micklin Silver Had the Movie Career Almost No Woman Was Allowed to Have

And yet it was not the career the pathbreaking director of Hester Street and Crossing Delancey deserved. Photo: Warner Bros.

The pathbreaking movie director Joan Micklin Silver got to have a career that almost no woman was allowed to have, and did not get to have the career that she deserved. Such is the paradox of the pioneer: You get to go where very few have gone before, but when you get there, there’s nobody to pull you up or push you ahead. You make your own way, and withstand the indifference, the hostility, the condescension, and the people who treat you as a curiosity or a slightly troubling anomaly. Silver, who died on December 31 at 85, experienced all of that. Her list of credits is, given what she had to face, impressive. It’s also an indictment of the industry in which she worked; the successes followed by long gaps, and the made-for-cable movies that stand in for the feature-film opportunities that never existed, testify to the inequity that she could not overcome but did manage to fight to a draw, which in fact constitutes a win. And — most important — she got to make some good movies that, decades later, are still worth watching.

Joan Micklin was the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants who somehow made their way to Omaha, Nebraska, where she was raised. In 1956 she married Raphael Silver, a real-estate developer who liked movies and fully supported his wife’s ambition to make them. The jobs she found once they moved to New York City in the 1960s — writing children’s shorts for educational television and schools — were what was then considered acceptable ladies’ work. She almost got her first break adapting a novel called Such Good Friends for Otto Preminger, but she was fired after a draft or two; her replacement was Elaine May, one of her few female contemporaries behind the camera.

Silver didn’t get to direct her first feature until she was 38, and it was a quiet stunner — Hester Street, a black-and-white comedy-drama about an Americanized Jewish immigrant who resentfully brings over his old-country wife to make a new life on the Lower East Side, only to discover how much she reminds him of everything he’s trying to shed. With no training behind the camera, she taught herself to direct by watching movies at the Museum of Modern Art and reading books by filmmakers. The source material had told the story from the husband’s perspective; Silver, who wrote as well as directed, largely shifted the point of view to that of the wife. In doing so, she created a gorgeous showcase for Carol Kane, just 21 when the movie was filmed in 1973. Her portrayal of the delicate but surprisingly resilient Gitl won her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, a shocker at a time when the Sundance Film Festival did not yet exist and successful American indie films were too few to be labeled a movement. It was the first time a woman had directed a Best Actress nominee in 45 years.

In 2014, a year after the death of her husband, Silver emailed me out of the blue and invited me over for lunch. She had read the first two books about film I had written and wanted to talk about the current state of the industry, and about her own experience decades earlier. Over sandwiches and cookies, she said that Hester Street had cost just $370,000 — money that was raised by her enthusiastic husband — and that it had been impossible to get any major distributor onboard in advance. They told her the movie was too foreign (it is set entirely in Manhattan) and too ethnic. One prospective investor asked her if the characters could be Italian (The Godfather had just come out); another said that on top of everything else, “a woman directing a movie is just one more problem we don’t need.” Silver did not sound incredulous when she recounted this; she sounded blunt and matter-of-fact in a way that connoted how unsurprising she had found it to be spoken to that way.

The Silvers eventually self-distributed the movie, which earned strong reviews and grossed more than ten times its cost. I asked her what kind of offers she got after its success. She smiled and shook her head. “There were no offers,” she said. It was a moment when bad-boy directors ruled Hollywood, and Silver was neither a boy nor bad. “A lot of young directors … didn’t want anyone giving them advice,” she told Filmmaker magazine. “And I didn’t feel like that at all. I didn’t have the slightest hesitation in asking anybody to help with anything.”

Hollywood, of course, expected women to be collaborative, but had no intention of rewarding them for it. So she stayed independent, making a contemporary comedy-drama, Between the Lines (1977), an ensemble piece about the discontented staff of a struggling alternative weekly in Boston that depicted a group of people about a decade younger than she was — rebels and idealists of the 1960s who were now hitting their 30s with a slightly waning sense of direction and a hunger to make sense of their lives. Silver later said she couldn’t think of “another generation that was so important when it was so young,” and her good-humored, shaggy storytelling makes the film into a time-capsule group portrait of a cohort caught exactly halfway chronologically between campus uprisings and the yuppie creature comforts that The Big Chill would cast its eye on a few years later. Her eye for talent was acute — John Heard, Jeff Goldblum, Lindsay Crouse, and Bruno Kirby are among those who had substantial early roles in the movie. Between the Lines won her the Los Angeles Film Critics Association’s first-ever New Generation Award, at 42. She would later say that when she found herself included on hot-young-director lists, “I felt like I was the grandmother of the crowd!”

Finally, she was given a shot at a studio movie. “It’s very slow,” she noted wryly at the time. “You could say there’s been a 100 percent improvement because … two women directed Hollywood films this year and one did last year.” Three young actors — Mark Metcalf, Amy Robinson, and Griffin Dunne — teamed up and, with the money Metcalf had just earned from playing Neidermeyer in National Lampoon’s Animal House, optioned Chilly Scenes of Winter, Ann Beattie’s wonderfully melancholy 1976 novel of a failed romance. “Joan had some heat on her then, so we went to her, and she loved the book,” says Dunne. They eventually set the movie up at United Artists and went into production. “We were so young and had never produced anything, and Joan was infinitely patient and remarkably assured on the set,” Dunne remembers. “We learned so much about movies from her. And she really knew how to talk to actors. John [Heard] could be tricky — he was moody and had a tough reputation. But he never gave her a moment of trouble.”

The trouble came later, when United Artists saw the movie. During the shoot, they had left Silver alone; “they were consumed with excitement about their upcoming huge hit Heaven’s Gate,” says Dunne, laughing, “and they didn’t give a shit about us. But when we were done, they said, ‘This needs to be a happy romance,’ so they changed the title to Head Over Heels, created a poster that was as hideous as the title, used a happy ending that we didn’t want, and released it,” to no great success. It took three years and the creation of the first major indie division of any studio, United Artists Classics, before the film’s original ending and title were restored and the film was rereleased, this time to warmer reviews and stronger business.

But the studios still didn’t seem to be interested in Silver, who turned to making cable movies and didn’t get another chance to direct a feature for almost a decade after Chilly Scenes. When she did, the result, Crossing Delancey, became her most widely seen and well-loved work; made for just $4 million, it grossed four times that. Today, the movie plays as a delightful gender-swapped bookend to her breakthrough debut — it’s an unabashedly Jewish romance centered on Izzy (Amy Irving), a modern New York woman — she might well be the great-granddaughter of Hester Street’s Gitl (Delancey Street is just a few blocks north of Hester) — who reluctantly falls in love with Sam, a true-to-his-roots pickle salesman played by Peter Riegert at his menschiest. It’s an UWS-meets-LES story (“I live uptown, a million miles from here,” Izzy explains to Sam) that feels steeped in Silver’s love of New York and of Jewish culture, and she lets women — Izzy, her friends and colleagues, and the grandmothers, matchmakers, and yentas who seem determined to carry the previous century with them into modern Manhattan — drive the narrative. Like her other features, it’s distinguished by Silver’s love of conversation and by a gentle tension between sorrow and hopefulness.

Most of the rest of Silver’s work was on television, and most of it focused on women’s stories — she made cable films with Mary Tyler Moore and Sissy Spacek and Rita Wilson and Lolita Davidovich and Barbara Hershey before retiring in the early aughts. Hollywood didn’t come calling again. As we finished our lunch together — it was the only time we met — I tried to find a way to ask whether she was angry at the lack of opportunities she had been given. That was the world, she said. You just have to keep at it. “And that’s what I did.”

Almost No Woman Had a Movie Career Like Joan Micklin Silver