Remembering Joan Micklin Silver

Joan Micklin Silver

The past few years have seen a resurgence of interest in the work of women filmmakers made from the late 1960s through the 1970s, the heyday of the New Hollywood era. A series that ran at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in the summer of 2018 featuring films by directors as disparate as Joan Darling, Chantal Akerman, and Claudia Weill—the New York TimesManohla Dargis noted that the “breadth of work is expansive and exhilarating”—was followed in early 2019 by another in Los Angeles spotlighting such filmmakers as Elaine May, Joan Tewkesbury, and Lynne Littman. Both programs naturally included films by Joan Micklin Silver, who passed away last week at the age of eighty-five.

The New York series featured Silver’s 1975 debut feature, Hester Street, starring Carol Kane as a Jewish immigrant who arrives with her son in New York in 1896 to join her husband who shuns her for not readily assimilating; The Frontier Experience, a twenty-five-minute film Silver wrote for Barbara Loden to direct and star in that same year; and Chilly Scenes of Winter (1979), an adaptation of Ann Beattie’s novel about a Salt Lake City office worker (John Heard) who obsesses over a married woman (Mary Beth Hurt). The UCLA Film & Television Archive wrapped its series with a double bill: Between the Lines (1977), a group portrait of the team behind an alternative weekly in Boston, and Crossing Delancey (1988), a romantic comedy with Amy Irving. Maya Montañez Smukler, cocurator of the Los Angeles series (with K. J. Relth-Miller) and author of Liberating Hollywood: Women Directors and the Feminist Reform of 1970s American Cinema, tells Mark Olsen in the Los Angeles Times that Silver “had this incredible ability to capture a realness and just the awkwardness of human nature.”

Writing for Film Comment in 2017, Shonni Enelow suggested that Silver “occupies an uncertain position among American filmmakers: her films are neither mainstream nor arty; not fashionable, albeit beloved by a select group; recognizably Jewish, but without broad ethnic humor. Her works are neither opaque, nor bizarre, nor self-conscious enough to be considered true cult classics, but singular and specific enough to fall between the cracks of sweeping narratives of American film history.” As Matt Zoller Seitz points out in his appreciation at, Silver had to “fight for every opportunity long after word had gotten out that she was fiscally responsible, had a populist touch, and was a superb director of actors.”

Born to Russian Jewish immigrant parents in Omaha, Silver married Raphael Silver—everyone called him Ray—and settled in Cleveland, where she directed plays and raised three daughters, one of whom, Marisa Silver, became a filmmaker whose 1984 debut feature, Old Enough, won the grand jury prize at Sundance. When Joan saw Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955), she decided that she wanted to tell stories on film. The family moved to New York, where Silver wrote scripts for educational films and began working on Hester Street.

It would be an uphill climb. Silver insisted on shooting in black and white and having most of the dialogue spoken in Yiddish with English subtitles. Studios balked, so she and Ray, a real estate developer, founded a production company, Midwest Films, and shot Hester Street over a period of thirty-four days for $320,000 (or $370,000; reports vary). Adapting Yekl: A Tale of a New York Ghetto, the 1896 novella by Abraham Cahan, founder of the the Jewish Daily Forward, Silver “shifted the focus,” as Enelow notes, from the husband to the wife, “translating it from a story about the moral compromises of assimilation into a celebration of female self-sufficiency.”

By art-house standards, Hester Street was a substantial hit and Kane was nominated for an Oscar. Writing for Vulture, Mark Harris recalls meeting Silver in 2014 and asking 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.” In the New York Times, Anita Gates notes that Silver often recalled a direct quote from one male executive: “Feature films are very expensive to mount and distribute, and women directors are one more problem we don’t need.”

Following Bernice Bobs Her Hair (1976), an adaptation for PBS of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story starring Shelley Duvall, Silver turned to her second feature. Starring John Heard as a writer, Lindsay Crouse as a photographer, and Jeff Goldblum as a rock critic, all of them on the staff of the fictional Back Bay Mainline, a paper whose rebellious glories have long since faded, Between the Lines “remains prophetic about the anxieties that writers and publications share in the face of financial pressures,” wrote Vikram Murthi for Vulture in 2019, when a new restoration premiered in New York. On the one hand, the film “comes across as a lament for the death of counterculture journalism,” wrote Jonathan Romney for Film Comment, while on the other, “Silver’s film—bristling with a loose, nervy energy that she corrals in expertly—is also a comedy about how ideals persist and replenish themselves.”

The restoration of Between the Lines is up on the Criterion Channel, where it’s supplemented with a 1983 documentary portrait of Silver for German television. Director Katja Raganelli talks with Joan and Ray Silver, Carol Kane, and three young producers—Amy Robinson, Mark Metcalf, and Griffin Dunne—who shepherded Chilly Scenes of Winter along its rocky road toward becoming a sleeper hit. United Artists originally demanded an upbeat ending and released it in 1979 as Head Over Heels, a title that Ann Beattie herself said “sounded as if Fred Astaire should be dancing across the credits.”

Head Over Heels did not take off, and in 1982, Silver and her producers reshaped the ending and restored the original title. “Chilly Scenes of Winter captures the austere mood, the subdued emotional climate registered in Ann Beattie’s stories,” wrote James Atlas when he asked Silver for the New York Times about the new, more ambivalent ending: “People in the crew kept coming up to me when we were shooting and telling me, ‘This is the story of my life.’ But when I asked them if it turned out like it did in the movie, they would always admit that it hadn’t.”

Anita Gates notes that Crossing Delancey, Silver’s 1988 romantic comedy about a Jewish bookstore clerk trying to break away from the Lower East Side and into New York literary circles, was turned down by studio after studio. “It is difficult to say which was Ms. Silver’s most vicious antagonist, anti-Semitism or misogyny,” writes Gates. Fortunately, Amy Irving was married to Steven Spielberg at the time, and he got the screenplay to an executive at Warner Entertainment.

Crossing Delancey was met with mixed reviews but tremendous box office success. Until the early 2000s, Silver carried on working for television and shooting eclectic features such as A Fish in the Bathtub (1999), starring Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara as well as a youngish Mark Ruffalo. If there is a “common thread” running through Silver’s work, Matt Zoller Seitz argues that it would be “her eye for the recognizable, often fleeting moment of humanistic observation. These moments were understated, almost sneaky in their ability to nestle within an establishing shot or a major plot point. They always felt like the products of an artist who understood what life was really about: an accumulation of mundane but necessary actions, made special by their context in a person's life story, not because they were happening to important people.”

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