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Joan Micklin Silver - An Obituary

Joan Micklin Silver – Filmmaker

Born May 24, 1935; died December 31, 2020


 Joan Micklin Silver, who has died aged 85, was a filmmaker who broke through Hollywood resistance to women directors to eventually hit a commercial peak with her 1988 rom-com, Crossing Delancey. Prior to the film’s mainstream success, Silver was best known for a series of acclaimed independent features. These included her remarkable debut, Hester Street (1975), and Between the Lines (1977). 


While her male peers were lauded during the same era, Silver struggled to get her work made. One studio executive told her that “Feature films are difficult to make, and they’re expensive to market, and women directors are one more problem we don’t need.” In the end, Silver directed seven features, as well as another nine TV movies on top of her early short films. 


Many of Silver’s best works are about the clash between cultures, and the tensions that arise from attempts to assimilate while retaining one’s own identity. This was most plain in Hester Street, in which a twenty-one-year-old Carol Kane received an Oscar nomination for her performance as Gitl, a Russian-Jewish émigré attempting to navigate the contradictions of her new home in late nineteenth century New York. 


Filmed in vintage looking black and white, Silver’s adaptation of Abraham Cahan’s novella, Yekl, put Gitl’s experience to the fore. The film was performed partly in Yiddish, with English subtitles, and played in a heightened style that brought home the American immigrant experience in vivid fashion. 


Between the Lines focused on the personal and professional fortunes of a group of ambitious idealists working for an alternative newspaper borne of the 1960s counter culture. When the paper is bought up by a mainstream publishing house only interested in turning a profit, all those involved must make choices. The film featured a cast of relative newcomers, including Lindsay Crouse, Jeff Goldblum and Marilu Henner.


It was Crossing Delancey, however, that cemented Silver’s reputation as a witty and humane chronicler of everyday romance and the larger social milieu that shapes it. Based on the stage play of the same name by Susan Sandler, who penned the film’s screenplay, Crossing Delancey starred Amy Irving as a woman working in a New York bookstore, who is torn between her nouveau intellectual world and her more traditional Jewish background. Set in and around the same Lower East Side Manhattan neighbourhood as Hester Street, Crossing Delancey’s themes showed how cultural roots still held sway across the generations.


Joan Micklin was born in Omaha, Nebraska, to Doris (nee Shoshone) and Maurice Micklin, Russian-Jewish migrants who came to America separately. Micklin grew up visiting her local cinema, and wrote sketches for plays at Central High School. After graduating in 1956 from Sarah Lawrence College in New York, she married Raphael D. Silver, son of a Rabbi in Cleveland, Ohio, where the couple lived for the next eleven years with their three daughters. Silver taught music and wrote two community plays, until in 1967, she and her family moved to New York, where she briefly worked for alternative newspaper, the Village Voice. 


Silver was one of several writers hired to adapt Lois Gould’s 1970 novel, Such Good Friends, for film director Otto Preminger. Elaine May eventually received the credit, with input from Joan Didion. Silver’s first original screenplay, Limbo (1972), was about the wives of Vietnam prisoners of war. After questioning director Mark Robson’s vision for the film, she was fired, but retained a story and co-writing credit.


A chance meeting with Sesame Street co-creator Joan Ganzey Cooney at a political fundraiser led to Silver working with producer Linda Gottlieb, writing and directing a series of short films for the Learning Corporation of America. These included The Immigrant Experience: The Long Long Journey (1972).


Silver faced industry resistance towards a move into features, with Hester Street turned down by every major studio on the grounds of being an ‘ethnic oddity’. In the end, Silver’s property developer husband raised the funds to produce the film. Following advice from director John Cassavetes, the Silvers formed Midwest Films to distribute it. Hester Street was a hit at the Cannes Film festival, and ended up being seen worldwide.


Silver oversaw a TV version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story, Bernice Bobs Her Hair (1976), before Midwest produced Between the Lines. Its success prompted United Artists to come on board for what was initially released as Head Over Heels (1979). The studio grafted a happy ending on to Silver’s adaptation of Ann Beattie’s novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter, which was eventually re-cut and shown under that name as Silver intended it. 


A move into off-Broadway theatre saw Silver collaborate with songwriter Randy Newman on the revue, Maybe I’m Doing it Wrong (1982), and with Julianne Boyd on the musical, A… My Name is Alice (1983). Silver worked on a couple of TV films prior to Crossing Delancey, the success of which saw her direct Loverboy (1989), Big Girls Don’t Cry… They Get Even (1991) and A Fish in the Bathtub (1998). Several more TV films followed, the last of which was Hunger Point (2003).


Silver’s work possessed an understated warmth that saw her bring to life a series of female characters occupying seemingly contrary worlds with an empathy that matched her own resilience.


She is survived by her three daughters, Claudia, Marisa and Dina, her sister, Renee, and five grandchildren.

The Herald, January 23rd 2021




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