2021-01-02 17:52:54 UTC
By Anita Gates
Jan. 1, 2021
Joan Micklin Silver, the filmmaker whose first feature, “Hester Street,” expanded the marketplace for American independent film and broke barriers for women in directing, died on Thursday at her home in Manhattan. She was 85.
Her daughter Claudia Silver said the cause was vascular dementia.
Ms. Silver wrote and directed “Hester Street” (1975), the story of a young Jewish immigrant couple from Russia on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the 1890s. It was a personal effort, a low-budget 34-day location shoot, that became a family project.
Studios said the story was too narrowly and historically ethnic. For one thing, much of the film, in black and white, was in Yiddish with English subtitles.
“Nobody wanted to release it,” Ms. Silver recalled in a visual history interview for the Directors Guild of America in 2005. “The only offer was to release it on 16 to the synagogue market,” she added, referring to 16-millimeter film.
Ms. Silver’s husband, Raphael D. Silver, a commercial real estate developer, stepped in to finance, produce and even distribute the film after selling it to some international markets while attending the Cannes Film Festival. “Hester Street” opened at the Plaza Theater in Manhattan in October 1975, then in theaters nationwide, and soon earned $5 million (about $25 million today), almost 14 times its $370,000 budget. (Ms. Silver sometimes cited an even lower budget figure: $320,000.)
Richard Eder of The New York Times praised the film’s “fine balance between realism and fable” and declared it “an unconditionally happy achievement.” Carol Kane, who was 21 during the filming, in 1973, was nominated for the best actress Oscar for her role as Gitl, the newly arrived wife who is, in the opinion of her husband (Steven Keats), humiliatingly slow to assimilate.
“Hester Street” made Ms. Silver’s reputation, but the next time she wanted to depict Jewish characters and culture, the same objections arose.
“Crossing Delancey” (1988) was a romantic comedy about a sophisticated, single New York bookstore employee (Amy Irving) who is constantly looking over her shoulder to be sure that she’s made a clean getaway from her Lower East Side roots.
With the help of her grandmother (played by the Yiddish theater star Reizl Bozyk) and a traditional matchmaker (Sylvia Miles), she meets a neighborhood pickle dealer (Peter Riegert) who has enough great qualities to make up for his being just another nice guy (her tastes ran more in the bad-boy direction).
The studios found this film “too ethnic” too — “a euphemism,” Ms. Silver told The Times, “for Jewish material that Hollywood executives distrust.”
Luckily, Ms. Irving’s husband at the time, the director Steven Spielberg, was fond of Jewish history himself. He suggested that she send the script to a neighbor of his in East Hampton, N.Y. — a top Warner Entertainment executive. The film grossed more than $116 million worldwide (about $255 million today).
It is difficult to say which was Ms. Silver’s most vicious antagonist, anti-Semitism or misogyny.
“I had such blatantly sexist things said to me by studio executives when I started,” she recalled in an American Film Institute interview in 1979. She quoted one man’s memorable comment: “Feature films are very expensive to mount and distribute, and women directors are one more problem we don’t need.”...