R.I.P. Joan Micklin Silver

I was already planning a post about pioneering female filmmaker Joan Micklin Silver but we just got word that she passed away on December 31 at the age of 85, so we move it to the top of the queue. I was already a major fan of Hester Street (1975), but had been exploring some of her other work this year, hence the inspiration for a post.

While it’s not her most famous work, Hester Street is probably her most remarkable accomplishment for many reasons. It’s based on the 1896 novella Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto, by Abraham Cahan, founder of the Jewish Daily Forward. Set in the Lower East Side, shot largely in the New York Tenement Museum, with dialogue mostly in Yiddish, and black and white cinematography, this initimate little film, made on a shoestring, feels as close as you’re going to ever get to the New York immigrant experience of a century ago. The film stars familiar character actors Steven Keats, Carol Kane (who was nominated for an Oscar) and Doris Roberts.

Naturally, my interest in vaudeville and its origins is what originally drew me to this film. You might call it a cult favorite — if JUDAISM is a cult! Joan Micklin was married to the son of Zionist rabbi Abba Hillel Silver. Originally from Omaha, she graduated from Sarah Lawrence and directed theatre in Cleveland for years, before selling her first screenplay Limbo to Universal in 1972. Directed by Mark Robson (Peyton Place, Valley of the Dolls) it features Kathleen Nolan, Kate Jackson and Katherine Justice as three wives of Vietnam War POWs. She also directed several educational films for young people that year. She also wrote the script for an education film called The Frontier Experience, directed by and starring the equally facinating Barbara Loden whose major work was 1970’s Wanda. Much like Hester Street, The Fontier Experience is hyper-realism, this time about a widowed frontier woman living in a sod hut on the Kansas plains with her children, (While the setting is far from Hester Street, it shares the theme of a woman’s hard experience in 19th century America, When we remember that she was from Omaha, the rural plains setting for this one no longer seems a stretch.) I caught this one on Criterion a few months back. It’s an incredible little essay.

Another film of Silver’s I caught this year was the jaw-dropping Between the Lines (1977). I wish I’d seen this one when I was younger, i.e. when it came out, as it has all these resonances for me. The setting is the offices of a fictionalized version of The Boston Phoenix, the alternative paper where I grew up, very similar to the Village Voice. As I lived in Boston for a time, and used to free-lance for the Voice, and had connections to the regional music scene (as some characters in this story do), the movie held special meaning for me — but only because it was good. I think as time goes on, it will get to be better known. One of its chief points of interest is that it is transitional. It is an ensemble slice-of-life that on the one hand feels countercultural in the mode of Robert Altman, but on the other hand points the way for more lighthearted group portraits of partying young people such as Animal House (and I found it highly significant that Doug Kenney has a cameo at the end of this film. I’ll eat my hat if Between the Lines did not influence Animal House.) Among the film’s myriad pleasures (common to this type of film) are lots of early career performances by people who were not-yet-famous-but-were-about-to-be, such as Jeff Goldblum, John Heard, Lindsey Crouse, Bruno Kirby, Stephen Collins, and Marilu Henner. Already famous by this point was Oscar-winning Michael J. Pollard who has a sort of high profile supporting part as a newsboy (a sort of presentational narration device). Also familiar are Jon Korkes (The Day of the Dolphin, The Front Page, Two Minute Warning) and Gwen Welles, who played Sueleen in Altman’s Nashville.

Just prior to Between the Lines, Silver had worked with two other Altman actors, Shelley Duvall and Bud Cort in her made for TV adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Bernice Bobs Her Hair. This 1976 PBS production also featured Veronica Cartwright and Polly Holiday, who’d just started playing Flo on Alice.

Her next film, Chilly Scenes of Winter (1979), once again starred Heard, and also featured Mary Beth Hurt, Peter Riegert (fresh off of Animal House), and, in one of her last roles, no less than Gloria Graham. In the ’80s came her two best known films, at least they were the ones I knew about long before I knew anything about Silver. The first was the HBO film Finnegan Begin Again (1985) starring Robert Preston (post Victor/Victoria) and Mary Tyle Moore (post Ordinary People and Six Weeks), with Sylvia Sidney, Sam Waterston, and David Huddleston. The other was Crossing Delancey (1988) with Peter Riegert again, Amy Irving, Sylvia Miles, David Hyde Pearce, Rosemary Harris, and Suzzy Roche (who also did music). These last films two were rom coms, the latter resonating with Hester Street in an interesting way, as portions of it are set in the same neighborhood.

Silver made 10 more films through 2003. Stand-outs include the 1992 TV movie A Private Matter which featured Sissy Spacek as a children’s television host who received a firestorm of negative publicity in 1962 when she sought to abort a thalidomide baby (true story); as well as In the Presence of Mine Enemies (1997) about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising; and A Fish in the Bathtub (1998) starring Stiller and Meara. Her last film was Hunger Point (2003), starring a pre-Mad Men Christina Hendricks.

Silver was also known for her theatrical revue A…My Name is Alice, created with Julianne Boyd, which opened at the Village Gate in 1983 and moved uptown to the American Place Theater in 1984.