A trailblazer for women in Hollywood, director Joan Micklin Silver, died this past week at her home in New York City at the age of 85. Her first film, “Hester Street,” and most well-known project, “Crossing Delancey,” were, of course, set in and inspired by the Lower East Side.
Silver wrote the screenplay for “Hester Street,” telling the story of assimilation of Jewish immigrants from Russia. She and her husband, Raphael Silver, raised the money for the film, which was produced for less than $400,000. There was little interest in distributing “Hester Street” when it was completed in 1974; it was dismissed as being “too ethnic.” Eventually the film gained traction, however, and ultimately earned $5 million. It was selected in 2011 for inclusion in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress, which lauded “Hester Street” for its “accuracy of detail and sensitivity to the challenges immigrants faced during their acculturation process.”
Silver returned to a familiar theme and locale in 1988 with “Crossing Delancey,” an acclaimed romantic comedy about a thirty-something Jewish woman trying to escape her Lower East Side roots as she struggles with her feelings for the local pickle purveyor. Once again, the studios objected to the film’s ethnic content. Only because the film’s co-star, Amy Irving, was married to Steven Spielberg did the film get made (he connected Silver with a top exec at Warner). “Crossing Delancey” went on to be a big commercial success.
As The Times noted, “It is difficult to say which was Ms. Silver’s most vicious antagonist, anti-Semitism or misogyny.” In an interview in 1979, Silver said a studio big wig told her, “Feature films are very expensive to mount and distribute, and women directors are one more problem we don’t need.” She told Film Comment, “I didn’t want to feel like the woman director. I wanted to feel like one of many women directors.”
Carol Kane, nominated for a best actress Academy Award for her role in “Hester Street,” told the Associated Press, “Joan Micklin Silver was one of the most courageous artists I ever knew… She knew she could prevail at a time when women were not being taken seriously as film directors.”