Joan Micklin Silver, the director of films like “Crossing Delancy,” “Hester Street,” and “Between the Lines” died on Thursday at the age of 85, The New York Times reports. Her daughter, Claudia Silver, told the paper that the cause of death was vascular dementia. In addition to Claudia, Silver’s survivors include two other daughters, Dina and Marisa Silver; a sister, Renee; and five grandchildren. Her long-time husband, Raphael D. Silver, died at age 83 in 2013 after a skiing accident in Park City, Utah.
An indie pioneer who first got her start writing a series of educational films for companies like Encyclopedia Britannica and the Learning Corporation of America in the 1970s, Silver was long aware of the barriers that would likely prevent her from entering into the male-dominated filmmaking milieu. (A telling interview quote that appears on her Wikipedia page: “I had absolutely no chance of getting work as a director”; the Times adds another heartbreaker from a 1979 AFI interview, with Silver noting, “I had such blatantly sexist things said to me by studio executives when I started,” adding that one high-powered man once told her that “feature films are very expensive to mount and distribute, and women directors are one more problem we don’t need.”)
And yet the Omaha native soon made her own opportunities, including writing and directing her first film, the low-budget drama 1975 “Hester Street.” The film, which starred a young Carol Kane and earned the actress an Oscar nomination, followed a young Jewish Russian immigrant couple making their way in 1890s America, a story reflective of the lives of her own parents, who both emigrated to the states as children.
Shot over 34 days, the final product was in black and white, and featured mostly Yiddish with English subtitles. It was not a slam-dunk effort, and the Times quotes Silver in a 2005 interview, bluntly reflecting that “nobody wanted to release it. The only offer was to release it on 16 [mm] to the synagogue market.”
Eventually, it was Silver’s husband that helped the film find a home. The Times notes that the “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.” The film “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.)”
Silver occasionally worked in the studio system, including being hired and fired by Paramount to adapt Lois Gould’s novel “Such Good Friends” (she was not the only writer the studio treated this way when it came to the project), and later seeing Universal Pictures by a screenplay she penned alongside her early creative partner Linda Gottlieb, only to rewrite it and give it to a director who did share the women’s vision. Still, her best successes were the ones she made for herself.
She followed “Hester Street” with a variety of indie features, including the newspaper dramedy “Between the Lines,” starring a young Jeff Goldblum, followed by the Ann Beattie adaptation first known as “Head Over Heels.” That particular project was also a source of pain, and United Artists tried to sell the John Heard- and Mary Beth Hurt-starring film as a zippy romp, only for it fail at the box office. As the Times notes, “After it bombed, the film’s young producers insisted on restoring the original title [‘Chilly Scenes of Winter’], giving it a new, less perky ending and having it re-released. This time it was received much more favorably.”
Her varied career also included off-Broadway work, a number of TV movies (her final three films were all made for the small screen), and a pair of light comedies in the form of the Patrick Dempsey-starring “Loverboy,” in which he plays a pizza-boy-turned-escort, and the coming-of-age comedy “Big Girls Don’t Cry…They Get Even.” In total, she directed seven feature films over a career that spanned four decades. To most audiences, however, she was best known for her 1988 romantic comedy “Crossing Delancey,” which combined her eye for comedy and her affection for the Jewish immigrant experience that she previously played for more dramatic effect in “Hester Street.” The film starred Amy Irving, who earned a Golden Globe nomination for her work.
Silver had not worked since 2003, when she directed “Hunger Point,” a TV movie following a family dealing with their daughter’s disordered eating. Her work has recently been the subject of renewed interest, however: a stage adaptation of “Hester Street” was announced in 2016, and “Between the Lines” recently received a fresh restoration. At this year’s virtual Cannes market, Cohen Media Group offered that film, along with a trio of other restorations (including “Hester Street”) to worldwide buyers.