‘Hester Street’ Was a Rare 1970s Specialized American Indie Film Success

American art house cinemas once played foreign-language movies exclusively. Then this black and white portrait of Jewish life in 1890s New York by Joan Micklin Silver helped spark a shift.
Carol Kane Hester Street
Carol Kane in "Hester Street"
Cohen Media

The 4K restoration (released this month by Cohen Media and featured at the New York Film Festival) of Joan Micklin Silver’s 1975 “Hester Street” is getting deserved credit as a rare female-directed American film from its era. The black and white feature, set in the mostly Jewish immigrant community in New York’s Lower East side in the 1890s, overcame tough odds on multiple fronts to become a significant financial success.

The film grossed $5 million by the end of its run, the equivalent of over $22 million today. All this on a budget of $375,000 (about $1.7 million now). That was a significant success, even if at the time it wasn’t supplemented by home video, and as a black and white film it had limited interest for broadcast television.

Micklin Silver’s film is getting renewed credit for its quality, as well as for being the debut film that caused her to break out as a director. One thing that seems to have been forgotten, though, and likely will come as a surprise to decades of cinephiles accustomed to the prominence of American independent film, is how freakish its success was.

What made it an anomaly at the time was that it was unusual for an American film to play the then-vibrant mostly big city specialized circuit. I know this from first hand experience when the film played its exclusive Chicago engagement at the Cinema Theater, the city’s prime location for top specialized releases. It was a theater I booked just as I took my first job in exhibition, a career that saw similar films eventually become mainstream arthouse bookings.

But how unusual was it at the time? “Hester Street” opened there on February 6, 1976 for a longer than usual 10-week run. Over the next 18 months, and as was the case at most of the prime art house theaters, the Cinema Theater’s bookings were entirely European subtitled films, including new films from Ingmar Bergman, Eric Rohmer, Lina Wertmüller, and Bertrand Tavernier.

That is what patrons anticipated and supported. The idea of a female director wasn’t unheard of (Wertmüller had broken through in 1975, Elaine May had two early ’70s studio releases), but was still a rarity.

“Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song”

Independent filmmaking in the U.S. is as old as movies themselves. But it thrived on the edges of mainstream theaters. Melvin Van Peebles broke through in 1971 with “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” with other Black directors following. Sexploitation films by the late 1960s, led by Russ Meyer, had crossed over into general patronage theaters. Drive ins and other locations from the 1950s thrived with films from Roger Corman and other producers, mostly apart from studio support.

But the sophisticated end of the business remained faithful to foreign-language films. It was a pattern established in the 1950s, when a revived European business provided an alternative to what sophisticated viewers considered ordinary Hollywood output. It had snob value, elitist and intellectual. But its key appeal was content that wasn’t as restricted as studio films were, separate from the restrictive production code (though still facing local censorship too).

Then, when “Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Graduate” led the studio revolution, these companies quickly snatched up the most promising young directors (mainly male of course), including competing and sometimes outdoing foreign releases in challenging elements.

Still, the subtitled market dominated arthouses. The significant exception came from two films from John Cassavetes. His “Faces” in 1968 and “A Woman Under the Influence” in 1973 both reached significant audiences after starting as specialized. Still, they seemed like exceptions with a specific sui generis quality hard to transfer to other filmmakers — and even if so, the studios likely would take them on.

Enter “Hester Street.” Micklin Silver and her producer husband failed to find any credible distributor to handle the film, including Don Rugoff’s dominant Cinema 5 or Dan Talbot’s smaller niche New Yorker Films. It didn’t fit into the concept of what could work. So they took the film out on their own, with the help of young veterans who had similarly handled Cassavetes’ “Woman.”

They managed to get it booked in key exclusive theaters in New York and Los Angeles. Then a miracle happened — its first week in both locations in late 1975 grossed the equal of over $100,000, an extremely high result at any time for a specialized film. It broke the house record at the then-Laemmle Music Hall in Beverly Hills.

That still didn’t guarantee elevated playoff. Perhaps this was a fluke, with strong support from local Jewish communities that couldn’t be replicated elsewhere. In any case, at that time, prime single-screen arthouses were booked months in advance, mainly playing films from a small number of regular suppliers.

But numbers like this made a difference for theaters like the Cinema in Chicago. And its playdate prove fortuitous. During its early weeks there and other dates, Carol Kane received a surprise Best Actress nomination from the Academy Awards. It came from a word-of-mouth campaign and contacts from a veteran publicist who was able to get actors to see the film (pre-screeners, a tough task for a small film). That boosted it and helped with its later expansion and some crossover.

"Crossing Delancey"
“Crossing Delancey”Getty Images

Even so, it took several years and directors such as John Sayles and Spike Lee in the early 1980s to lead the transition from subtitled to American films as the dominant force in specialized theaters. And even longer for a steady string of female directors to gain traction within the field. Micklin Silver made a second independent film — the underrated “Between the Lines” about a Boston weekly newspaper, which featured an ensemble cast including the youthful Jeff Goldblum, John Heard, and Lindsay Crouse. But it got little attention, though the director later was able to attract studio attention for “The Chilly Scenes of Winter” and “Crossing Delancey.”

The reissue of “Hester Street” reminds us that Joan Micklin Silver came out of specialized, even if they didn’t know what to do with her.

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