Joan Micklin Silver

Key figure in the American breakthrough of women screenwriters and directors


The leading American film director Joan Micklin Silver was best known for films set in the Lower East Side like Hester Street (1975) and Crossing Delancey (1988). She was part of an exciting new generation of Jewish women film-makers in the 1970s and ‘80s that included Nora Ephron (When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle), Claudia Weill (Girlfriends) and Barbara Streisand (Yentl, The Prince of Tides).

Silver was born Joan Micklin in Omaha, Nebraska, the daughter of Doris née Shoshone and Maurice David Micklin, who ran the family lumber company. Her parents were Russian-Jewish immigrants. She received her BA from Sarah Lawrence College, a liberal arts college in New York State, in 1956. That same year, she married Raphael D. Silver, a real estate developer and son of Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver. They had three daughters, and were married for almost 60 years. One of their children, Marisa Silver, is herself a film director and author. They lived in Cleveland from 1956 to 1967, where she directed plays.

Silver’s film career began when she moved to New York City in 1967. She started out writing scripts for children’s educational films produced by Encyclopedia Britannica and the Learning Corporation of America, for which she directed three short films: The Case of the Elevator Duck, The Fur Coat, and The Immigrant Experience: The Long Long Journey, about Polish immigrants to America.

The mid 1960s was a great time to be Jewish in New York. Funny Girl, Hello, Dolly! and The Fiddler on the Roof were huge hits on Broadway, Woody Allen had written his first screenplay and Saul Bellow had just published Herzog. In particular, it was an exciting time for a new generation of Jewish film-makers to break into the mainstream. Films like The Graduate (1967), Funny Girl (1968), Goodbye, Columbus (1969) and Where’s Poppa? (1970) introduced new Jewish stars like Dustin Hoffman, Elliott Gould and Barbra Streisand. Jewish screenwriters like Larry Gelbart, Jules Feiffer, Buck Henry, William Goldman and Barry Levinson, and Jewish directors like Arthur Penn, Sidney Lumet, Mel Brooks, Paul Mazursky and Mike Nichols erupted on the scene.

What is striking about these names is that with the exception of Streisand, they were all men. In one interview Silver said that the barriers to women’s entry into film-making were so steep in the early 1970s that –“I had absolutely no chance of getting work as a director.” In a 1979 American Film Institute interview, she quoted a studio executive who told her bluntly, “Feature films are very expensive to mount and distribute, and women directors are one more problem we don’t need.”

This started to change in the 1970s and Silver was a key figure in the breakthrough of women screenwriters and directors. Before beginning her career as a director, Silver worked as a writer; she sold a script entitled Limbo, about the wives of Vietnam’s prisoners of war, to Universal Pictures in 1972.

Silver’s first feature film as a director, Hester Street (1975), was based on Abraham Cahan’s short story, Yekl. A Tale of the New York Ghetto. Cahan’s story focused on the Americanization of Yekl and how it drives him to divorce his embarrassingly “greenhorn” wife Gitl in favour of Mamie, an assimilated Jewish immigrant. Silver shifted the emphasis to Gitl who becomes a more independent and assertive character in the film.

Hester Street was produced by Midwest Films, a company Silver founded with her husband. The budget was a mere $320,000. The New York Times later called Midwest “one of the most successful mom-and-pop operations in the film business”.

Raphael became involved with Joan’s film career out of frustration with the opportunities he saw her being denied. The film, about Jewish immigrants to the Lower East Side, largely featured dialogue in Yiddish. It was filmed in just 34 days and received a Best Actress Oscar nomination for Carol Kane and grossed $5,000,000 at the box office. The film was screened at Cannes and received wide acclaim. Released at the height of the ethnic roots and feminist movements, it was the right film at the right time.

After directing five feature films and television movies during the late 1970s and early 1980s, she directed Crossing Delancey (1988), a romantic comedy starring Amy Irving and Peter Riegert. Irving plays a young Jewish woman, Izzy, who works in a bookstore. She meets a writer and dreams of breaking into the literary world. But her grandmother has different ideas and gets the local matchmaker to set her up with Sam, (Riegert) who runs a local pickle store. Izzy resists, but eventually sees Sam’s charms. Studio executives told Silver that Crossing Delancey was too “ethnic”. Eventually Irving’s husband Steven Spielberg intervened and Warner Bros. distributed the film. It made $116 million worldwide.

Micklin Silver was committed to portraying her Jewish heritage in film and other media throughout her career. She directed the 13-part anthology Great Jewish Stories from Eastern Europe and Beyond (1995) for National Public Radio, Showtime’s remake of Rod Serling’s In the Presence of Mine Enemies, (1997) about a rabbi in the Warsaw Ghetto, starring Armin Mueller-Stahl and Charles Dance, and eating disorder drama Hunger Point (2003), with Barbara Hershey and Christina Hendricks (Mad Men), Silver’s final film. She directed seven feature films and eight TV movies in all.

Silver showed that films about Jewish topics can succeed with Jews and non-Jews alike. “She’s like the perfect 70s filmmaker,” Maya Montañez Smukler, author of the book Liberating Hollywood: Women Directors and the Feminist Reform of 1970s American Cinema, said in an interview with The New York Times. “Quirky characters, messy characters, relatable, familiar stories, but a little rough around the edges. That’s how we think of the most beloved 70s films.”

Her husband Raphael died in 2013. Joan Micklin Silver is survived by their three daughters: Claudia, Marisa and Dina Silver, sister Renee, and five grandchildren.


Joan Micklin Silver: born May 24, 1935. Died December 31, 2020

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