A filmmaker who doesn’t get nearly the attention she deserves is writer-director Joan Micklin Silver, whom I’ve written about over the years. Many of my stories about her can be found on this blog. Her 1975 debut feature, Hester Street, was a phenomenon for its time because Joan and her producing partner husband Raphael (Ray) Silver were forced to go totally independent when all the studios rejected the script. Thus, the couple raised the few hundred thousand dollars needed from investors, gathered a cast and crew, completed the film on time and on budget, then distributed the picture themselves. It all came together, too. The period piece looked like it was done on a much larger budget. The performances were stellar. Most amazingly the film found a large enough audience at theaters to make millions at the box office, making it one of the most successful indie films up to that time. The capper was star Carol Kane getting an Oscar nomination for Best Actress for her sensitive and insightful performance as Gitl, a traditional Jewish immigrant wife and mother who undergoes a transformation in the face of the new world she enters and the gulf that’s grown between herself and her husband. It’s a powerful and moving portrayal of emancipation and empowerment as Gitl finds a path of her own from her and her son. The impish film-television-stage actress recently spoke with me about working with Joan on the film and what it meant to be part of a movie that’s now part of the National Film Registry. She’s a delightful interview.
Look for coming Q&A’s with Robert Duvall, Martin Landau, Danny Glover, and legendary cinematographer Bill Butler.
Interview with Carol Kane
©by Leo Adam Biga
CK: “I had no idea about it until Joan wrote me a couple days ago saying she’d talked to you. I didn’t know. I’m so glad you’re doing this because I didnt know about the movie getting this status and I think it’d be fun for us to have people know about it.”
LAB: It’s selection in the registry pretty much ensures it will be part of the American film canon going forward.
CK: “Isn’t that wild? It’s a wonderful feeling to feel like something we did was authentic enough and true enough to be valued as something which should be preserved. You know that’s an extraordinary thing because so many movies are made every year and a lot of them just disappear. And it’s wonderful to know that ours will be preserved and, of course, I’m proud to be part of it.
“I always loved the story, it’s just a great, great story. When I read the script I saw the movie in my mind. She (Joan Micklin Silver) wrote the movie so beautifully that you could see it, and so I’m just so glad that it materialized in the way it read.”
LAB: I understand that Joan first saw you in the Canadian dramatic feature, Wedding in White.
CK: “Yes, I co-starred in the movie with Donald Pleasance when I was 19 actually, and I guess somehow she saw it. It was voted best film in the Canadian Film Festival I believe. Donald and I were disqualified because neither of us were Canadian. But it got very lovely reviews in the New York Times and in other publications and I guess her being an independent film gal she went and saw it.”
LAB: Joan told me she assumed that you were Canadian and therefore it would be difficult to get you to come on location for a small indie pic on New York’s Lower East Side.
CK: “Oh, I didnt realize that or I forgot about it. But I do know at that point a lot of people did think I was Canadian because somehow I was working a lot in Canada when I was young.”
LAB: In fact you’re a native of Cleveland, where coincidentally Joan settled after college and that’s where she got her start in theater and in film. By the time she was casting Hester Street she and her husband Ray lived in New York, where you had moved as well.
CK: “Yes, and did she tell you that my dad and Ray knew each other in Cleveland?”
CK: “Yeah, because my dad was an architect, Michael M. Kane, and Ray’s dad was a rabbi, Rabbi Silver. I think I’ve got that right. And my dad did some work with the temple at that time and so they knew each other in this other life, you know. Ray also was involved in pre-fab housing when we made Hester Street. I don’t know if that’s still his business or not or whether he gave it up for the love of the movies. Yeah, so the Silvers and the Kanes knew each other in Cleveland. It’s a strange aside, right?”
LAB: Yes, I love that kind of thing. In checking your IMDB page…
CK: “Oh my God, I’ve got a movie on there that I’ve just begged them to take off from mine and they won’t. It’s some movie (supposedly) like early on in my career, and I have no idea what it is, and they also say I’m also known as this other person that’s in that movie. It’s still there and I can’t get it off.”
LAB: Before even doing Hester Street you had already made Wedding in White, Carnal Knowledge and The Last Detail, which was an incredible start to your career and found you working with some impressive talents like Pleasance, Nicholson, Mike Nichols, Hal Ashby, Randy Quaid.
CK: “I know, I’m so lucky.”
LAB: When you got the part in Hester Street did you give much thought to the prospect of working with a woman filmmaker?
CK: “I don’t think I thought of a woman or a man…Like I told you, I read that script and saw it and I just wanted to be in it, but I don’t think I thought, ‘Hmmm, what’s it going to be like to have a woman in charge?’I didn’t really feature that, and I still don’t. I mean, I just think a good director is a good director and the sex doesn’t feature in that much. But I do think at that time some female directors were very tough because they had to be. That’s not my main recollection of Joan. But I know there was a time when there was such a battle to make a movie that some of them were pretty tough.
“But the Silvers had this sort of unit of belief in the fact that if something was good and worthwhile it would happen, which was very nice. And of course it was a time in film history when that was coming true, when a lot of strange little movies somehow were happening from beautiful scripts about people rather than you know giant events. So it was the right time for this little story I guess.”
LAB: What about working with Joan and the tone she created on the set?
CK: “Well, it had to be very serious because it had to happen very fast because we didn’t have a lot of money. We had less than $400,000 I believe, so you know we didn’t have any time to waste but she would never sacrifice the essence of a scene for that. Ray was producing. They both had to be very, very, very prepared, which she was, and I think I was too. I think there was a lot of research and work that happened before the camera rolled.
“Our art directors were so brilliant, the costume designer, makeup and hair, our DP (director of photography), everyone was so prepared. And as an actress that was so so helpful to me that I would look around and what I was seeing was what would have been. I was wearing clothes from that time and earrings from that time. Our little set was just a little apartment, and it was so real. The settee the boarder had to sleep on was so tiny and you would think, ‘How could a grown man sleep on this behind a curtain?’ You know, it was all there. And everybody was so prepared in working as fast as they could but with a very determined view toward it being right and real. I don’t mean right as in there’s only one right way but it had to ring true before we moved on.”
LAB: Joan described to me that there was a particular article of wardrobe you wanted to take home with you and the costumer balked at letting you do that until she approved it.
CK: “I don’t know if you’re talking about the sheitel (a wig or half wig,) which I believe I did take home and wear around, or maybe my nightgown. But I do remember taking the sheitel and wearing it somewhat. It’s so interesting what we go through in falling in love with our characters. For awhile I was thinking that sheitel was really beautiful, that I looked really good in it, and then if you look at it objectively it’s like, ‘What? What is that thing on my head?’ But I became very happy with it, very comfortable with it because you have to get used to the fact…I mean, that’s my partner and it’s very important to an Orthodox woman. So they did let me take it home and wear it.”
LAB: What is your take on your character and her transformation and awakening?
CK: “I haven’t seen it (the film) in awhile I must confess. I think the last time I saw it was when the film was going to come out on DVD and Joan and I recorded commentary for it.
(Speaking of her character Gitl in the first person):
“I just think I came here to America with kind of a pure hope and attitude and feeling that my life with my husband and child would continue very much as it had been and of course I arrive to find out that’s completely untrue and that I’m somehow kind of an embarrassment to my husband and not ‘modern.’ Because I’m very religious in the beginning I’m not flexible about practicing the things I practiced in the old country, like wearing the sheitel or not looking at men in the face and not using American names for my son and husband as he wants me to.
“I think life teaches me that I have to change. I think of Gitl as very, ver,y very strong but not tough. Very strong to be able to change in a way that would make her life and her son’s life feel rich while getting divorced, which you know is a huge traumatic scandal. She works so hard at learning English. People always say to me, ‘What do you think happened to Gitl afterwards?’ and I always think she probably went on to run Macy’s. You know how were walking down the street at the end and we talk about opening a store and I tell Mr. Bernstien that he’ll study and I’ll sell? I have the feeling we did quite well.
“Who knows what would have become of me if we hadn’t had a son, which I think is a story that’s repeated very frequently throughout history. Women have to learn to be strong because they are responsible for a child and that brings out things in one that one didn’t think were there, and thats true of Gitl.”
LAB: I don’t know how you feel but I regard Hester Street as one of the great immigrant experience depictions in screen history. There aren’t that many.
CK: I think The Godfather II, don’t you?”
LAB: Yes. And Kazan’s America, America.
CK: “Right. I have to say, I don’t know how, it just seems impossible to me those people (immigrants) did what they did. How did they do it? I mean, get on a boat to someplace they’d never even seen a picture of and don’t know the language. My grandmother came over and taught English and she barely spoke English. You know, the resourcefulness is just…It’s scary enough nowadays in the modern age –with the computer and you Google where you’re going and you see the pictures of the hotel where you’ll be staying – to go to an unknown country where you don’t speak the language. To just leave your life and start over from scratch like that, the bravery is just unimaginable to me.
“Can you possibly picture yourself doing that?”
LAB: No, I can’t.
CK: “I can’t either.”
LAB: “Both sets of my grandparents made the immigrant journey from Europe – my father’s parents from Poland and my mother’s parents from Italy – and I regret not knowing more about how they did it and why they did it.
CK: “I think we all lost a lot of opportunities to find out what that was like and what drove them to be brave enough to do it. Gosh. My relatives went to Cleveland. It’s not like, OK, the boat lets us off by the Statue of Liberty and we’ll just stay there.”
LAB: And my people ended up in Omaha, right in the middle of America.
CK: “That old cliche which is so true about necessity being the mother of (invention). I guess that was the main thing, people reinvented everything about themselves.”
LAB: It’s often said that completing any film is a small miracle and getting it seen in theaters and having it be well received is perhaps even more miraculous. But in the case of a small indie film like Hester Street that saw the filmmakers raise the money, produce the picture and get it distributed themselves, and have the film find an audience and do quite well is the rarest of all miracles, especially in that era.
CK: “Oh, I know. And by the way yours truly big mouth here was adamant against that (self-distribution). I tried to explain to Ray it was impossible (laughing), but you know he talked to my later to become dear friend John Cassavetes and I think John was very inspirational and helpful as he was all the time with every artist he ever spoke to and in business too because he was such a maverick. He was an immigrant in Hollywood, you know. He did such a brilliant job, Ray. Where I’ve done other wonderful tiny little movies like this, like a movie called In the Soup that Alex (Alexandre) Rockwell directed and you know the distribution part is so critical and it doesn’t always work. And Ray (and Co.) just did a great job.”
LAB: I understand that it was Joan who had the thrill and privilege of calling with the news of your Oscar nomination.
CK: “Well, that’s the craziest thing in the world isn’t it?”
LAB: I’m sure you never saw that coming.
CK: “Uh, no, no I didn’t think of anything like that. I think when I was nominated I was 23. I know it’s crazy.”
LAB: I assume you attended the Academy Awards ceremony?
CK: “I did but I really think I was pretty much in shock.”
LAB: What do you recall of it?
“Well, the thing was again Joan and Ray had done sort of a maverick thing and hired this wonderful man named Max Bercutt who had worked in PR in the studio system (at Warner Bros. publicity from 1948-1968, where he headed the department for 15 years, before working as a consultant from 1968-1984). He was retired and he was a man who loved to gamble and he loved to gamble on a dark horse and he had done Julie Christie’s campaign for Darling and she had won for a similarly tiny movie. And he came out of retirement to do my campaign. Oh, he was just so great. I think for me the biggest disappointment was not winning for Max because I had hoped to be one of his dark horses. But I mean the fact I got nominated was amazing. I know he went around with a can of film under his arms and went over to Roz Russell’s house and had her invite six people, he went to these dinner parties with the film and people sat down and watched it and that’s why I got nominated – because of him schlepping it around.”
LAB: Yeah, but you overcame such huge odds just to get nominated.
CK: “I did but I still do feel sad that I didn’t go the distance for him. But I think it was a pretty big distance to get where we got. I tried to track him down after and I never found him. And he was just as you would have imagined, with a cigar and scotch. Anyway, he was tremendously kind to me and you can imagine I was way out of my league and he was a great guide in a very human and humane way through this strange experience.
“And the other thing for me that was very moving was that that was the year Jack (Nicholson) was nominated for Cuckoo’s Nest. That year Cuckoo’s Nest won everything. So I was there and it was so sweet and surrealistic for me to be sitting a stone’s throw away from Jack, whom I had done my first movies with, Carnal Knowledge and The Last Detail. The most amazing thing was the next day. In the days before you’re at the Beverly Hills Hotel or whatever and every one sends you flowers and calls. People come out of the woodwork to celebrate you and it’s lovely but it’s just completely overwhelming and then the next day it’s like the phone doesn’t work, there’s no ringing. Suddenly the phone stops ringing, there’s no flowers, and who calls me but Jack and he invites me to go with my friend Angelica (Huston) at the time and they took me to El Cholos for lunch. Only Jack would understand what that day is like and what it meant to be included.”
LAB: What a graceful thing to do.
CK: “Oh, so graceful, he’s a very graceful person. It’s almost like when I tell that story I think it can’t be true because it was so graceful but it is true and it is quite a strange thing to wake up the next morning and to realize the air has been completely changed in your room. Everything about it is different.”
LAB: Were you surprised by Joan’s subsequent success after Hester Street, when she went on to make two of the better comedies of the late ’70s-early ’80s period in Between the Lines and Chilly Scenes of Winter, respectively, and had her greatest triumph with Crossing Delancey in the late ’80s? I mean, I think she has one of the best bodies of work from that era.
CK: “Yes, she does. Amy Irving (the star of Crossing Delancey) and I are very close friends and we had lunch the other day and we were saying wouldn’t it be fun if somebody did a program, a double feature with Crossing Delancey and Hester Street (the films look at Jewish life on the Lower East Side from contemporary and turn-of-the-last-century lenses, respectively). I think that would be very fun.
“Joan and I tried to do one or two other things together and never got them off the ground and that’s what surprised me more than any success – that it wasn’t a guarantee you could pick up and tell more stories (together). There was another book that was a true story that we had really tried to get done but it didn’t happen. But there’s still time. And we worked for awhile on a play together that also has not yet happened but we really enjoyed working on it. But I’m not at all surprised by any success they have had or would have in the future.”
LAB: I note that you say ‘they’ and so I take it you think of Joan and Ray as a team?
CK: “Yeah, I guess I do. I know that they obviously perform very different functions on a set but at least on Hester Street I did think very much of them as a team.”
LAB: The fact that they’ve endured as a couple for all these years in an industry that’s not conducive to long term relationships certainly indicates they have something very strong together.
CK: “Yes, very unique, very non-show biz.”
LAB: I really appreciate your taking the time to speak with me.
CK: “Sure, and if like in the middle of the night you think of another question, give me a call, but don’t call in the middle of the night, wait till the morning (laughing).”
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Women feature filmmakers were fairly abundant at the start of motion pictures but by the time the sound era took off in the early 1930s they were pushed out of the male-centric industry’s directing ranks, save for Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino, and really didn’t return again, except for underground or art house filmmakers like Shirley Clark and Barbara Loden, until well into the 1970s. Elaine May made a big dent in the boys only network with her early 1970s films The Heartbreak Kid and A New Leaf. Joan Micklin Silver followed with her own breakthrough, courtesy her 1975 feature debut, Hester Street, whose unexpected success helped open doors to more women filmmakers the remainder of that decade and especially in the 1980s. Silver and Hester Street are of particular interest to me because she is a fellow Omaha native and her film stands as a landmark screen portrayal of the immigrant experience in early 20th century America alongside Elia Kazan‘s America, America and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather II. As the following story details, the film overcame all odds in just getting made and released and then defied all expectations by becoming a darling of critics and audiences, earning a then-astounding box office take for a small indie film – $5 million, plus a Best Actress Oscar nomination for star Carol Kane.
I have been following Silver for many years – you’ll find some of my other stories about her on this blog – and I recently had the pleasure of interviewing her again in the aftermath of Hester Street being included in the National Film Registry. I also interviewed Hester Street star Carol Kane, though I won’t have a chance to post anything from my conversation with her until a later date. Silver, by the way, is one of the most underrrated filmmakers of her or any time. Her body of work in the 1970s and ’80s, though quite small, can stand with nearly any director’s. I highly recommend Hester Street, the rarely screened Between the Lines and Chilly Scenes of Winter (also known as Head Over Heels), Loverboy, and Crossing Delancey, which for my tastes is one of the best romantic comedies ever made.
The grapevine tells me Silver may be coming back to Omaha (a rare occurrence) for a Film Streams program that Alexander Payne is arranging. After years of interviewing her by phone and writing about her, I hope to finally meet her. Stay tuned.
Joan Micklin Silver’s Classic ‘Hester Street’ Included in National Film Registry
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to be published in the Jewish Press
With her 1975 directorial debut Hester Street she joined a mere handful of women directors then. Just completing the film and getting it released was a major feat. The low budget, black-and-white independent told a period Jewish immigrant story partly in Yiddish with English subtitles.
“With great effort we made the film,” says Silver.
Her script adapted the Abraham Cahan novel Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto. As the eldest daughter of Russian Jewish immigrant parents, the story held deep reverberations for Silver, who says she gloried in her father’s tales “of what it was like in Russia and what it was like coming over and his first banana.” Hester Street allowed her to commemorate on screen the immigrant experience she sprang from. “I cared a lot about the ties I had to that world,” she once told a reporter.
That the film became a sensation was a small miracle.
“One thing I thought as I was making the movie, ‘Well, who knows if I’ll ever get to make another film,’ and I say that because things were pretty dire for women directors and I really wanted to make one that would count for my family. The immigrant experience was a very big part of my family’s experience.”
Silver feels the film strikes a chord with viewers because “it tells an immigrant story in an interesting, believable and honest way.”
Last November Hester Street’s impact was confirmed when the National Film Preservation Board included it among 25 new selections in the National Film Registry, a U.S. Library of Congress-curated archive of significant American movies. Its citation notes the film’s been “praised for its accuracy of detail and sensitivity to the challenges immigrants faced during their acculturation process.”
The honor took Silver by surprise.
“I was really pleased, I had no expectation, and I was delighted to be on the same list with a John Ford movie (The Iron Horse) and a Charlie Chaplain movie (The Kid). It’s pretty exciting,” the longtime Manhattan resident says.
The recognition is doubly satisfying given the difficulty of getting the movie made and released. She recalls one Hollywood executive who rejected the project suggested she change the story to Italians. When no studio would finance the story of early 20th century Eastern Jewish immigrants, her husband Ray Silver, who worked in real estate, raised the $350,000 to do it. He also produced the picture and made sure it got seen.
“Certainly he’s the hero of my story,” she says.
Much of the film was shot where the film is set on New York’s Lower East Side. The tight production schedule meant added pressure. “It was really scary” says Silver. “I remember one day when I went to shoot a scene and the location had not been secured and it took two hours to secure it, so I was two hours behind, and the whole time I was directing the scene I was thinking, How do I make up the two hours? It isn’t what you should be thinking about when you’re directing a scene.”
She’s forever grateful to her collaborators.
“I had a chance to work with such good people. I had a wonderful cameraman and production designing team and costumer, and that makes all the difference in the world to somebody just starting out. And I had such a good cast (Steven Keats, Paul Freedman, Doris Roberts, Mel Howard, Dorrie Kavanaugh) and I’m still really close and friendly with Carol (Kane).”
Silver first saw Kane in the Canadian drama Wedding in White and thought her perfect for Gitl, a naive new immigrant wife-mother whose painful assimilation leads to her emancipation. As Silver assumed Kane lived across the border she despaired her meager budget could not afford putting her up for the shoot until learning the actress resided in NYC.
The two felt a connection as Kane came from a Jewish immigrant family not unlike Silver’s and grew up in Cleveland, where Silver once lived. The filmmaker recalls Kane as “a very conscientious, serious, careful, lovely young woman” who went home to rehearse in the sheitel and period jewelry provided for the part.
After all the hard work to finance the film, meticulous research to ensure authenticity and stress to complete the project on time, no studio wanted to distribute it. Silver was heartbroken.
“I went through a bad period thinking, I’ve made this film nobody will distribute, what am I going to do? how are we going to pay the money back?”
On the advice of maverick filmmaker John Cassavetes, the couple distributed it themselves through their own Midwest Films company. And then a remarkable thing happened. Ray entered the film in the Cannes Film Festival and it was accepted. More prestigious festival showings followed. As the film proved a critical and popular darling more theaters screened it. Hester Street became a surprise hit, earning $5 million at the box office and gaining enough industry notice for Kane to be Oscar-nominated, both unheard of accomplishments for an indie pic then.
Silver had the thrill of informing the actress she’d been nominated.
The project established Silver’s reputation as a bankable director. Her subsequent theatrical films include Between the Lines and Chilly Scenes of Winter. Perhaps her crowning achievement was Crossing Delancey, when she revisited Lower East Side Jewish culture in a modern love story poised between Old and New World values. She later directed many made-for-television movies (Hunger Point).
The Central High graduate left Omaha in the early 1950s to pursue a love for writing, theater and film nurtured here. After graduating from Sarah Lawrence College she settled in Cleveland, where plays she wrote were performed. In New York she wrote and directed educational films
Her dream of a Hollywood breakthrough was partly realized when her story about the wives of American POWs, Limbo, was optioned and she worked under veteran studio director Mark Robson adapting it to the screen.
“In the end I was replaced as the writer (sharing screenplay credit with James Bridges) on the film. Not knowing very much, I disagreed with the director in meetings and he said, ‘Thank you very much,’ and replaced me, which is the privilege of the director.
“But he then invited me – because he knew what I really wanted to do was direct as well as write – to come to the shoot and stay as long as I wanted to avail myself of anything I wanted to learn about. Of course, I felt very upset I had been let go but I got past it and I said, ‘OK, I’m coming,’ and that was a tremendous learning experience for me.”
Robson’s largess was rare in the misogynist, male-dominated movie field. Besides, Silver notes, “Who wants a disgruntled screenwriter around? So that was very generous of him. He let me look through the camera, he let me review the film’s budget, he let me talk with any of the actors, and I did. It was marvelous. I gained a real understanding of how one sets up a budget for a feature film.”
For Silver, who never formally studied filmmaking, it was her film school. Confident in her abilities, she vowed her work would never be compromised again.
“I think almost everybody who gets along in film seems to have experiences like that because it’s a pretty tough field and you need guidance and you need friendship and generosity, and I was very lucky to have it myself.”
In a sense Silver prepped all her life to make Hester Street. The stories she absorbed from her father previously led her to make The Immigrant Experience for the Learning Corporation of America. For her first feature she again fixed on subject matter close to her heart.
“My father was ill during my teenage years and he was home a great deal, so I spent a lot of time with him. He was looking for somebody to talk to and believe me I was there and I was really happy to talk to him. I’ve always thought immigrants fall into two experiences: those who don’t want to talk about it at all and those who want to talk about it all the time and that was my father – he loved reminiscing about it. As a very bright, questioning man, he was also interested in the world, politics, current events and books. I was so lucky to have talk after talk with such a wonderful father at a time when it was unusual for fathers to talk to their daughters.”
He father died before she became a filmmaker, but her mother lived to revel in her Hester Street triumph. “One of the first things she did when Hester Street came out was make the cover of what would be a scrapbook. Yeah, she loved it and she was thrilled for my success.”
Silver’s interest in immigrant tales continues with her in-progress documentary The Bagel: An Immigrant’s Story. She has a feature script in development. Meanwhile, she’s struck up a friendship with fellow Omaha native filmmaker Alexander Payne. The two are discussing a possible Film Streams program with her and her work.
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