Home > Cinema, Feminism, Film, Hollywood, Jewish Culture, Joan Micklin Silver, Movies, Nebraskans in Film, Omaha, Pop culture, Screenwriting, Theater, Writing > Joan Micklin Silver: Shattering cinema’s glass ceiling

Joan Micklin Silver: Shattering cinema’s glass ceiling


cracked glass

Image by snacktime2007 via Flickr

I’ve always been fascinated by the many film artists who have come out of my home state Nebraska to forge significant careers in and out of Hollywood. Almost from the very start of the film industry Nebraskans have played major roles in every facet of production.  I mean, just consider this partial list of Nebraskans in film from the silent era through the present day:

Harold Lloyd, Darryl Zanuck, Ann Ronnell, Fred Astaire, Robert Taylor, Ward Bond, Henry Fonda, Dorothy McGuire, Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, Lynn Stalmaster, David Jansen, James Coburn, Sandy Dennis, William Dozier,  Lew Hunter, Joan Micklin Silver, Nick Nolte, Swoosie Kurtz, Marg Helgenberger, Mike Hill, Monty Ross, Alexander Payne, Gabrielle Union, Patrick Coyle, Jon Bokenkamp, Nik Fackler.

Oscar winning cinematographer Mauro Fiore (Avatar) has made Nebraska his adopted state. Leading editor Tom Elkins, who will be directing a big budget horror film this fall, has made Omaha his adopted hometown.

I’ve never thought the state has done a good job of celebrating its film heritage.  For example, few Nebraskans know that one of the most important filmmakers from the 1970s and ’80s – Joan Micklin Silver – grew up in Omaha and still has family here.  Micklin Silver may not be a household name today, but her films Hester Street, Between the Lines, Chilly Scenes of Winter, and Crossing Delancey were among the best of that era and were all the more significant because she was the rare woman making features films then.  Her work in the industry helped open doors traditionally closed to women.

She fought many battles to get as far as she did and took a hard, lonely path to get there as an independent.  When Kathryn Bigelow won for Best Director at this year’s Oscars the first person I thought of was Joan.  I called her and she expressed great admiration for Bigelow’s film and described it as a great moment for women in film and perhaps making it more possible for women to be viewed on equal terms with men in such a male-dominated field.

The following story appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com) more than a decade ago and is my attempt at putting Joan’s career in proper perspective.  This long piece appeared more or less as is in an era when newspapers and magazines were more prone to running stories of length like this. Today, it would be chopped by a third or in half.  Look for more of my Joan Micklin Silver stories in future posts.  My blog also includes a story on Peter Riegert and his fine feature directorial debut, King of the Corner, which he also stars in.

 

Joan Micklin Silver, Shattering cinema’s glass ceiling

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in a 1999 edition of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Aside from a brief golden time early this century and then again only until quite recently, the mere suggestion a woman might direct a motion picture was met with outright scorn by movie moguls. While Hollywood rewarded screen sirens and goddesses with huge fees and royal perks, it was loathe to share with women the reins of power men wielded behind the scenes.

It is only in the last two decades chauvinism softened enough for women to reemerge as a viable force behind the camera. Nora Ephron, Jane Campion, Martha Coolidge, Penny Marshall, Barbra Streisand, Jodie Foster, Mira Nair and Joan Micklin Silver are just a few of the directors shattering the cinema’s glass ceiling.

From the start women challenging the unwritten rule that directing is a man’s job were branded troublemakers or worse. How bad did it get? Just listen to writer-director Joan Micklin Silver, an Omaha native whose 1975 debut feature Hester Street, along with her later work, helped open doors for women in film:

“When I started, there were no women directing at all in the so-called industry. There were no women cinematographers. There were very few women producers, and the ones there were were usually partnered with a man. I actually had an executive say to me, ‘Feature films are expensive to make and expensive to market, and women directors are one more problem we don’t need.’ So, yes, it was that blatant. Unless you’re of a certain age you can’t quite believe it was that awful, but it was. I couldn’t get a job directing at all. At that time the only job I was suitable for in the industry was writing,” she said in a phone interview from her New York home.

 

 

The film history traditionally taught in schools has made it appear women played no significant part in the medium’s formative years. Not true. Sure, the one-time street peddlers-turned-dream merchants who transformed the flickers from mere storefront curiosities into must-see movie palace phenomena were men. And, like other industries, the movies operated as an Old Boys Network relegating females and racial minorities to narrowly defined roles on-screen and off.

But, it turns out, more than a few pioneers bucked the system.

Recent books, videos and CD-ROMs point to the vital contributions of such silent era women directors as Alice Guy Blache´, Nell Shipman and Lois Weber. Hardly household names, sure, but the point is, other than D.W. Griffith, Cecil B. De Mille, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Erich von Stroheim what influential male silent Hollywood directors can you name?

The sound era introduced many lady trailblazers but perhaps none more potent than Mae West, who scripted wicked double-entendres and personified sexual liberation in pushing the boundaries of film content. In the 1920s and ‘30s, editor-turned-writer-turned-director Dorothy Arzner helmed a diverse mix of films (Working Girls) for major studios. In the 1950s, actress-turned-director Ida Lupino made several hard-edged independent films (The Hitchhiker) for her own company before settling in TV land. Despite this proven track record, the directing ranks soon became a men’s only club. What happened? Well, consider that Hollywood was a brash, anything-goes town and the medium itself a still developing mode of expression unrestricted by social convention. In such a climate, coinciding as it did with the Suffragist movement, women flourished behind the scenes.

But with the dawn of talkies the movies grew fatter and more conservative. By the advent of wide screen epics and blockbuster pics, the stakes got ever higher, and thus, the keys to the kingdom fell into fewer and fewer hands. What few women filmmakers there were were confined to directing underground, avant garde or experimental work.

Then, taking a cue from the cinema-verite, guerilla-style approach of John Cassavetes (ShadowsFaces) and the maverick model of Ida Lupino, women like Shirley Clarke (Jason’s Story), Barbara Loden (Wanda) and Elaine May (A New Leaf) made their voices heard. In classic independent fashion each worked outside the Hollywood mainstream to complete personal features that, if not commercial hits, proved once again women could persevere to get their vision on-screen despite filmmaking’s inherent obstacles, especially the low budget variety.

Another turning point came when Joan Micklin Silver’s Hester Street proved an unexpected but unqualified critical and commercial success. The film, scripted by Micklin Silver and produced by her husband Raphael (Ray) Silver, takes a gritty, witty look at the Jewish immigrant milieu of New York’s Lower East Side, circa 1896, and features a Best Actress Oscar-nominated performance by Carol Kane. Unlike some period pieces that content themselves with depicting history in dull, flat terms, Hester Street sharply evokes the lives of a transplanted people at a particular place in time. Fourteen years later the filmmaker revisited the Lower East Side for the winning Crossing Delancey, only this time focusing on contemporary Jewish life and its intersection with old world traditions.

 

 

the

 

Hester Street

 

Informed by a strong feminist sensibility, Hester Street is really about the awakening of a meek, innocent emigre named Gitl (Kane) who, upon arriving in America, finds her husband an unfaithful scoundrel with no respect for her or their shared past. Torn between cherished old values and strange new ones, Gitl finds emancipation while remaining true to herself.
The idea of transforming one’s self without losing one’s identity is something Micklin Silver, 64, could readily relate to. “I’ve always loved film very much, and I wanted to make it in that field. I wanted to direct, but I didn’t want to be a man. I wanted to be a woman. I wanted to be myself,” she said.

Her deep love for the movies was first nurtured in Omaha.

“I grew up in the days when you’d take the streetcar downtown and see double-features for 35 cents. Those were still the days of stage shows (preceding the main movie bill). It was just marvelous entertainment. It really was. I remember those theaters in Omaha very well. The Brandeis. The Orpheum. I think I was probably most influenced by the traditional Hollywood films I saw as a kid.”

Among her favorite early moviegoing experiences were film noirs. “I remember very specifically a movie I saw then called Shadow of a Doubt. It’s a great Hitchcock film, and I can remember how terrified I was. I’ve always loved film noirs.” A genuine cinephile, she started collecting movies on videocassette in the ‘80s. “I still have a fantastic collection of them. I would say the best course in feature filmmaking is just watching films.”

Besides the movies, reading and writing held her interest. She attended Central High School (graduating in 1952) and Temple Israel Synagogue, writing sketches for school plays. Her departure from Omaha, at age 17, occurred right around the time her father died. She attended Sarah Lawrence College in New York State, met Silver, married, and moved with him to Cleveland, where he worked in real estate. She bore three daughters and in between raising a family continued haunting cinemas and began writing for local theater.

Inspired by what was happening in film at the time, including the exciting work of independents like Cassavetes and Clarke, Micklin Silver yearned to be part of this vital scene. But Cleveland offered little hope for launching a project.

“You need other people to make films with, and in those years there wasn’t much of a film community yet in Cleveland.”

Then fate intervened. She explains: “I was at a party for Carl Stokes, who was then a mayoral candidate in Cleveland. At that party I met Joan Ganz Cooney (a founder of the Children’s Television Workshop), who was writing the grant proposal for Sesame Street, and I talked to her about what I was interested in doing. She gave me some names, and one of those names was Linda Gottlieb (who went on to produce Dirty Dancing), then an executive with an educational film company. I met Linda and we hit it off. She gave me some freelance (script writing) work. Then I went to the head of the company and I said, “I want to direct as well as write’. He said, ‘Why, so you can make your mistakes on me?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ He told me, ‘Go ahead,’ and thank goodness he did. I wrote and directed, and Linda produced, three short educational films. They were like little features.”

One short subject dealt with immigration, and in researching the piece Micklin Silver came across the novella, Yekl, she would later base Hester Street on.

“Later, Linda and I formed a production company of our own. The idea was that I would write and she would produce and I would eventually start directing.”

Meanwhile, the Silvers moved to New York. With Joan’s properties laying dormant and no directing jobs in the offing, she despaired. Then, one of her scripts, Limbo, an anti-war story about the oblivion wives of Vietnam POWs and MIAs faced, sold to Universal Pictures and the studio brought her out west.

“A director there by the name of Mark Robson (Champion) wanted to do the film but he had a very different take on it. He saw it as more of a women-without-men kind of thing when it was meant it be a gritty look at the difficulties these women faced and the fact they really couldn’t get a straight story from the military as to where their husbands were or when they were coming home. I went out there and I explained how I felt about the film, and when I got back to New York I was told I was going to be replaced,” she said.

Despite being taken off the picture, she found an unlikely ally in Robson.

“Although I didn’t like what he did with my script, he knew I wanted to be a director and he invited me to come and spend any amount of time I wanted on the set. I spent about 10 days there for my first exposure to the Hollywood moviemaking apparatus…with all the cranes and dolleys and budgets. It was very helpful.”

She said seeing the process up close “emboldened me to come back to New York and to make films right away. I said to my husband, ‘I don’t want anybody else to do that to a script of mine.’ And I always remember what he said: ‘Go ahead, jump in the water. If you can’t swim now, you won’t be able to swim 10 years from now. This is your chance to try and find out.’ If he had said, ‘Well, what do you know about it? Why don’t you apprentice at film school first?’ I would have probably said, ‘Oh, yeah, you’re right.’ But he didn’t. He gave me support and a sort of permission to try.”

The Silvers developed Hester Street under the banner of their Midwest Films. Besides the novella Yekl, the guts of the film grew out of Micklin Silver’s Omaha childhood and her beguilement with the tales her Russian-Jewish emigrant family told of their coming to America — their crossing, culture shock and assimilation. Joan and her older sister Renee (who still resides in Omaha) are the daughters of the late Maurice and Doris Micklin.

Their father founded Micklin Lumber Co. Joan said her father, who was 12 when he and his family arrived from Russia, “had very distinct memories of coming over and what it was like to be young, excited and terrified at having to learn a new language in a strange country…and he told those stories very vividly.” Her mother, only a toddler when she arrived, had no recall of the experience, but her older siblings did and Joan’s uncles and aunts shared their memories with her during visits to the family’s Yiddish-flavored home.

“So many families don’t want to talk about the experience of immigration,” Micklin Silver said. “It’s traumatic. They want to become Americans as soon as possible and they want to leave it all behind them. But my family was of the other variety — that loved to tell the tales. I was always fascinated by all the stories they told. Of the people that made it. The people that didn’t. The people that went crazy. The people that went back. I remember sitting around the dinner table and hearing stories that were very funny and enjoyable and strong and interesting and serious. So I was attracted to those stories in the first place.”

Her immersion in those tales not only gave her the subject matter for her first film, but later informed her direction of the acclaimed National Public Radio series Great Jewish Stories from Eastern Europe and Beyond. Although not a Jewish director per se, she has often explored her heritage on film, most recently in the 1997 Showtime movie, In the Presence of Mine Enemies. Based on a Rod Serling TV script originally produced live on Playhouse 90, the film stars Armin Mueller-Stahl as a rabbi trying to hold his community and family together in the Warsaw ghetto of World War II. Mine Enemies marked the first time she dealt overtly with the Holocaust in her work.

In 1995 the National Foundation for Jewish Culture (NFJC) honored Micklin Silver with a Jewish Cultural Achievement Award in the media arts category, which she accepted in memory of her parents. Her fellow honorees included Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Arthur Miller.

Referring to Micklin Silver’s work, NFJC executive director Richard Siegel said, “In Hester Street and Crossing Delancey in particular she does something that very few other filmmakers have done, which is to look at the American-Jewish experience in some depth and with considerable insight, from the inside, as it were.” In her acceptance speech she explained how someone from such a goy hometown “could become so addicted to Jewish stories and characters.” She referred, of course, to the stories her family told “…dotted with a pungent Yiddish and much laughter at the human comedy of it all. Such were my introductions to the magnificent and terrifying history of the Jews. When I began making movies I was inevitably drawn to stories which had so much emotional weight for me as I grew up,” she said.

When, despite great reviews at festivals, Hester Street failed attracting a distributor, Ray Silver called Cassavetes for advice and was told: “Distribute it yourself.” Ray, who has described it as the “most significant call I’ve made in the film business,” released the film with help from Jeff Lipsky. Made for $400,000, it grossed more than $5 million — then-record earnings for an indie feature.

 

Silver, Joan - still image [media]

 

She followed Hester Street with two decidedly non-ethnic features (Between the Lines and Chilly Scenes of Winter) that fared well with critics but less well with general audiences. In the past two decades she has directed numerous features as well as cable films for HBO, Showtime and Lifetime. She has worked inside and outside the Hollywood system. She’s also directed for the theater to great acclaim (A…My Name is Alice). Along the way, she’s become a leading figure in American indie circles and a guiding spirit for the vibrant new women’s cinema scene, serving on the advisory board of the New York Women’s Film Festival.

“I used to make it my business to go to every film directed by a woman, just as a kind of show of solidarity” she said, “but I could not possibly do that now because they’re all over the place. They’re making everything from music videos to television films to feature films.”

Often sought out for advice by new filmmakers — male and female alike — she’s gladly shares her wisdom. “Of course, I’m flattered by it. I enjoy meeting with filmmakers and talking to them and comparing notes. They’re looking for almost any kind of help they can get that might help them get projects off the ground.”

More than most, she appreciates the progress women have made in film. “Absolutely. It’s great. Women are definitely in a better place today. Talented women do get opportunities. It’s not nearly as bleak a picture as it was.”

She attributes this breakthrough as much to women pounding at the studio gates long and hard enough to finally gain entry as to any contribution she and peers like actress-director Lee Grant (Tell Me a Riddle) made. Whether due to inroads made by these modern pioneers or not, once closed doors have undeniably opened. To wit, her daughters, who grew up on their mother’s movie sets, boast film careers of their own. Marisa has directed features (License to Drive), although these days she’s raising a family. Dina is a producer. And Claudia is a director with an acclaimed new short film (Kalamazoo) out.

Of her daughters’ following her footsteps, Micklin Silver said: “I think they all felt at home with the process and I don’t think they had an unrealistically rosy view of it all. They’ve certainly been aware of the various things I’ve gone through, but they’ve seen for the most part that I’ve enjoyed it and am proud of what I’ve achieved and am still at and so on. So, I hope they’ve been encouraged by it.”

Ironically, it took the doggedness of Micklin Silver and others to finally position women back in film where they had been decades before. Yet, even after the success of Hester Street, she still could not get Hollywood backing for her next project, Between the Lines (1977), which examines an underground newspaper staff’s struggle to balance their revolutionary zeal with dollars-and-cents reality. With its large, talented ensemble cast (John Heard, Jeff Goldblum, Lindsey Crouse, Marilu Henner), gonzo sensibility and free-wheeling look at office and bedroom politics, the story accurately captures its time yet remains utterly fresh today.

 

John Heard and Mary Beth Hurt from Chilly Scenes of Winter

 

A major studio, United Artists, did attach itself to her third project, Chilly Scenes of Winter, a 1979 film that steers clear of cliches in charting the ups and downs of a romantic relationship (the lovers are brilliantly played by John Heard and Mary Beth Hurt). Micklin Silver’s association with UA turned sour when, after completing the picture, the studio ordered a new ending (to a less ambiguous one) and a changed title (to the frivolous Head Over Heels) against her wishes. Apparently, execs deemed her achingly honest, funny and painful modern romance too offbeat despite the fact UA fully embraced Woody Allen’s “relationship” comedies Annie Hall and Manhattanand took a hands-off policy concerning them. Her critically praised film was a box office bust, but she ultimately prevailed when she got the UA Classics division to release her director’s cut in 1982.

A decade removed from the UA debacle, she finally danced with the studios again when her Crossing Delancey (adapted from the Susan Sandler play) was picked-up by Warner Bros. and when she was brought in as a hired-gun to direct two screwball comedies, Loverboy (a 1989 Tri-Star release) and Big Girls Don’t Cry (a 1991 New Line release), which she did not originate. While she enjoyed doing the latter two projects, she far prefers generating her own material.

“In the end it’s more satisfying to me to be able to make films that I just feel more personally,” she said.

 

 

Her most recent work, Invisible Child, is a new original Lifetime movie drama starring Rita Wilson.

Along the way, there have been many unrealized projects. Not one to dwell much on what-might-have-beens, she feels an even playing field might have meant more chances but considers her career a validation of women’s gains, noting, “Well, you know, one always feels one could have done more. But I’ve managed to make films for many years now in a field that was extremely unfriendly to women and to make the films I wanted.” She is quick to add, however, filmmaking is a tough field “for everyone. It’s extraordinarily competitive. There are many, many, many more people who want to be in film than there are jobs.”

Besides her gender, she feels her own idiosyncratic vision has limited her options. “I think that my own bent has always been that I want to make certain kinds of films, and they aren’t necessarily the films that are seen as Hollywood-type films.” Long attracted to exploring the complex give-and-take of intimate male-female relationships, she has created a string of serio-comic pictures that compare favorably with the work of the best romantic comedy directors in history. The romantic partners in her films are far from perfectly happy and, indeed, often flounder in search of equilibrium if not bliss, as in her 1998 feature, A Fish in the Bathtub, starring Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara as a Queens couple, Sam and Molly, whose 40-year marriage finally goes on the fritz.

“It (A Fish) falls into a special category of film I like very much — human comedy,” Micklin Silver said. “It’s real, wrenching and strikes a chord.”

Unafraid to tackle the silly, messy, chaotic side of relationships, she probes issues like obsession, desire, infidelity, possessiveness, loneliness, rejection, regret. Like the smart repartee associated with Lubitsch, Wilder, Cukor or Hawks, she delights in verbal sparring matches that deflate gender myths and romantic idylls.

In Chilly Scenes the single Charles (Heard) is lovesick over the unhappily married Laura (Hurt), whom he can’t forget despite her breaking off their affair. While still attracted to Charles she feels guilty at having cheated as well as smothered by his aggressive wooing of her. She tells him, “You have this exalted view of me, and I hate it. I can’t live up to this thing you have about me.” He pleads, “Why would you choose someone who loves you too little over someone who loves you too much?” She replies, “Because it makes me feel less of a fraud.” Exasperated, he can only think to say what he feels, “Oh, I’m going to rape you.”

Micklin Silver’s men and women are equally strong-willed and neurotic. Despite their flaws, the men remain sympathetic figures for risking love in the first place and for staying true to themselves in the process. That is never more evident than in Crossing Delancey, where Sam (Peter Riegert), the pickle man, patiently waits for the upwardly mobile Izzy (Amy Irving) to come down off her high horse and finally see him for the decent if unflamboyant guy he really is. The story is also very much about the uneasy melding of old and new Jewish culture and the conflicting agendas of today’s sexual politics. Izzy is the career-minded modern woman. Sam is the tradition-mired male. Each pines for affection and attachment, but are unsure how to get it. In the end, a matchmaker and bubby bring them together.

 

Peter Riegert and Amy Irving in Crossing Delancey

 

About the male-female dynamic in her work, Micklin-Silver said, “That is something I’m quite interested in. Why? I have no idea, other than a life lived, I guess. In my own life experience I had a really wonderful father who was interested in me and paid attention to me and to my ideas, and all the rest of it. And God knows I have a wonderful, supportive husband whom I’ve had three great daughters with. I haven’t had the experience of abuse by men, so basically what I’ve done is more observe the differences (in the sexes) than the struggles.”

She and husband Ray (a producer and director in his own right) continue to partner on some projects and to pursue others separately. Their Silverfilm Production company is housed in offices on Park Avenue.

Although she rarely gets back to her home state anymore, she did come to accept the Mary Riepma Ross Award at the 1993 Great Plains Film Festival in Lincoln. On that visit, she drove across the state and was reminded just how “beautiful” the endless horizons of far western Nebraska are. “I Iove western Nebraska. It’s just so beautiful. I love a landscape that’s long and flat, and where there’s so little in the middle distance that your eye goes on and on.”

A landscape reminiscent of that is the backdrop for a project she’s developing called White Harvest, which is set on a sugarbeet farm in far northeastern Colorado. Based on a book called Second Hoeing, it is a period piece about a young girl wanting to escape her tyrannical immigrant father. “It has a great feeling for the place. It’s also a wonderful love story,” Micklin Silver said.

If the project ever flies, it would realize a long-held desire to capture the Midwest on film. “I’ve always wanted to shoot something in Nebraska. It still hasn’t happened but I want so much to come back to that world.” There’s also a film noir script she’s been honing and still hopes to make. Next spring she is slated to direct a film adaptation of the Paul Osborn play, Mornings at Seven, for Showtime.

Ideas are what feed her work and her passion. “I’m never without something I want to do. It’s your life. What you’re doing…what you’re thinking,” she said.

Meanwhile, she’s excited by the prospect of a more dynamic cinema emerging from the rich new talent pool of women and minority filmmakers.

“Yeah, it’s going to be a much richer stew, and something all of us can enjoy.”

Advertisements
  1. December 1, 2012 at 4:59 am

    Great post.

    Like

  2. June 18, 2014 at 1:27 pm

    Hello to every , as I am truly keen of reading this web site’s post to be updated on a regular
    basis. It includes good material.

    Like

  1. June 12, 2018 at 11:32 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: