Home > Alexander Payne, Cinema, Film, Hollywood, Joan Micklin Silver, Movies, Nebraska's Film Heritage, Nebraskans in Film, Nik Fackler, Omaha, Writing > Hot Movie Takes: Three generations of Omaha film directors – Joan Micklin Silver, Alexander Payne, Nik Fackler

Hot Movie Takes: Three generations of Omaha film directors – Joan Micklin Silver, Alexander Payne, Nik Fackler



Hot Movie Takes: Three generations of Omaha film directors – Joan Micklin Silver, Alexander Payne, Nik Fackler
©by Leo Adam Bga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Three filmmakers from Omaha who’ve made impressive marks in cinema as writer-directors represent three distinct generations but their work shares a strong humanistic and comedic bent:

Joan Micklin Silver
Alexander Payne
Nik Fackler

You may not know her name or her films, but Joan Micklin Silver is arguably the most important filmmaker to ever come out of Nebraska. Her feature debut “Hester Street” (1975) was something of a phenomenon in its time and it still resonates today because of how it established her in the film industry and helped open doors for other women directors in Hollywood.

Dorothy Arzner was a studio director in the early talkies era and then years went by before another woman filmmaker got the chance to direct. Actress Ida Lupino directed a small but telling batch of features from 1949 through the mid-1950s and became a busy television director. Lupino helmed the original “Twilight Zone’s” classic episode, “The Masks.” The last feature she directed “The Trouble with Angels” was a hit. Her subsequent directing was back in television for a large variety of episodic shows. But it was years before other women followed Lupino as studio directors and Elaine May and Joan Micklin Silver led that fledgling movement. They ushered in an era when more women directors began working in the mainstream: Lee Grant, Penelope Spheeris, Amy Heckerling, Barbra Streisand, Kathryn Bigelow. Hundreds more have followed.

Silver first came to the industry’s attention with her original story about the stateside struggles of wives of American POWs in Vietnam. No studio would let her direct and the story ended up in the hands of old Hollywood hand Mark Robson, who’d made some very successful pictures, and he brought in future director James Bridges to work on the script with her. Silver was not happy with the changes made to the story and though the screenplay bears her and Bridges’ names, she largely disowns the resulting shooting script and the movie Robson made from it, which was released under the title “Limbo” in 1972. However, Robson knew how much she wanted to direct and did something unheard of then: he invited her to be on set to observe the entire shoot and be privy to his interactions with cast, crew, producers, et cetera. She may have also had access to pre- and post-production elements. This experience allowed her an intimate study of how a major feature film production gets made. This, along with the films she’d been keenly watching since falling in love with cinema at the Dundee Theatre in Omaha, was her film school. Only a couple years after “Limbo” Silver was shopping around another script she penned, this one an adaptation of a novella about the Jewish immigrant experience in early 20th century America that was part of her own family’s heritage. The focus was on New York City’s Lower East Side and the travails of a young woman trying to reconcile the ways of the Old Country with the new ways of America. Jake has come ahead to America and sends for his wife, Gitl, and their son. Gitl is little more than chattel to Jake and she finds herself stifled by social, cultural, economic pressures. Much to Jake’s surprise, she rebels. Silver titled the story “Hester Street” and again no studio wanted her to direct and she was not interested in giving control of her script to another filmmaker. To be fair to the studios, on the surface the project did have a lot going against it. For starters, it was a heavily ethnic period piece that Silver saw as a black and white film. Indefensibly though, while Hollywood by that time was giving all sorts of untested new directors opportunities to direct, it wasn’t affording the same opportunities to women.

Silver and her late husband Raphael Silver, who was in real estate then, raised the money themselves and made the film independently. Her beautifully evocative, detailed work looked like it cost ten times her minuscule budget. She and Raphael shopped the finished film around and, you guessed it, still no takers. That’s when the couple released it themselves by road showing the film at individual theaters with whom they directly negotiated terms. And then a funny thing happened. “Hester Street” started catching on and as word of mouth grew, bookings picked up, not just in Eastern art cinemas but coast to coast in both art and select commercial theaters. Before they knew it, the Silvers had a not so minor hit on their hands considering the less than half a million dollars it took to make it. National critics warmly reviewed the picture. The story’s feminist themes in combination with the film having been written and directed by a woman made it and Silver darlings of the Women’s Liberation Movement. The film even got the attention of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, as the film’s then unknown female lead, Carol Kane, earned a Best Actress nomination.

Years later “Hester Street” was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the United States Library of Congress as a “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” work. In designating the film for inclusion, the Library of Congress noted historians have praised the film’s “accuracy of detail and sensitivity to the challenges immigrants faced during their acculturation process in its portrait of Eastern European Jewish life in America.”

Silver is now writing a book about the making of “Hester Street,” which is also being adapted into a stage musical the adapters hope to bring to Broadway. A biography of Silver is also in the works.

The success of “Hester Street” allowed Silver to make a number of feature films over the next decade and a half, some with studios and some independently, including “Between the Lines,” “Chilly Scenes of Winter,” “Crossing Delancey” and “Loverboy” as well as some notable made for TV movies such as “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” and “Finnegan Begin Again.” These films show her deft touch with romantic comedies. I’ve always thought of her work as on par with that of the great Ernest Lubitsch in its sophisticated handling of male-female relationships and entanglements.

I recently saw “Finnegan Begin Again” for the first time and now I see what all the fuss was about for this 1985 HBO movie starring Mary Tyler Moore, Robert Preston, Sam Waterston and Silvia Sydney. It’s a thoroughly delightful, mature and surprising dramedy that features perhaps the two best screen performances by Moore and Preston, which is saying a lot. Waterston goes against type here and is outstanding. Sidney never lost her acting chops and even here, in her mid-70s, she’s very full in her performance. A very young Giancarlo Espositio has a small but showy part. Watch for my separate Hot Movie Takes post about the movie.

During the 1990s and on through 2003, Silver directed several more feature and television movies, “Big Girls Don’t Cry, They Get Even,” “A Private Matter” and “In the Presence of Mine Enemies” among them. The tlater two made for cable movies are straight dramas, which she also handled with a sure touch. I just saw “A Private Matter” for the first time and it is a searing true-life tale about a young American married couple with kids who become the center of the thalidomide scandal and tragedy. Sissy Spacek and Aidan Quinn portray Sherri and Bob Finkbine, who discover that the fetus Sherri is carrying will likely be born severely deformed due to the effects of the then widely prescribed drug thalidomide. When their intent to terminate the pregnancy goes public, it sets off a firestorm of controversy that nearly destroys them. In the midst of the medical deliberations, legal wrangling and media stalkings, the couple learn how widespread abortions are and how secret they’re kept. Silver brilliantly contrasts sunny, placid 1960s suburban family life with the dark underside of hypocrisy, greed, fear and hate that surface when issues of morality get inflamed. In this case and cases like it, what should be a private matter becomes a public controversy and the people involved are persecuted for following their own conscience. Spacek delivers a great performance as Sherri and I don’t think Quinn has ever been better as Bob. Estelle Parsons is excellent as Sherri’s mother. William H. Macy has a small but effective turn as a psychiatrist.

More recently, Silver had been working on some documentary projects that never came to fruition. And then her longtime life and professional partner, Raphael, died. Now in her early 80s, she’s seemingly more focused on archiving her work and sharing her experiences as a woman trying to shatter the American film industry’s glass ceiling.

Her maverick ways and superb films are highly regarded and yet she remains almost unknown in her own hometown, which both saddens and baffles me. The lack of recognition for her here is a real shame, too, because she’s one of the great creatives this place has ever produced and her exquisite films stand the test of time. I believe Alexander Payne, who is her junior by some 26 years, is one of the great American filmmakers to have emerged in the last half-century and I regard the best of Silver’s films on a par with his. And yet her name and work are not nearly as well known, which reminds us that even after all this time women filmmakers are still not accorded the same respect as their male counterparts. Even in their shared hometown, Payne is celebrated but not Silver. I’d like to do something to change that.

When Silver was eying a career in film starting in the late 1960s-early 1970s, the old studio contract system was dismantled and the New Hollywood hot shots from television and film schools were all the rage. Even guys who’d never directed anything were getting their shot at studio features. Women were still left out of the equation but for the rare exception like Silver, and even then it took her battering on the walls before she was reluctantly let in to that privileged Old Boys Network. Her path to breaking in was to learn her writing and directing chops in theater and television. It was her ability to write that got her a seat at the table if not at the head of the table. She had to make her own way the hard way. She’s lived long enough to see progress, if not enough yet, for women directors to now be almost commonplace.

Alexander Payne’s cinephile development came right in the middle of the New Hollywood revolution and his entrance into the industry happened right on the wave of the indie film explosion. But like Silver before him, there was no visible Hollywood presence around him when he was coming of age here as a cineaste. No one was making anything like grade A feature films locally. The industry was remote and disconnected from places like Nebraska. His entry into the industry was his student thesis film. But it wasn’t until he wrote “Citizen Ruth” and got financing for it that he arrived.

Dan Mirvish is another Omahan from the same generation as Payne whose directorial efforts bear discussion. He’s actually been the most ingenious in pulling projects together and getting them seen. None of his films have yet crossed over in the way that Silver’s, Payne’s and Fackler’s have, but he and his work are never less than interesting. He, too, is a writer-director.

A generation later, Nik Fackler came of age when the new crop of filmmakers were coming from film schools as well as the worlds of commercials and music videos. But just as Silver and Payne used their writing talents to get their feet in the door and their first films made, so did Fackler. His script for “Lovely, Still” was good enough to attract a pair of Oscar-winning legends in Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn. He directed those Actors Studio stalwarts when he was in his early 20s. He was much younger than Payne and Silver were when they directed their first films but he had the advantage of having directed several short films and music videos as his film education. He also had the advantage of having seen a fellow Omaha native in Payne enjoy breakout success. But where Payne and Silver followed up their debut feature films with more projects that further propelled their careers, Fackler did not, It’s been nearly a decade since “Lovely, Still” and many of us are eager to see if Fackler can recapture the magic he found so early.

I find it interesting that Fackler, Payne and Silver all tackled tough subjects for their first features:
Alzheimer’s in Fackler’s “Lovely, Still”
Abortion in Payne’s “Citizen Ruth”
Jewish immigrant experience in “Hester Street”

Whereas Payne and Fackler have made most of their films in Nebraska, Silver, despite a desire to do so, has never shot here. There’s still time.

These three are not the only Nebraskans who’ve done meritorious work as directors, but they are in many ways the most emblematic of their times.

Wouldn’t it be fun to get Silver, Payne and Fackler on the same panel to discuss their adventures in filmmaking? I think so.

Meanwhile. a special screening of “Lovely, Still” in memory of Martin Landau is happening at Film Streams on Thursday, Oct. 12. Payne’s “Downsizing” is playing festivals in advance of its Dec. 22 national release. And Silver’s films can be found via different platforms, though a retrospective of her work here is long overdue.

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