Silver, Joan Micklin (1935—)

views updated

Silver, Joan Micklin (1935—)

American film producer, screenwriter, and director. Born Joan Micklin on May 24, 1935, in Omaha, Nebraska; daughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants Maurice David Micklin (a businessman) and Doris (Shoshone) Micklin; Sarah Lawrence College, B.A., 1956; married Raphael D. Silver (b. 1930, a real estate entrepreneur), on June 28, 1956; children: Dina Silver (a producer); Marisa Silver (a director); Claudia Silver (a director).

Selected filmography:

(writer) Limbo (also known as Chained to Yesterday and Women in Limbo, 1972); (director and writer) Hester Street (1975); (director and writer for television) Bernice Bobs Her Hair (1976); (director) Between the Lines (1977); (producer) On the Yard (1979); (director and writer) Head Over Heels (1979, re-released as Chilly Scenes of Winter, 1982); (director for television) How to Be a Perfect Person in Just Three Days (1983); (director for television) Finnegan Begin Again (1985); (director) Crossing Delancey (1988); (director) Loverboy (1990); (director of Segment 2 for television) Prison Stories: Women on the Inside (1991); (director for television) Big Girls Don't Cry … They Get Even (also known as Stepkids, 1992); (director for television) A Private Matter (1992); (director for television) In the Presence of Mine Enemies (1997); (director for television) Invisible Child (1999); (director) A Fish in the Bathtub (1999).

Although Joan Micklin Silver's directorial debut in 1975's Hester Street garnered a mixed critical reception, audiences loved the film and turned the self-financed venture into a multimillion-dollar sleeper. Silver defied moviemaking convention with this gritty, unsentimental, black-and-white chronicle of Jewish immigrant life on the Lower East Side of New York at the turn of the 20th century. Prevailing against the industry's widespread sexism, she has directed a body of work that explores individual relationships, frequently within the context of ethnicity and the clash of cultures.

Joan Micklin was born to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents on May 24, 1935, in Omaha, Nebraska. She grew up on movies, going to double features several times a week. In 1956, a few weeks after her graduation from Sarah Lawrence College as a student of literature and music, she married Harvard-educated real estate entrepreneur Raphael Silver, whose father was a Cleveland, Ohio, rabbi. The couple settled in Cleveland, where Silver wrote for community theater, taught music to disturbed children, and gave birth to three daughters: Dina, Marisa, and Claudia. The family moved to New York City in 1967, and she contributed to the Village Voice and scripted short educational pieces for the Encyclopaedia Britannica while trying to interest Hollywood in one of her screenplays.

Silver's first foray into feature films was her 1972 co-authorship with Linda Gottlieb (who would produce Dirty Dancing in 1987) of Limbo, a story about the wives of men being held as prisoners-of-war in Vietnam. Universal Studios bought the property but then rewrote the film and gave it to director Mark Robson, whose directorial vision Silver did not share. After this disappointing experience, Silver realized that the only way to preserve the integrity of her artistic vision was to become a director herself.

She then wrote and directed several educational and documentary shorts for the Learning Corporation of America, hoping to land directorial opportunities in mainstream feature filmmaking. Her short work, The Immigrant Experience (which documents the 1907 arrival in America of a Polish Catholic family and is generally considered the precursor of Hester Street), elicited a favorable critical response and won several awards, but it failed to establish Silver as a promising writer or director. Frustrated by the film industry's widespread sexism, Silver and her husband formed Midwest Film Productions, which enabled her to create her own filmmaking opportunities. Raphael took time off from his successful real-estate ventures to raise money for what would be his wife's first feature, Hester Street.

Silver based Hester Street on the 1896 novella Yekl by Abraham Cahan, a storyteller who chronicled Jewish immigrant life in New York City. Drawing upon a universal theme, the clash between old and new traditions, the film features the slick young immigrant Jake (Steven Keats) striving to shed his Old World traditions by adopting those of his progressive new home. After his tedious sweatshop job, he spends his evenings at a dancing academy and begins an affair with the decidedly progressive and penny-wise Mamie (Dorrie Kavanaugh ), a Polish-Jewish immigrant with dreams of starting her own dancing academy. Jake's timid and pious wife Gitl (Carol Kane , who earned an Oscar nomination for her performance) also arrives in America with their son, only to further remind Jake of the Old World conventions he seeks to escape. Gitl eventually divorces Jake and shrewdly ends up with Mamie's nest egg. Growing ever stronger and more independent, she begins her own romance with Bernstein, the cerebral and scholarly boarder (Mel Howard) whose values more closely resemble her own. Distributors initially dismissed Hester Street as an "ethnic oddity," but after its strong receptions at the Dallas and Cannes Film Festivals, the film became the surprise hit of the season, turning the modest $370,000 venture into a $5-million property that was released in 20 other countries.

Still ignored by the major film studios, Silver turned to public television in 1976 with Bernice Bobs Her Hair, a 45-minute film which she wrote and directed, based on a story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The Silvers also had to use the profits from Hester Street to finance their 1977 project Between the Lines, a film in which the characters nostalgically long for the 1960s. The movie, which features John Heard and Lindsay Crouse , unknown actors at the time, elicited a generally favorable reaction from critics. Silver then began work on filming Chilly Scenes of Winter, based on a novel by Ann Beattie , in which the characters again lament the onset of the 1970s. Released in 1979 by distributors as Head Over Heels to a disappointing reception, it was re-released under its original title in 1982, minus the puzzlingly happy ending. Although the film garnered a more generous critical response, it burdened Silver with the label of spokesperson for her generation.

Several of Silver's films are romantic comedies in which she simply transcends the genre. In a 1985 work for television, Finnegan Begin Again, directed by Silver, a 65-year-old award-winning journalist (Robert Preston) who writes an increasingly bitter advice column for the lovelorn while caring for his sickly wife, embarks upon a relationship with a vibrant middle-aged teacher (Mary Tyler Moore ) who is involved in a comfortable but unsatisfactory affair with a married man. Returning to the clash between old-fashioned and modern traditions, Silver's 1988 Crossing Delancey concerns a young Jewish professional whose grandmother hopes to marry her off via a marriage broker. Hampered by a desire to distance herself from the Old World of her Jewish origins, the main character (Amy Irving ) must also distinguish between her romantic notions and reality before she can fall in love. And in 1990, Silver created Loverboy in which Patrick Dempsey in the title role of a paid escort to frustrated married women discovers how romance can enrich even the most shallow of his relationships. Comparing Silver's work in the genre of romantic comedy to that of Woody Allen, Richard Lippe and Rob Edelman suggest that her films, "while utilizing the structural strengths and comic potentials of the generic formulas, are offering a contemporary vision of the tensions underpinning heterosexual relations, and … predominately respond to these tensions in a progressive manner." However, unlike Allen, "Silver is much less sentimental and precious about her characters."

During the 1980s, Silver also renewed her activities in theater, developing and directing the musical revue Maybe I'm Doing It Wrong, based on the work of songwriter Randy Newman, and the feminist revue A … My Name Is Alice, with Julianne Boyd , which featured songs and short sketches by several contributors. According to Ally Acker, as a feminist, Silver prefers to express her philosophy subtly in her work rather than by creating films that present women only in powerful and successful positions. Her own success as a director, however, has enabled her to hire other women to work on the production crews of her films. And she has encouraged her own daughters to enter the profession—all three are either directors or producers—the most prominent of whom is director Marisa Silver , whose films include Old Enough, Permanent Record, Vital Signs, and He Said She Said.


Acker, Ally. Reel Women. NY: Continuum, 1991.

Edelman, Rob, and Richard Lippe, in Women Filmmakers and Their Films. Edited by Gwendolyn A. Foster and Katrien Jacobs. Detroit; MI: St. James Press, 1998.

Foster, Gwendolyn A. Women Film Directors: An International Bio-critical Film Dictionary. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995.

Wakeman, John, ed. World Film Directors, Volume II, 1945–1985. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1988.

Howard Gofstein , freelance writer, Detroit, Michigan