With the release of her critically acclaimed film Hester Street in 1975, Joan Micklin Silver established herself as one of the country’s premier independent film directors. Working with her husband, Raphael Silver, as producer, Joan Silver defied film industry insiders who insisted that women were “one more problem” they didn’t need and that Jewish films would never reach a general audience. Hester Street, made without studio backing for a budget of $400,000, grossed $5 million in the United States. It garnered for Silver a Writers Guild nomination for best screenplay and for actress Carol Kane an Academy Award nomination for best actress.
Joan Micklin Silver was born in Omaha, Nebraska, on May 24, 1935, to Russian Jewish parents Maurice David and Doris (Shoshone) Micklin. She graduated from Omaha Central High School in 1952 and Sarah Lawrence College in 1956. Fresh out of college, she married Raphael D. Silver, son of Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver of Cleveland. The Silvers lived in Cleveland from 1956 to 1967 and raised three daughters there: Dina, (b. 1958), Marisa, (b. 1960), and Claudia, (b. 1963). Two of the three daughters now work in film, Marisa as a director and Dina as a producer.
In Cleveland, Silver taught music and wrote plays, five of which were performed at Cleveland theaters. Then in 1967, the Silvers moved to New York, and Silver began to write films for educational film companies. One of those companies, the Learning Corporation of America, commissioned her to write and direct films, among them The Immigrant Experience, which went on to win several awards. She wrote an original screenplay, Limbo, about the wives of prisoners of war in Vietnam, which was purchased by Universal Pictures and made into a film directed by Mark Robson. Silver clashed with the director over the character of the film’s heroine, whom she had scripted as a “spunky, terrific gal.” Refusing to do a rewrite to “soften” the character, Silver was fired, though she received story and coscripting credit in the final film.
When her success as a writer and director failed to bring her work in feature films, Silver decided to write and direct her own film. Her husband agreed to raise the money for the film and serve as its producer. The film became Hester Street, adapted by Silver from the 1890s novella Yekl by Abraham Cahan, later the editor of the Jewish Daily Forward. Interviewed by American Film magazine in 1989, Silver spoke about her choice of subject for Hester Street. “I thought, I’m going to make one that will count for my family. My parents were Russian Jewish, and my father was no longer living, but I cared a lot about the ties I had to that world. So that was how Hester Street started.”
Turned down by every major studio as an “ethnic oddity … a lovely film, but for a Jewish audience,” Hester Street was distributed by the Silvers, who had formed their own production and distribution company, Midwest Film Productions. Seen worldwide by Jewish and non-Jewish audiences, Hester Street sparked the beginning of renewed interest in the lives of immigrant Jews.
Despite the success of Hester Street, major studios still would not back Silver’s next film. Her second feature, Between the Lines (1977), about a group of people who work for an alternative newspaper in Boston, was once again produced by her husband. Her third feature, Chilly Scenes of Winter (originally released by United Artists as Head Over Heels in 1979, but retitled and rereleased by United Artists Classics in 1981), based on a short story by Ann Beattie, marked the beginning of Silver’s work with a movie studio.
Her next film with a Jewish topic, Crossing Delancey, a romantic comedy about an assimilated Jewish Manhattanite single (played by Amy Irving) and her Lower East Side pickle-selling boyfriend (played by Peter Riegert), was produced for Warner Brothers and released in 1988. Other films include Loverboy (1989) for Tri-Star and Big Girls Don’t Cry … They Get Even (1992) for New Line. Silver directed, her husband produced (with their son-in-law as lead singer) the romantic comedy A Fish in the Bathtub, which was released in 1999.
Silver’s directing extends to theater as well. Her works include A … My Name Is Alice (1984), A … My Name Is Still Alice (1992), Album (1980), and Maybe I’m Doing It Wrong (1982). She has directed several films for television, among them Bernice Bobs Her Hair (1975), Finnegan Begin Again (1984), Parole Board (1990), A Private Matter (1992), In the Presence of Mine Enemies (1997), which takes place in the Warsaw Ghetto, and Charms for the Easy Life (2002).
In 1995, Silver directed a radio series (coproduced by the National Yiddish Book Center) for National Public Radio, Great Jewish Stories from Eastern Europe and Beyond.
As a successful director who often works outside the Hollywood studio system, Silver has been a pathbreaker. Garnering both awards and box office successes, she has shown not only that women can direct films but that films about Jewish topics can succeed with Jews and non-Jews alike. With a critical reputation for presenting characters with quirky intelligence, grace, and humor, Joan Micklin Silver has pursued a versatile career in film, television, theater, and radio and has opened doors for others who are seen by movie studios as “outsiders.”
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How to cite this page
Booth, Marlene. "Joan Micklin Silver." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 20 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on August 7, 2020) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/silver-joan-micklin>.