Joan Micklin Silver

Filmmaker
1935 – 2020

by Linda Gottlieb

Joan Micklin Silver was my business partner for a bunch of years, but she was my friend for a bunch of decades. We both got our stuttering starts together in the film business, and in the absence of mentors–because there were none for women in film back then–we became each other’s mentors. Haltingly, fumblingly, daringly–helped mainly by Joan’s husband, Ray–we created ourselves, looking to each other for courage because there was really no one else.

It was the mid 1960’s. I had just been hired at Learning Corporation of America, the newly-created educational film division of Columbia Pictures. My boss saw something in me that I certainly didn’t see in myself because he gave me a yearly budget and told me to think of film ideas that could be produced as dramatic shorts and sold into schools. I began to meet writers and look for new directors; it was then that I met Joan. We were introduced at a party by Joan Ganz Cooney, not yet of Sesame Street fame. Everyone was on the brink, but none of us knew it.

Joan was taller than I was, so I had to look up to talk to her, but I was immediately struck by the intent way she had of listening, her eyes lighting up with interest. Even though she didn’t know what she wanted to do–maybe write, she said–there was a confidence about her, the sense of a strong presence. She and her husband Ray had just moved from Cleveland. She was in love with her new home, New York, eager to find her place in it. We became pals. 

One day our two families were at the beach and she said idly, “Why don’t we write something together?” “I don’t know enough words–I’d have to use some twice,” I replied. “How about you write something and I’ll produce it?” We laughed and scampered into the waves. That evening Ray Silver called me. “I’ve started lots of businesses. I think you and Joan would be a great team. If you do this, I’ll back you.” Flabbergasted by his confidence, when Joan called with an idea for a feature film about the wives of MIA soldiers during the Vietnam War and asked if I was interested in producing it, I immediately agreed. “Limbo” was born. 

Joan had never written a film script before; I had little idea of what a producer did, but we vowed we would learn together. We worked collaboratively, she writing draft after draft of the script, me trying to meet anyone I could who might help us get it made. Ray’s advice was crucial: “If you’re going to fail, fail quickly. ‘Yes’ is a good answer and so is ‘no.’ ‘I’m waiting to hear,’ is a waste of time. Just collect the ‘no’s and move on.” Joan’s script for “Limbo” was rejected by every studio, every Hollywood star and any director I managed to get it to. As a last-ditch effort, I sent it to publishing houses. To my astonishment Viking called and offered us a lowball deal to turn it into a novel. I now called every person who had turned down the script, told them we had just made a major publishing deal, the terms of which I was not at liberty to say. Suddenly Hollywood was interested. Universal Studios invited Joan and me to fly to L.A. to meet with director Mark Robson, who was hot off directing “Valley of the Dolls.”

It was our first trip to Hollywood. We dressed in our best suits and went in to meet with Robson and his business partner. “Come in, girls!” they greeted us.The meeting was full of men and pleasantries. At the end, after saying how wonderful it would be for us all to do this project together, they dismissed us with a breezy, “Goodbye, girls!” In the parking lot of Universal, Joan turned to me and said, “I just realized why they call us ‘girls.’ It’s because they can’t tell us apart. We have to help them. From now on, I’ll wear pants and you wear a skirt.” And so we did from then on.

Joan’s script for “Limbo” was completely rewritten by the studio, she was told to stay off the set during shooting, and “Limbo” quickly disappeared from theaters. Joan was heartbroken. But she was also tough. The big lesson she got from the failure of “Limbo” was not that she was a bad writer, but that if she wanted to have her vision up on the screen, she would need to control things. And to control things, you had to become a director. In 1972, in a male-dominated industry, she had a remarkably bold vision.

I still had my job at Learning Corporation of America, where I had slated a film to be made with the tentative title, “The Immigrant Experience.” No writer or director had yet been picked. Galvanized by Joan’s determination to direct, we formed a company, Omaha Orange Pictures, because she was from Omaha and I was from South Orange, N.J. With a budget of $20,000 that I convinced my boss to give us, Joan was directing her first film.

The story focused on a Polish Jewish family. Joan’s father, who had died when she was young, was an Eastern European Jew, and though she never talked of him much, I think she wanted to reimagine what he might have gone through. She did copious research, insisting on authenticity in every detail, a trait which would mark all her films. Unafraid to cast non-actors, Joan was exultant one day because she had found a real Polish cleaning lady to play the part of the Polish grandmother. Indeed she was perfect: an old woman with a heavily lined face and long stringy grey hair pulled into a bun. On the first day of shooting, our Polish cleaning lady arrived right on time, took off her hat and beamed at us. Now that she was a star, she had gotten a curly-haired permanent wave! A stunned silence followed. I could see Joan recalculating. Calmly she asked, “Will someone get a babushka, please?” Joan was always great in a crisis.

“The Immigrant Experience,” made in 1972, sparked Joan’s interest in Jewish life of that period and was the precursor to her great 1975 film, “Hester Street.” Joan was now, deservedly, on the nation’s cultural radar.  In film after film, I marvelled at her brilliant casting sense and her ability to uncover the emotional truths that women often hide. “Hester Street” and “Crossing Delancey,” her two best-known films, were both set in a Jewish world, and both fixed their gaze on a young woman’s inner life. Years later, so too did the film I went on to produce, “Dirty Dancing.” Perhaps it was Joan’s influence on me.

Abstract notions of feminism never interested Joan; specific women and their stories did. Yet without setting out to do so, Joan Silver influenced generations of women to come. She was a trail-blazer, a risk-taker, a champion of other women directors. And always as quietly confident as she was the day I met her some fifty years ago.

All in all, not bad for a “girl.”

Topics: Radio, Film, Plays
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Joan Micklin Silver couldn't interest a Hollywood studio in doing a film about early Eastern European immigrants to New York, which would incorporate some Yiddish. So she wrote, directed and co-produced Hester Street (1975) herself.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Joan Micklin Silver, 1935–2020." (Viewed on April 11, 2021) <https://jwa.org/weremember/silver-joan>.

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