Won’t you raise a glass and sit a little shiva for Joan Micklin Silver, who died Dec. 31, at 85? A barrier-breaking filmmaker, she directed three of the finest movies of the late 1970s, one late-1980s romantic comedy that looks better with every passing year, and a little-known gem that was among HBO’s very first original films.
Would Silver’s filmography have been three times as long had she been a man? It’s impossible to dispute. “Women directors are one more problem we don’t need,” she recalled a studio executive telling her early on, and it says something that a career beginning with critically acclaimed theatrical releases ended up diverted to Lifetime movies and the Hallmark Channel. It’s also true that the fashion for Silver’s New Hollywood style of filmmaking — observational, funky, steeped in setting and character — was on the way out just as she was hitting her stride and the age of blockbusters dawned. Still, if “Star Wars” (1977) took place “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” you could say the same about Silver’s breakthrough, 1975′s “Hester Street.”
That film, a meticulous re-creation of New York’s Lower East Side, circa 1898, seemed to have come out of nowhere but was Joan Micklin Silver in a nutshell: very Jewish (“too ethnic,” pooh-poohed the distributors who passed on it) and attuned to the women in rooms full of noisy men. “Hester Street” appears to be the story of Jake (Steven Keats), an arrogantly confident immigrant making his way in America, but with the belated arrival from Russia of his wife, Gitl — the 21-year-old Carol Kane was Oscar-nominated for her performance — Silver focuses on a shy, strong, wide-eyed figure slowly coming into her own.
Shot in black-and-white in lower Manhattan, “Hester Street” feels at times like a silent film that has somehow found its voice. It’s a lovely film and, like too much of Silver’s work, it’s hard to find in the streaming age. (As of now, it’s available only on AppleTV and the subscription service Fandor.) Its success gave the director a chance to adapt an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story for PBS: “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” (1976), starring Shelley Duvall and available (in a faded, grainy print) on the Kanopy public-library service. It, too, is tuned into the diplomacy of womanhood — in this case a gaggle of wannabe flappers jockeying for social status — and so was her next theatrical release, “Between the Lines” (1977).
But, wait, isn’t that about the ensemble bustle in the offices and bedrooms of the Boston Main Line, a fictional counterculture weekly modeled on the city’s late, lamented Real Paper? True enough, and the film (which can be rented on a number of platforms and is currently streaming on connoisseur’s choice The Criterion Channel) is a swooning time-capsule showcase for young actors like John Heard, Jeff Goldblum (hilarious as the staff rock critic), Stephen Collins, and Bruno Kirby — not to mention a Boston before the fall of the Central Artery and the rise of the yuppies. But what interests Silver is the drama on the faces of the women who have to live and work with those men — the journalists and photographers played by Lindsay Crouse and Gwen Welles and Jill Eikenberry. If Robert Altman had been a woman, he might have made something like this. (He certainly wouldn’t have used Welles as cruelly as he did in “Nashville.”)
Silver’s next film was even more misunderstood. An adaptation of the Ann Beattie novel “Chilly Scenes of Winter,” it was released in 1979 under the title “Head Over Heels” with a climactic reconciliation scene between the lovestruck obsessive played (brilliantly) by John Heard and the ex-lover (Mary Beth Hurt) he’s spent the entire running time trying to woo back. The movie flopped. Three years later it was renamed with the novel’s title, re-released with the final scene excised, and found new life as a darkly comic cult item. It’s maybe Silver’s most incisive work, empathetic toward the charming stalker who’s supposed to be the hero but even more so for the beleaguered and self-loathing object of his affections. It makes every male-directed variation on this theme look like enablement and — surprise! — it’s unavailable for streaming anywhere but a pretty decent dub on YouTube (where you can also find that cut ending, which now plays like a fantasia in the male lead’s overheated mind).
Her next two films balanced the scales to some degree. “Finnegan Begin Again” (1985) is a lost film that can only be seen in grainy copies on YouTube, but this made-for-HBO comedy-drama offers one of the last great performances from Robert Preston (“The Music Man”), as an out-to-pasture newspaperman whose friendship with a younger woman (Mary Tyler Moore, then 49 to Preston’s 67) deepens toward love. There are a million ways that story line could go, most of them sticky, but Walter Lockwood’s lightly tough-minded screenplay is beautifully finessed by Silver’s sensitive direction and the cast’s nimble performances. And, again, while the focus is on Preston’s ebullient roué, Moore’s playing of a smart, insecure woman stuck in an affair with a married man (Sam Waterston) has a plangent depth unlike anything else in her career.
We see that depth once more and possibly for the last time in “Crossing Delancey” (1988), Silver’s biggest hit and one of her final movies for a major studio. It’s a revisit to the Lower East Side of “Hester Street” but 90 years later, when an uptown girl (Amy Irving) comes downtown to visit her bubbe (Reizl Boyzk, a yenta and a delight) and gets set up with the local pickle man (Peter Reigert). Based on a play by Susan Sandler, “Delancey” was initially deemed “too ethnic” (again) to produce, until the star’s then-husband, Steven Spielberg, had a little chat with his neighbor, an executive at Warner Brothers.
Seen today — it can be rented on most streaming platforms — the film’s an intensely nostalgic tour through a vanished New York of aging immigrants and independent bookstores. It’s also the rare Joan Micklin Silver movie where the heroine’s a bit of a pill, blind to the dry, lucid charms of Reigert’s Sam — the menschiest of mensches — while chasing a bad boy author (Jeroen Krabbe) the wrong way up the island. But that’s part of a woman’s lot, too, the movie suggests — doubling down on the bad choices because they’re your own until you have to cave into the better idea, against your instincts but according to your heart. That’s what links Irving’s Izzy to Carol Kane’s Gitl in “Hester Street,” and to all of Joan Micklin Silver’s heroines, winging it in new worlds the best they can. They live, they breathe, they forge ahead. There should have been a lot more of them.