Joan Micklin Silver, boundary-breaking director of Crossing Delancey, dies at 85
Joan Micklin Silver, director of the acclaimed romantic comedy Crossing Delancey and the boundary-breaking independent film Hester Street, died Thursday of vascular dementia at her Manhattan home, according to her daughter. She was 85.
Silver helped break barriers for female filmmakers and for Jewish representation on screen, with Hester Street, her 1975 debut, telling the story of a young Russian Jewish immigrant couple on New York's Lower East Side in the 1890s. Silver’s husband Raphael D. Silver, a commercial real estate developer, raised the $320,000 budget himself to help support his wife's burgeoning career in an industry rife with sexism.
"Although I could get work as a writer, I couldn't get work as a director at all," Silver recalled in a 2005 Directors Guild of America interview. "I had the experience of watching young men who had made prize-winning shorts, as I had, moving on to directing films, and I couldn't do it. And my husband became angry. He said, 'Maybe you can do it, maybe you can't, but everybody should have a chance to try for the brass ring.'"
The black-and-white, Yiddish-language film (with English subtitles) was a highly personal project — Silver's parents were Russian immigrants who came to the U.S. as children — and faced resistance from studios. (“Nobody wanted to release it,” Silver said in the DGA interview.) She and her husband independently distributed Hester Street, which won critical acclaim, grossed $5 million, and earned star Carol Kane an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.
Nevertheless, the same resistance arose again in the 1980s when Silver wanted to make Crossing Delancey, a rom-com based on a play by Susan Sandler about a New York bookstore employee (Amy Irving) with traditional Jewish roots. With support from Irving's then-husband, Steven Spielberg, the film was produced at Warner Bros. and grossed more than $116 million worldwide (about $255 million today).
Born Joan Micklin in Omaha, Silver attended Sarah Lawrence College in New York and directed plays in Cleveland before moving to New York City to pursue a filmmaking career. Before Hester Street, she collaborated with Linda Gottlieb on the documentary short The Immigrant Experience and the screenplay Limbo, sold to Universal in the 1970s, about the wives of prisoners of war in Vietnam.
Silver ultimately directed seven feature films, including 1977's ensemble piece Between the Lines and the 1989 Patrick Dempsey rom-com Loverboy, as well as several TV movies and the successful musical review A... My Name Is Alice on stage. She retained an independent streak throughout her career, remarking that “The more I’m left alone, the better I do” in the DGA interview.
"It isn’t that I think I’m smarter than anyone or anything like that," she added. "It’s just what whatever my instincts are, it’s better for me to be able to put those into play in my own work."
Silver is survived by three daughters, a sister, and five grandchildren. Her husband died at 83 in 2013 after a skiing accident in Park City, Utah.