A sensitivity to cultural differences, a playful looseness with actors, and a nose for the churn and thrust of interpersonal relationships were among the characteristics of the film-maker Joan Micklin Silver, who has died aged 85 of vascular dementia. She was 40 when she made her debut with Hester Street (1975), the story of a young Russian-Jewish woman arriving in late-19th-century New York only to struggle to match her husband’s aplomb in adapting to their adopted culture.
Shot in black and white and scripted largely in Yiddish with subtitles, the film was self-distributed by her husband, Raphael D Silver, known as Ray, who worked in real estate. He volunteered to produce it after being appalled by the sexist responses his wife received; one studio executive had told her that “women directors are just one more problem we don’t need”. The picture attracted rapturous reviews, recouped its entire $365,000 production costs in five weeks, went on to make nearly $5m and earned an Oscar nomination for its 23-year-old star, Carol Kane.
Silver’s most popular effort was the romantic comedy Crossing Delancey (1988), starring Amy Irving as Izzy, a bookseller whose meddling grandmother, or bubbe, played by the lively Yiddish theatre veteran Reizl Bozyk, hires a matchmaker on her behalf. “Ya look, ya meet, ya try, ya see,” says the blowsy broker (Sylvia Miles), playing Cupid several decades before Tinder. Izzy has her doubts about Sam (Peter Riegert), who runs a stall promising “a joke and a pickle for only a nickel”, but no reasonable viewer would swipe left on the film.
Its charm arises from the unforced ebb and flow of the central romance, as well as from Silver’s vivid sense of place and Jewishness. The immigrant neighbourhoods on the Lower East Side of New York are no mere backdrop but an integral part of the action, pulling Izzy back to her roots and providing a boisterous contrast with the sophisticated haunts near her Upper East Side workplace. Shoppers go elbow-to-elbow for bargains at Korean markets, while a dolled-up crooner performs an impromptu rendition of Some Enchanted Evening in a crowded fast-food joint, causing a nearby hip-hop enthusiast to silence his boom-box in a show of respect.
The film, scripted by Susan Sandler from her own play, met with unanimous rejections from studios and might never have been made at all but for the intervention of Steven Spielberg, Irving’s husband at the time; he put in a word for Silver at Warner Bros, which promptly stumped up the budget. Among the movie’s admirers was Sheila Benson at the LA Times, who called it an “unqualified pleasure”.
Silver was born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska, the daughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants. Her maternal family had settled in Kansas City when her mother, Doris (nee Shoshone), was still a child; her father, Maurice Micklin, who later ran a lumber company, arrived in Omaha at the age of 12. Stories he told her would influence Hester Street, which she adapted from Abraham Cahan’s 1896 novel Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto.
She was educated at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. Soon after graduation, she married Raphael, the son of the rabbi and Zionist leader Abba Hillel Silver. She worked in theatre and taught music, then got several studio screenwriting jobs, though these were largely frustrating experiences in which she was fired or rewritten. Her own short films, including The Case of the Elevator Duck (1974), did nothing to kindle the industry’s interest in her. For Barbara Loden, the director of Wanda (1970), she wrote the short The Frontier Experience (1975). Following the success of Hester Street, she directed Shelley Duvall in a television adaptation of F Scott Fitzgerald’s story Bernice Bobs Her Hair (1976).
Silver’s second feature, Between the Lines (1977), was a fond but not uncritical portrait of the disaffected staff at a formerly radical, fictional alt-weekly Boston newspaper, from the street-corner hawker all the way up to accounts, editorial and the much-despised incoming corporate boss. The young, hungry cast, which included John Heard, Lindsay Crouse and Jeff Goldblum, got around union limits on working hours by meeting Silver for casual coffee afternoons which developed into surreptitious rehearsal sessions. Silver’s sympathy for radicalism, and her deft cutting between different pockets of action unfolding in the same space, lent the film an Altmanesque feel.
She cast Heard in her next film, Chilly Scenes of Winter, which the studio United Artists put out in 1979 with a compromised ending and an insipid title (Head Over Heels). Its intended starkness was restored in a 1982 release made possible by its tenacious producers, including the actor Griffin Dunne, who had a small part in the film. Silver was still dealing with romantic imbroglios but there was a tougher edge to the material, and to Heard, whose hostility surfaces in sotto voce asides which leave us not quite believing our ears.
The TV movie Finnegan Begin Again (1985) was warmly received, though the director had her hands full placating a difficult star, Mary Tyler Moore, who threatened to quit. Silver also made repeated forays into theatre, including Maybe I’m Doing It Wrong, a 1982 revue set to Randy Newman’s songs. Later film work did not match the acclaim of her first four pictures. She could do nothing, for instance, to spice up Loverboy (1989), an oddly chaste comedy with Patrick Dempsey as a pizza delivery driver offering side orders of sex.
Though Silver was described in a 1983 German documentary as “one of the major figures of the new independent cinema,” her name was overlooked in most subsequent surveys of the landscape, and she remained a cherished but well-kept secret. Her fans included Noah Baumbach, the director of Marriage Story (2019), who chose Chilly Scenes of Winter as part of a recent season he programmed at the Metrograph cinema in New York.
Reflecting in 2005 on the years it took for that picture to find its audience, Silver sounded an optimistic note: “The great thing about films is they live. And maybe they don’t live right away, maybe they hibernate for a while. But then they’re there.”
Ray died in 2013. She is survived by their daughters, Claudia, Dina and Marisa.
• Joan Micklin Silver, film director, born 24 May 1935; died 31 December 2020