Beyond the Lines: Joan Micklin Silver, 1935-2020 | Features

Silver came up in the 1970s, when the old studio system lay in ruins and young, film-literate, independence-minded directors were remaking Hollywood on their own terms. All were men. And they were usually fans of genre movies—suspense, science fiction, fantasy, adventure, westerns, gangster pictures, war movies—who knew how to talk to the almost exclusively male ranks of studio executives and persuade them that whatever arty reinvention of a familiar genre that they had in mind could become a hit.

“Crossing Delancey”

Silver never made a genre movie, unless you count “a film set before the year of the director’s birth” as a genre. Some of her signature works were financed independently, piecemeal, then picked up for distribution after they were done. And yet her best-known features earned back anywhere from three to ten times their production costs, far beyond the three-times-the-budget threshold that’s typically agreed to constitute “a hit.” Adjusted for inflation, 1988’s “Crossing Delancey” made $125 million, the equivalent of $225 million in 2020 dollars, slightly less than “Get Out” and “Parasite.” “Hester Street” cost between $320-$350,000 and grossed $5 million. The melancholy and introspective relationship drama “Chilly Scenes of Winter,” based on the same-titled Anne Beattie novel, was retitled “Head Over Heels” and fitted with an inappropriate happy ending, both mandated by the distributor. It bombed. Silver recut and rereleased the film in 1982 under its original title with its original ending; it ended up earning $40 million, more than ten times its budget, and was eventually licensed to PBS, where it became so popular that stations ran it regularly throughout the 1980s to boost viewer donations during pledge drives. 

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Despite these successes and others, Silver was never recruited by a major studio to make an Oscar-baiting epic or a franchise picture; indeed, she had to continue to fight for every opportunity long after word had gotten out that she was fiscally responsible, had a populist touch, and was a superb director of actors. If Silver hadn’t been able to turn to her husband, commercial real estate developer Raphael D. Silver, for financing and distribution help when everyone turned down her pitch for “Hester Street” (they didn’t think a black-and-white 16mm period piece about Jewish people speaking subtitled Yiddish could be popular) it’s likely that the project never would have made it to the screen; Silver was vexed by the realization that, even though she was saved by her own connection to money, certain doors remained exceptionally difficult to open—and for other women filmmakers, as well as ethnic and racial and class outliers, they were locked and bolted. 

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