Omaha, Nebraska, 24 May 1935.
Studied at Sarah Lawrence College, New York, B.A., 1956.
Married Raphael D. Silver, three daughters.
Freelance writer for an educational film company, New York, from 1967;
directed first feature,
, 1974; directed
Chilly Scenes of Winter
for United Artists, 1979, studio changed the title and the ending, but
released it in its original form in 1982; director for stage and TV,
Immigrant Experience: The Long Long Journey (short)
Hester Street (+ sc)
Bernice Bobs Her Hair (for TV)
Between the Lines
Chilly Scenes of Winter ( Head over Heels ) (+ sc)
Finnegan, Begin Again (for TV)
"Parole Board" segment of Prison Stories: Women on the Inside
Big Girls Don't Cry . . . They Get Even ( Stepkids ); A Private Matter (for TV)
In the Presence of Mine Enemies (for TV)
A Fish in the Bathtub ; Invisible Child (for TV)
Limbo ( Women in Limbo ) (Robson) (co-sc)
On the Yard (Silver) (prod)
A—My Name Is Still Alice: A Musical Revue , with Julianne Boyd, London, 1993.
"On Hester Street ," an interview with Raphael Silver, in American Film , October 1975.
Interview in Image et Son (Paris), November 1975.
"Dialogue on Film: Joan Micklin Silver," in American Film (Los Angeles), May 1989.
Interview with Graham Fuller in the Independent (London), 7 April 1989.
Interview in American Film (Los Angeles), May 1989.
Cohen, Sarah Blacher, From Hester Street to Hollywood: The Jewish-American Stage and Screen , Bloomington, Indiana, 1983.
Squire, Jason, E., The Movie Business Book , Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1983.
Wood, Robin, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan , New York, 1986.
Michel, S., " Yekl and Hester Street : Was Assimilation Really Good for the Jews?" in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury), Spring 1997.
Buckley, Michael, "Chilly Scenes of Winter," in Films in Review (New York), October 1982.
Bordat, Francis, "Le melting-pot américain et les métèques hollywoodiens," in Cinémaction (Courbevoie), July 1990.
* * *
Undoubtedly, the impact of the feminist movement during the 1960s and early 1970s was instrumental in making it possible for women to establish themselves as directors by the latter half of the 1970s. Joan Micklin Silver was one of the first to do so. Silver's films aren't explicitly feminist in content, but she consistently displays an awareness of and sensitivity to women's identities and concerns.
As in her initial effort, Hester Street , Silver's films have tended to be intimate character studies centred on heterosexual relationships that are in a transitional process. In several of the films, Silver, while not minimizing her significance, decentres the film's female protagonist: in Finnegan, Begin Again , for example, the Robert Preston character dominates the narrative. But the two most striking examples are the films featuring John Heard, Between the Lines and Chilly Scenes of Winter. In both films, Heard plays a character with similar characteristics: a tendency to be possessive about the woman he professes to love and a casting of the relationship in the terms of romantic love. In Chilly Scenes of Winter , Heard imbues the film with his consciousness. His fantasy regarding a meeting with the Mary Beth Hurt character is visualized and he frequently directly addresses the viewer, providing access to his mental and/or emotional responses to a specific situation. By the film's conclusion, Heard has relinquished his romantic passion, but not without undergoing a considerable psychic and emotional strain. While Hurt rejects Heard and his overwhelming demands, she appears, on the other hand, to have no clearly formed idea of what she either wants or needs from a love relationship. Interestingly, the film does not imply that Hurt's uncertainty is a negative condition—she is just beginning to discover that she can explore the range of sexual and/or romantic involvements available to a contemporary woman.
In Chilly Scenes of Winter , the most complex and disturbing of her films, Silver indicates that from Hurt's point of view romantic love is oppressive and destructive; in Crossing Delancey , Silver employs a woman, the Amy Irving character, to investigate what could be called a romantic "perception" about possible relationships. Irving rejects the Peter Riegert character before she gets to know him on the grounds that the conditions of their meeting and his profession preclude the possibility of a romance between them. To an extent, Irving's rejection is motivated by her desire to distance herself from her Jewish ghetto origins. In Silver's films, a character's attitude to his or her origins, profession, etc., is often shown to be a contributing factor in the shaping of the romantic fantasy. In the Heard films, the character is frustrated by ( Between the Lines ) or indifferent to ( Chilly Scenes of Winter ) his professional life. In Crossing Delancey , it is only after Irving distinguishes between her romantic notions of appropriate partners and the reality of the Riegert character that a romance between the two can develop.
With Lover Boy , Silver addresses another aspect of the thematic: a young man, played by Patrick Dempsey, learns gradually through his experiences as the paid lover of a number of frustrated married women that sexual desire, pleasure, and fulfillment are enriched by having a romantic attitude towards intimate relationships (in courting women, Dempsey's musical tastes move from heavy metal to Fred Astaire). Silver's films feature a continual probing of what the romantic means—the various dimensions of the concept and its possible significance to both of the sexes. As a concept, the romantic ideal is not gender specific, and it is treated as something that can be either negative or positive in application.
In Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan , Robin Wood argues that Chilly Scenes of Winter , to be fully appreciated, needs to be read in relation to the generic expectations it in part fulfills but also undermines. Wood's contention that the film belongs to the classical Hollywood tradition of the light comedy is well-taken; essentially, the same can be said of both Crossing Delancey , which is a reworking of the classical romantic comedy, and Lover Boy , which has its antecedents in the 1930s screwball comedy. (Similarly, Silver's graceful but unobtrusive mise-en-scène is a reflection of the classical filmmaking tradition.) In making this claim, it is important to indicate that the films are not evoking these classical genres for nostalgic purposes; instead, the films, while utilizing the structural strengths and comic potentials of the generic formulas, are offering a contemporary vision of the tensions underpinning heterosexual relations, and Silver's films predominantly respond to these tensions in a progressive manner. From this perspective, Silver's films can be compared to Woody Allen's light romantic comedies ( Annie Hall, Manhattan, Broadway Danny Rose ), though of the two directors, Silver is much less sentimental and precious about her characters (particularly in her treatment of the films' male protagonists).
As more women directors emerge both outside and within the Hollywood establishment, Silver has come to be regarded as an elder statesman of women filmmakers. One of this new breed is her daughter, Marisa, whose films include Old Enough , Permanent Record , Vital Signs , and He Said, She Said (the latter co-directed with Ken Kwapis).
Silver's lone feature after Loverboy is Big Girls Don't Cry . . . They Get Even , released in 1992 but screened the preceding year as Stepkids. It is a comedy that charts the plight of Laura (Hilary Wolf), a teen with a large family—and big problems. While a genial, generally likable film, it is far from Silver's best work, as it often plays like a television situation comedy, complete with overly adorable or precocious children and a too neatly wrapped-up finale.
In the last twenty years, Silver has produced a small but personal and distinguished body of work. She remains an underrated filmmaker; in part, this may be due to the fact that her films are not big-budget projects or star vehicles. (Consistently, her films are conceived as ensemble pieces and contain beautifully judged performances.) It may also be due to the fact that the tone of Silver's films tends to be decidedly off-beat: although the films are clearly "serious" examinations of the complexities of heterosexual relations, Silver infuses them with a slightly absurdist humour. On the one hand, this may produce a distancing effect that alienates the viewer. But it also allows the viewer to take a more contemplative attitude towards her depiction of the often aching pleasures involved in love relationships.
—Richard Lippe, updated by Rob Edelman