Ms. Silver launched her filmmaking career in New York in the early 1970s, at a time when relatively few movies were being released theatrically and the industry was dominated by young male directors. While screenwriting work was available to women, directing was all but impossible.
“I remember going to see one producer from one of the studios,” Ms. Silver later told Filmmaker magazine, “and he said to me, ‘Feature films are expensive to make and expensive to market and women directors are one more problem we don’t need.’ ”
With financial support and encouragement from her husband, real estate developer Raphael D. Silver, Ms. Silver forged ahead, making her feature-film debut with “Hester Street” (1975), based on a novel by Abraham Cahan about Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
Written and directed by Ms. Silver, who had grown up listening to her father’s stories of emigrating from Russia and working as a street peddler as a young man, the film was shot in black and white for less than $400,000, with much of the dialogue in Yiddish. Distributors were aghast, Ms. Silver recalled; some dismissed it as an “ethnic oddity,” insisting it was fit only for release in “the synagogue market.”
But the movie was selected for the Cannes Film Festival and drew critical acclaim, earning Carol Kane an Oscar nomination for best actress. “The effect of seeing ‘Hester Street’ is that of seeing a familiar play . . . lit up by an intent and flowering mind,” wrote New York Times reviewer Richard Eder.
Ms. Silver came to prominence in the midst of the women’s movement, alongside female directors such as Elaine May, Claudia Weill and her friend Barbara Loden, whose then-husband Elia Kazan offered advice during the making of “Hester Street.” Like them, she often told stories centered around women, directing intimate character studies that were far warmer than many of the movies directed by her male peers.
“Many film people seem superdecadent, into the undersides of human nature, which means that audiences are often starved for a feeling of humanity,” she once told The Washington Post. She added: “A lot of what happens in film is an outgrowth of your personality. So many directors have that cynical and alienated quality, the idea that everyone’s a rotter. I just don’t happen to feel that way.”
Ms. Silver went on to direct movies such as “Between the Lines” (1977), an ensemble comedy featuring John Heard, Lindsay Crouse, Stephen Collins and Jeff Goldblum as journalists at a Boston alt-weekly, and “Chilly Scenes of Winter” (1979), based on Ann Beattie’s debut novel.
The latter starred Heard as a romantic civil servant obsessed with winning back his ex-girlfriend (Mary Beth Hurt) and marked Ms. Silver’s first movie for a major studio. Released by United Artists, it was originally titled “Head Over Heels” and bombed at the box office, closing in New York theaters after just five weeks.
It was rereleased three years later to a warmer reception, with a new title and ending, and followed by “Crossing Delancey” (1988), which starred Amy Irving as Izzy Grossman, a bookstore worker who falls for a Lower East Side pickle salesman (Peter Riegert). Director Steven Spielberg, who was then married to Irving, encouraged Warner Bros. to finance the film, which grossed more than $16 million and became Ms. Silver’s biggest hit.
The film was both distinctly Jewish, featuring a neighborhood matchmaker and an old-world bubbe, and thoroughly New York; in one scene, Irving’s character stops for dinner at a Papaya Dog, then sets aside her hot dog to watch a street performer sing “Some Enchanted Evening.”
“All the different aspects of Izzy’s busy, contradiction-filled life are carefully drawn, giving the film a realistic, well-populated feeling and a nicely wry view of the modern world,” wrote Times film critic Janet Maslin. Ms. Silver and screenwriter Susan Sandler, she added, “manage to combine a down-to-earth, contemporary outlook with the dreaminess of a fairy tale.”
In a phone interview, film scholar Jeanine Basinger said Ms. Silver “was a very significant player in terms of what she presented successfully to the public: a female director presenting stories about women who were Jewish, and particularly stories about an immigrant situation that had not been fully examined on-screen before.”
“When I think of her, I think, ‘Why didn’t we hear more about her?’ ” Basinger said. “It does seem like her films got a little bit lost. It’s time for a rediscovery.”
Joan Micklin was born in Omaha on May 24, 1935, to Jewish immigrant parents from Russia. Her father worked at a lumber company, and her mother was a homemaker.
Ms. Micklin graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in 1956 and soon married Silver, the son of Abba Hillel Silver, an influential rabbi and Zionist leader. They lived in Cleveland, where Ms. Silver taught music and wrote plays, before moving to New York, where she wrote for the Village Voice and began breaking into film, writing the original screenplay for “Limbo” (1972), about the wives of missing Vietnam War soldiers.
“I had had a game plan. First, I would write screenplays that would be directed by all the great directors, and then, at the proper ladylike moment, when I had thoroughly learned my craft, I would emerge as a great director,” she told the Times. “It didn’t work out that way” — she was fired from “Limbo” after battling with the director — “so I just took the plunge.”
Ms. Silver wrote and directed an educational short, “The Immigrant Experience: The Long Long Journey” (1972), that paved the way for “Hester Street.” The movie was released through Midwest Film Productions, which Ms. Silver founded with her husband, who produced four of her films. “I don’t think too many people had what I had, a husband who believed in me and who wanted to help me,” Ms. Silver said.
Her later movies included “Loverboy” (1989), starring Patrick Dempsey as a seductive pizza deliveryman; “Big Girls Don’t Cry . . . They Get Even” (1991), about a teenage girl in a dysfunctional family; and “A Fish in the Bathtub” (1998), about a bickering husband and wife played by real-life couple Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara.
She also directed nearly a dozen TV movies, including the HBO romantic comedy “Finnegan Begin Again” (1985) with Mary Tyler Moore and Robert Preston, and worked in off-Broadway theater, partnering with Julianne Boyd to write and direct the feminist musical revue “A . . . My Name Is Alice” (1983), which earned the Outer Critics Circle Award for best revue and spawned two sequels.
Her husband died in 2013. In addition to her daughter Marisa, survivors include two other children, Claudia and Dina Silver, all of Los Angeles; a sister; and five grandchildren.
While starting out as a filmmaker, “I didn’t want to feel like the woman director. I wanted to feel like one of many women directors,” Ms. Silver told Film Comment in 2017. But even then, more than four decades after Ms. Silver made her debut, fewer than 10 percent of the top-grossing 100 films were directed by women.
“You just have to be believe in what you’re doing and not constantly subject yourself to criticism, as well meant as it is, and the advice of others, because you lose sight of what you want to do,” she told an interviewer in 1977. “It takes a lot of gumption. It really does. It takes people to say ‘No’ to you a thousand times before you get someone to say ‘Yes.’ You just have to keep at it.”