Nebraska native Joan Micklin Silver defied Hollywood and paved the way for fellow female filmmakers

Her debut movie made her an indie film darling in 1975. Then she faded from public consciousness. Now there’s a push to change that.

By 1975, Joan Micklin Silver of Omaha had made herself an up-and-coming – and money making – Hollywood director. 

It was anything but easy. 

When male-dominated Hollywood refused to let her make her debut movie, “Hester Street,” she went outside the system. When the same system refused to distribute it, she found a way to get her film in front of audiences – and they loved it. In doing so, she allowed generations of other women to follow her.

Yet despite her achievements and enduring acclaim in cinema circles, Silver is hardly a household name, including in her home state.

Now, a new play with music version of her seminal work will posthumously thrust the writer-director into the spotlight when it makes its world premiere today in Washington, D.C.

The play, whose creators and producers hope for a Broadway production, is reviving interest in Silver just as new prints of “Hester Street” and her other films are getting new life. People involved with both efforts say the attention is overdue. 

“It never got easy – she really stressed that when I met her. It was always a battle,” said playwright Sharyn Rothstein, who authored the play. “In so many ways I am incredibly fortunate to be the beneficiary of the work and struggles of Joan and her generation of artists.”

Silver faced steep barriers to entry. While she acknowledged “filmmaking is a tough field for everyone – it’s extraordinarily competitive,” it was far tougher for women.

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“I actually had an executive say to me, ‘Feature films are expensive to make and expensive to market, and women directors are one more problem we don’t need.’ So, yes, it was that blatant,” Silver said in 1999.

Hollywood rejected her script about Jewish emigres on New York’s Lower East Side at the turn of the last century as too ethnic. Her condition of directing “Hester Street” herself was a deal-breaker. 

“She was an unapologetically Jewish filmmaker making films informed by her own cultural experiences,” said Dan Mirvish, an Omaha native and founder of the SlamDance film festival. “The irony is that most people probably thought she was from New York. But sometimes it takes an Omahan to fully appreciate and comment on New York life.”

Failing to get Hollywood backing, she and husband Ray Silver financed and produced the film. Studios-distributors wouldn’t touch the finished product, so the couple self-distributed. 

Joan Micklin Silver had to work outside the system to make her debut film, “Hester Street.” The project, which she and her husband self financed and self distributed, received warm reviews and gave her entry to the studios that had snubbed her. Photo courtesy of the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society

Their roughly $400,000 investment grossed $5 million-plus and made Silver a darling of American indie film. It also gave her entry to the studios that had snubbed her.

“It was inspirational as a landmark independent success but also there was no other story like that … about a woman being able to make the movie she wanted to make,” said Ira Deutchman, a New York-based film professor and indie producer.

“Hester Street” sparked a mini boom of female-directed independent films, Deutchman said.

“There’s no doubt the success of that film got others interested in the fact there was this unmined talent out there that could be taken advantage of.”

Silver continued making films. But eventually both she and her work faded from public consciousness. She became largely unknown to a new generation of film students and filmmakers, said Deutchman, a close friend of Silver and a co-producer of the “Hester Street” play. 

“I was really kind of devastated that that legacy didn’t seem to exist.” 

Deutchman is leading an effort to restore and re-release some of Silver’s films. Thus far, “Hester Street” and “Between the Lines” have been restored and screened. “A Fish in the Bathtub,” the last of her Jewish trilogy, is being restored now.

“It’s all about bringing Joan back to the surface again,” Deutchman said.

He believes Silver’s stories stand the test of time. 

Her love of storytelling was stoked by tales told to her by her Russian Jewish emigre elders and by movies she watched at the Dundee Theater. She wrote sketches for school plays at Omaha Central High School. 

With no interest in working in her family’s Micklin Lumber Co. store, she graduated in 1952 and left for college in New York, intent on pursuing a creative life.

She met Ray, married, and moved with him to Cleveland, where he worked in real estate. She bore three daughters and in between raising a family haunted cinemas and began writing for local theater.

A series of chance meetings landed her scriptwriting work, and eventually directorial experience, for Children’s Television Workshop. The only directing jobs open to women at the time were in the educational, experimental and underground markets. 

Silver’s initial Hollywood foray proved frustrating. 

“I couldn’t get a job directing at all. At that time the only job I was suitable for in the industry was writing,” she said.

Silver formed a production company – initially named Omaha Films – but continued to struggle. 

Then a story of hers based on interviews she did with wives of American POWs and MIAs was serialized by McCall’s magazine. Universal Pictures optioned it. Veteran Hollywood director Mark Robson became attached to the project.

Silver prepared a screenplay for what was released as “Limbo” in 1972. During pre-production Robson had “a very different take” on the story and replaced Silver. Then he surprised her with a show of grace when, aware of her interest in directing, he invited her on set to learn production and budgeting. 

“I spent about 10 days there for my first exposure to the Hollywood movie-making apparatus. It was very helpful.”

That experience, along with her husband’s support, emboldened Silver to realize on her own terms what became her breakthrough project.

A scene from 1975’s “Hester Street,” the debut feature film by Joan Micklin Silver. The late filmmaker grew up in Omaha and followed an unconventional path to becoming a Hollywood director at a time when men tightly controlled the industry. Photo courtesy of Silver family

For subject matter she drew on the novella “Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto” and the family stories she grew up listening to. She changed the focus from the husband to the wife. It became “Hester Street.”

She couldn’t help but wonder while filming whether she’d ever get to make another movie.

“I say that because things were pretty dire for women directors and I really wanted to make one that would count for my family,” she said. “The immigrant experience was a very big part of my family’s experience.”

Critics warmly reviewed it. Star Carol Kane earned an unexpected Best Actress Oscar nomination. The story’s feminist themes in combination with the film’s female writer-director  made it and Silver favorites of the women’s liberation movement.

In 2011 it was selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. The honor took Silver by surprise. 

“I was really pleased, I had no expectation, and I was delighted to be on the same list with a John Ford movie and a Charlie Chaplin movie,” she said.

Silver directed seven films for theatrical release – including “Chilly Scenes of Winter” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry” – and nine movies for TV, according to IMDB. It adds up to a filmography few modern women directors can match.

Joan Micklin Silver on the set of the ‘80s romantic comedy “Crossing Delancey” with Peter Riegert (right), who co-starred in the movie alongside Amy Irving. The film was one of seven theatrical releases that Silver directed in her career. Photo courtesy of Silver family

Nebraska’s most well-known director, Alexander Payne, is an admirer of Silver’s “very human stories.” 

“Where almost all other distinguished movie people from Nebraska migrated to California,” Payne said Silver, ever the outlier, “went to New York and became a keen observer and chronicler of life there,” joining Sidney Lumet, Woody Allen, Paul Mazursky and Martin Scorsese as one of America’s foremost New York-based filmmakers.

Daughter Dina Silver is grateful for the new appreciation accorded her mother’s story.

Her mom’s first feature film put her on the map. Today, she can see the cinematic impact of her mother’s contributions. 

“She would be absolutely thrilled to see the numbers of women putting their individual stamp of heart and intellect on films all over the world, and to have been one of the women who helped nudge the door open.”

Silver lived to see the fruits of her labor in what she termed “the much richer stew” of filmmakers getting opportunities to direct. “It’s not nearly as bleak a picture as it was,” she said in 2011. 

Her daughters, who grew up on her sets, all found careers in the industry. Dina is a producer. Claudia, who acted in a few of her mother’s films, is a writer. Marissa is a director.

“Well, you know, one always feels one could have done more,” Silver said of her career. “But I’ve managed to make films for many years now in a field that was extremely unfriendly to women and to make the films I wanted.”

Still, she knew the industry had more work to do to achieve parity. 

The Center for the Study of Women in Television & Films at San Diego State University found that in 2022 women accounted for only 22% of television and film directors. The numbers were not much better for writers, producers and executive producers. While 30% of editors are women, only 8% of cinematographers are women. 

“I hope I’m some small part of that change,” Rothstein said, “and I think it wouldn’t have changed if not for artists like Joan.”

Rothstein knew she was destined to do something with Silver’s iconic “Hester Street” as soon as she saw it.

’It just spoke immediately to my family’s story,” she said. “My whole family on both sides broadly fit the same journey as the characters of ‘Hester Street.’”

Silver’s decision to tell the story from the point of view of the female lead proved groundbreaking, Rothstein said.

“The challenge of what Joan did to flip the script spoke to me as a writer. How you take an ‘old story’ and both respect it and make it new. I really thought maybe that’s something I could do with the stage adaptation.”

Cast and crew rehearse for the upcoming theatrical production of “Hester Street” at Theater J in Washington, D.C. This is the first time the debut film by Omaha native Joan Micklin Silver will appear on the theatrical stage. Photo courtesy of Theater J

Like Rothstein, co-producer Michael Rabinowitz “always loved and related to the movie and always wanted to get it on the stage.” It’s a story that still resonates today.

“It is very specific and yet very universal in its themes inside and outside Jewish culture wherever you are, and that to me makes the best art and best theater.”

It took some doing to get Silver to agree to let her “baby” have a new life on stage. She declined previous requests over the years “because she felt like the movie is so good it lives on its own, it doesn’t need another version,” said Rothstein. 

Silver leaned on Deutchman for counsel.

“Little by little she warmed to the idea,” said Deutchman.

Silver, who died in 2020, was involved in the play’s early development and provided notes to its makers.

“She saw a reading of it and was in heaven about that,” said Rothstein. “It’s really meaningful she was there, though heartbreaking she won’t see its final fruition.”

The Silver family will be in D.C. opening night for the play inspired by her film that opened the door for women directors in Hollywood.

“She would be deeply moved and exhilarated to see that the project came to life even after her death,” said Dina Silver. “We are excited that mom’s gorgeous commitment to stories that touch the heart has a new life in the play.”

By Leo Adam Biga

Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga has been telling stories about people, their passions and their magnificent obsessions for four decades. The Omaha native and UNO graduate is a freelance contributing writer for various print publications and online media platforms. His work has been recognized by the Omaha Press Club, the Nebraska Press Association and the American Jewish Press Association He is the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film" and "Crossing Bridges: A Priest's Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden."


Nice story, Leo. I thought I knew everything having to do with Omaha but this was all brand new to me.

Thank you for recognizing this Nebraska filmmaker who has slipped away from the vision of the past. I remember when she started and the noise around her thoughtful work.

I knew of Ms. Micklin Silver (and other women from the Midwest who had some success in this industry) but never had a chance to meet her. Instead I and every other woman I worked with in Nebraska shared her experience of repeated rejection in the television industry because we were female. Early on in my career (late 70s), I was told that I would never be allowed to direct coaches shows, much less sports events (both of which I wanted to do), because “women make the coaches nervous.” A decade later female directors were repeatedly denied opportunities to take on the responsibilities and assignments that led to promotions. We were told, directly and indirectly, that we needed to act more like the guys. I left the business I loved after 25 years. Sadly, according to this story, opportunities for women in film and television are still highly restricted. So while I appreciate Mr. Biga’s reporting, Ms. Silver would likely face the same problems in Nebraska today that she faced 30+ years ago.



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