Ten years ago, if a knowledgeable film person had been asked to make a list of working women directors in Hollywood, the list would have included Joan Micklin Silver and . . . well, it was a short list.
In the 1970s Silver directed such features as “Hester Street,” “Between the Lines” and “Head Over Heels” and became, if not quite a legend, at least a symbol of hope for those women on the outside of the male-dominated film business hoping to get in.
Then, just as such names as Amy Heckerling, Martha Coolidge and Penelope Spheeris began to show up on the director line of production charts, Silver turned her attention to directing stage and cable productions.
Now, after nearly a decade, her stock in Hollywood is up again. She directed the upcoming comedy “Crossing Delancey” for Warner Bros. and is currently at work on another comedy, “Loverboy,” for Tri-Star.
“ ‘Loverboy’ is a wonderfully well-constructed farce,” Silver said, during a break one recent morning in the parking lot of a Venice pizza parlor, where she was directing a fight sequence. “I was extremely interested in it, but I had been working on ‘Crossing Delancey’ for two years. I’d seen the play of ‘Crossing Delancey’ at a very small Off Off Broadway theater and hired the writer to do a screenplay. Two years and six drafts later, she came through.”
“Loverboy” stars the hot young actor Patrick Dempsey (“Can’t Buy Me Love”) as a delivery boy suspected by several husbands of delivering more to their homes than pizza. It’s a comedy of morals with some delicate subtexts, according to Tri-Star executives, which is why Silver got the job.
“ ‘Loverboy’ is an extremely difficult piece to pull off without falling into the exploitation genre,” said Tri-Star production boss Jeffrey Sagansky. “Joan handles relationships very well, and that’s what this film is about. I’ve always admired her work and wanted to do business with her. Her pictures are incredibly perceptive.”
Dempsey, who is on a string of comedies, said he was reluctant to do another one but was persuaded by the fact that he could use his juggling and tumbling experience (see accompanying story) and because he liked Silver’s earlier films.
“Joan gives me a lot of freedom to tell her what I’d like to try,” Dempsey said. “I’m not dealing with such an egomaniac as I was with some of these men. The directors I’ve worked with in the past I wouldn’t work with again. I feel very messed over by them. I feel we could have gone further.”
Executive producer/writer Leslie Dixon, who wrote “Outrageous Fortune” and “Overboard,” said that when she and her husband, Tom Ropelewski, took their script for “Loverboy” to Silver in New York, they got some tough, constructive criticism.
“Joan approaches every situation with absolute decisiveness, but she’s still willing to listen to others,” Dixon said. “When we went to New York to talk about the script with Joan, she raked us over the coals in a most constructive way. Her script notes were brilliant. She works intensely at script level. We found that if you deliver for her, she’ll be delightful. But don’t drop the ball on a Joan Micklin Silver film.”
Silver, who lives in New York, said she has spent the last decade trying to get projects off the ground. Three years ago she directed the HBO romantic comedy “Finnegan, Begin Again” with Mary Tyler Moore and the late Robert Preston.
“I could have been directing TV movies or episodes every week, but I wanted to make my own things happen,” she said.
With her daughter Marisa, who is also a director, Silver wrote a miniseries about the ‘60s, but it was turned down by NBC.
“It’s one of the best scripts I’ve ever done,” she said, matter-of-factly.
Silver, 52, has often faced the hurdles of rejection in her career.
“It hasn’t been simple,” she said. “There was a generation of women after me who didn’t want to have children. I always wanted everything, but I never expected it to be easy.”
Silver, who grew up in Omaha, became interested in films by spending her Saturdays at the local theater.
“It cost 35 cents for the movie, 10 cents for the popcorn and 10 cents for the streetcar ride,” she said. “I have distinct memories of those films, but as a child I didn’t consciously say, ‘I want to do that.’
“I was a good little girl in the 1950s. I went from college to marriage and had my first child at 22. We were living in Cleveland, and I was teaching part time and writing for the theater. No film makers came to Cleveland then. It wasn’t until we moved to New York that I could make films.”
Silver, who had graduated from Sarah Lawrence, began by writing scripts for educational film companies and then persuaded one of them to let her direct a 30-minute short. Her move into features came through the help of her husband, Raphael Silver, a real estate entrepreneur. He raised the money and produced “Hester Street” and “Between the Lines.”
“Ray only got into the film business to help me,” she said. “He was so aggravated to see me shut out. Then once he got into it, he liked it.”
Ray Silver has directed two films of his own--"On the Yard,” which Joan produced, and the upcoming “A Walk on the Moon"--and the couple plan to collaborate again.
Meanwhile, Silver said she’s pleased at Hollywood’s changing attitude toward women.
“I was out there by myself for a while,” Silver said, “and I hated it. The whole mentality of Marisa’s generation is very different. The people who are running the studios now are not as put off by the idea of strong, independent women as the generation before them were.
“I remember going to hear Arthur Penn speak at the YMCA before I started directing. He said it took a lot of money to make feature films, and men didn’t like to trust women with money. This generation doesn’t feel like that.
“I haven’t added up how many women have made films being released in 1988. The ‘woman’ director is an issue that’s not an issue anymore. Women are pushing their way in. I used to make it my business to go to see every woman’s movie. Now I meet actors who say they were directed by women, and I never even heard of them.”