#586) Hester Street (1975)

#586) Hester Street (1975)

OR “An Incredible Assimilation”

Directed & Written by Joan Micklin Silver. Based on the novella “Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto” by Abraham Cahan.

Class of 2011

The Plot: In the Lower East Side of 1896 Manhattan, Yankle (Steven Keats) is a Russian-Jewish immigrant embracing his new home, even changing his name to Jake. Jake begins a relationship with a dancer named Mamie (Dorrie Kavanaugh), but it’s only after she loans him a large sum of money that she learns it was to pay for the arrival of Jake’s wife Gitl (Carol Kane) and son Yossele (Paul Freedman) from Russia. Complications arise as Jake pushes for his wife and child to assimilate, while Gitl strives to maintain her traditions, simultaneously discovering her own independence. 

Why It Matters: The NFR praises the film’s “accuracy of detail and sensitivity to the challenges immigrants faced during their acculturation process”. There’s also an essay by expert on Jewish cinema Eric A. Goldman.

But Does It Really?: I’ve watched my share of silent movies that deal with immigrant struggles in the melodramatic style of the time, so it’s refreshing to see these stories reimagined as a ’70s character study. With “Hester Street”, Joan Micklin Silver tells a story about the hardships of her immigrant family through a feminist lens, aided by a terrific ensemble and amazing period details. Plus it’s only 90 minutes! I’m glad that the NFR has found a place among its ranks for “Hester Street”, and I hope more people discover this little gem of a movie.

Everybody Gets One: After a stint writing for The Village Voice, Joan Micklin Silver wrote and directed a series of educational shorts for the Learning Corporation of America (now New World Pictures). While conducting research for the short “The Immigrant Experience“, Silver read the novella “Yekl”, which reminded her of the stories her immigrant parents had told her growing up. Silver adapted “Yekl” into a screenplay, shifting the focus to the main character’s wife, and was determined to make this her feature film debut. After many Hollywood studios passed (one studio exec told her “women directors are one more problem we don’t need”), Joan’s husband Raphael Silver used his real estate expertise to raise the funds and finance “Hester Street” as an independent feature.

Title Track: Hester Street is, of course, the street in Manhattan that became the epicenter for Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants in the late 1800s. For the film, Greenwich Village’s Morton Street doubled for Hester Street, as it was significantly cheaper to make Morton Street period appropriate.

Seriously, Oscars?: “Hester Street” played a limited run in select cities, and thank God, Los Angeles was selected. “Hester” received one surprise Oscar nomination: Carol Kane for Best Actress, losing to Louise Fletcher in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest“. 

Other notes

  • In order to keep production costs down, “Hester Street” was filmed with as many indoor scenes as possible (less chance of outdoor shoots being cancelled due to rain), and the cast consisted mainly of stage actors who were willing to do the film for union scale. Silver was only able to afford one horse for outdoor shots, so the same horse was painted different colors for different scenes.
  • Shoutout to costume designer Robert Pusilo and art director Edward Haynes, who both should have gotten Oscar nominations for their impressive recreations of turn-of-the-century New York. Bonus shoutout to composers Herbert L. Clarke and William Bolcom. The score has the feel of a silent movie, or at least something that would play on Main Street at Disneyland.
  • Another detail worth mentioning: most of the film’s dialogue is spoken in Yiddish with English subtitles. Only one cast member spoke Yiddish, and the rest had to learn the language from the film’s dialect coach.
  • Steven Keats sorta looks like Sean Connery in “Murder on the Orient Express”. Keats’ only other big claim to fame was playing Charles Bronson’s son-in-law in the first “Death Wish” movie. Primarily a TV actor (he lived long enough to appear in three episodes of “Law & Order”), Keats received an Emmy nomination in 1977 for the limited series “Seventh Avenue”, playing – what else – an immigrant in turn-of-the-century Lower East Side Manhattan.
  • Carol Kane is one of those actors it seems has always been around, so it’s good to remember that like any other actor, she needed a breakout role, and “Hester Street” was it. She does a remarkable job playing a woman trying to acclimate to her new environment. She even has the “deer in the headlights” look people get when they don’t understand a foreign language. I’m glad the Academy recognized how good a performance she’s giving. Also, she was 22 when she made this!
  • Wow, Jake is a real schmuck. Am I saying that right? Schmuck?
  • You know who else surprised me with how great they are in this? Doris Roberts. I know Roberts primarily from her late-in-life work on “Everybody Loves Raymond”, and like her “Raymond” co-star Peter Boyle, it’s nice to know that she could also play a role like Mrs. Kavarsky that requires more dramatic nuances.
  • My favorite line in the movie: “A pox on Columbus!” Now you’re talkin’! The line is uttered by Bernstein, played by Mel Howard, a film student/non-actor who got roped into playing the part when the original actor bowed out right before filming began.
  • [Spoilers] The scene that fascinated me the most was the divorce ritual. It never occurred to me that some religions have a ceremony for divorce with parallels to a marriage ceremony. And I appreciate that (at least in this specific Jewish practice) a woman must enter a divorce with the same free will she entered the marriage with. Points deducted, however, for making the wife wait 91 days before remarrying, whereas the husband could remarry immediately. 
  • Silver wanted to end “Hester Street” with a crane shot over the titular street. When that proved to be too expensive, she got around this by filming the final shot from a balcony overlooking the street. Art through adversity: you gotta love it.

Legacy

  • “Hester Street” had difficulty finding a distributor (most felt it was “too Jewish”), but it managed to play out-of-competition at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival’s Critics Week. The film received high praise, and the Silvers were able to self-distribute with assistance from Blaine Novak, who had helped market John Cassavetes’ “A Woman Under the Influence” the year before. “Hester Street” played in select cities across the US, and was a surprise hit, grossing almost five times its production cost.
  • Carol Kane revealed years later that she didn’t work for a full year after her Oscar nomination for “Hester Street”, finally getting cast in Gene Wilder’s “The World’s Greatest Lover”. Thankfully, Kane has rarely been out of work since, appearing in countless movies and TV shows, including four additional films on the NFR.
  • Joan Micklin Silver continued making films for the next 25 years, though most of them, like “Hester Street”, were well-received despite their limited releases. Her last film was the 2003 TV movie “Hunger Point”. Silver died on the last day of 2020 at the age of 85.

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