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Black and white cinematography adds an air of veracity to the quietly charming period drama Hester Street (1975). In a nuanced performance that earned her an Academy Award nomination as Best Actress, Carol Kane plays Gitl, a young Jewish woman who is in for a rude awakening when she travels from Russia to New York's Lower East Side in 1896 to join her husband Jake (Steven Keats) after several years apart. While Gitl clings to the long-standing traditions of her heritage, Jake is intent on adapting completely to his new life in America. Jake's assimilation includes shedding all traces of the old world, including his wife.
Carol Kane was relatively unknown when she landed the lead in Hester Street. She had appeared in small but memorable roles in films such as Carnal Knowledge (1971) and The Last Detail (1973) and was looking for projects to showcase her talent. Audiences who are primarily familiar with the quirky comic roles in film and television that later made her famous such as Scrooged (1988), Addams Family Values (1993) and her Emmy-winning portrayal of Andy Kaufman's wife Simka on Taxi, will be amazed at her remarkable range as a dramatic actress in Hester Street.
The film was based on the 1896 novel Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto by Abraham Cahan. Director Joan Micklin Silver (Chilly Scenes of Winter , Crossing Delancey ) was inspired to read it while working on a short educational film about Polish immigrants in the early 1970s. Silver, who was then still struggling for a chance to direct a feature film - a rare feat for a woman at that time - found that the compelling story stirred up memories of her immigrant parents' struggles assimilating in America. She then spent six weeks adapting the book into a screenplay, shifting the focus in her version from the husband's point-of-view to the wife's. "I thought, I'm going to make [a film] that will count for my family," Silver told American Film magazine in 1989. "My parents were Russian Jewish, and my father was no longer living, but I cared a lot about the ties I had to that world. So that was how Hester Street started."
Unsurprisingly, Silver discovered that studios were reluctant not only to hire a woman to write and direct a feature film, but also to make a story about Jewish immigrants at all. Bypassing the traditional Hollywood system, Silver decided to move forward and make the film independently. With husband Raphael in charge of raising money for the project and formally serving as producer, Silver formed her own production company - Midwest Films - to make Hester Street.
Working with a tight budget just under $400,000, the Silvers began work on the film during the summer of 1973. The cast, including Carol Kane, was assembled from mostly New York based actors. With much of the script's dialogue in Yiddish, most of the actors worked diligently with a dialect coach in order to speak the language convincingly. At the last minute, according to a 1975 article, the film's only non-actor was added to the cast. Mel Howard, the Yiddish speaking then-head of New York University's graduate film program, was hired to play Bernstein, the sensitive boarder that Jake and Gitl take in to help pay the rent. Character actress Doris Roberts, best known to contemporary audiences for playing the meddling mother Marie on the television sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond, was tapped to play the supporting role of Gitl's spirited neighbor, Mrs. Kavarsky.
Silver utilized various shooting locations around New York to add authenticity to Hester Street. Greenwich Village's Morton Street in particular was decorated to double as the real Hester Street of the late 1800s, and several local residents were hired to play extras.
Principal photography was completed in a remarkable 34 days. During the post-production process, Silver asked Oscar®-winning director Elia Kazan and noted editor Ralph Rosenblum to view some of the footage and offer guidance on the film's structure. Their feedback proved valuable and helped to shape the final cut of the film.
When Hester Street was ready to be released, Silver had a difficult time finding a distributor. After numerous meetings, the film was dismissed as being "too ethnic" with not enough appeal to wide audiences. After making the rounds, the film happened to be seen by a programmer for the USA Film Festival who arranged for it to be shown twice at the festival, where it elicited an enthusiastic response. Hester Street was then tapped to screen during the prestigious Cannes Film Festival Critics Week, where it continued to generate positive word of mouth.
Despite the momentum Hester Street gained, however, distributors remained reluctant to take on a film that they considered to be strictly for a niche market. After several rejections, Silver and her husband decided to release it themselves, beginning with a series of screenings in New York.
Word of mouth slowly but surely spread about the film once it opened in theaters, boosted by positive reviews in major publications. "Joan Micklin Silver displays a sure hand for her first pic," said Variety. The New York Times said, "...the cast of Hester Street...is superlative, and Carol Kane in the starring role is extraordinary." When Kane received an unexpected dark horse Academy Award nomination for her performance, it brought even more attention to the film. Although Kane eventually lost to Louise Fletcher in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Hester Street's modest success made it clear that there was room in Hollywood not only for smaller independent films made outside of the traditional studio system but also for talented women writer/directors.
Producer: Raphael D. Silver
Director: Joan Micklin Silver
Screenplay: Joan Micklin Silver; Abraham Cahan (story)
Cinematography: Kenneth Van Sickle
Art Direction: Edward Haynes
Music: Herbert L. Clarke
Film Editing: Katherine Wenning
Cast: Carol Kane (Gitl), Steven Keats (Jake), Mel Howard (Bernstein), Dorrie Kavanaugh (Mamie), Doris Roberts (Mrs. Kavarsky), Stephen Strimpell (Joe Peltner), Lauren Frost (Fanny), Paul Freedman (Joey), Anna Berger (Poultry Woman), Edward Crowley (Inspector).
by Andrea Passafiume
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