‘Hester Street’ was a rare 1970s American independent film success

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American arthouse cinemas used to play exclusively foreign language films. Then this black and white portrayal of Jewish life in 1890s New York by Joan Micklin Silver helped spark a change.

The 4K restoration (released this month by Cohen Media and shown at the New York Film Festival) of Joan Micklin Silver’s “Hester Street” in 1975 deserves due credit as a rare American film directed by women of its time . The black-and-white film, set in the predominantly Jewish immigrant community of New York’s Lower East Side in the 1890s, overcame obstacles on several fronts to become a major financial success.

The film grossed $ 5 million at the end of its airing, the equivalent of over $ 22 million today. All of this on a budget of $ 375,000 (about $ 1.7 million now). It was a significant success, although at the time it was not complemented by home video, and as a black and white film it had only limited interest in television broadcasting.

Micklin Silver’s film receives renewed credit for its quality, as well as being the first film that saw her break through as a director. One thing that seems to have been forgotten, however, and one that will likely surprise decades of moviegoers accustomed to the importance of American independent cinema, is how frightening its success has been.

What made it an anomaly at the time was that it was unusual for an American film to play the then bustling specialty circuit, mostly in big cities. I know this from first-hand experience when the film played its exclusive Chicago engagement at the Cinema Theater, the city’s favorite haunt for top specialty releases. It’s a theater that I booked just as I took my first job in the show, a career that has seen similar films eventually become mainstream arthouse bookings.

But how unusual was that at the time? “Hester Street” opened there on February 6, 1976 for a period of 10 weeks longer than usual. Over the next 18 months, and as was the case with most large arthouse cinemas, Cinema Theater bookings were entirely European subtitled films, including new films by Ingmar Bergman. , Eric Rohmer, Lina Wertmüller and Bertrand Tavernier.

This is what the patrons anticipated and supported. The idea of ​​a director was not unknown (Wertmüller broke in 1975, Elaine May had two studio releases in the early 1970s), but was still a rarity.

“Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song”

Independent cinema in the United States is as old as the films themselves. But it has thrived on the fringes of mainstream theaters. Melvin Van Peebles broke in 1971 with “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song”, followed by other black directors. Sexploitation films in the late 1960s, directed by Russ Meyer, had screened in general sponsorship theaters. Drive-ins and other venues of the 1950s flourished with films by Roger Corman and other producers, mostly outside of studio support.

But the company’s sophisticated end has stuck with foreign language films. It was a model established in the 1950s, when a revived European company offered an alternative to what sophisticated viewers saw as an ordinary Hollywood production. He had a snobbish, elitist and intellectual value. But its main draw was content that wasn’t as restricted as studio films, separated from restrictive production code (though still facing local censorship).

Then, when “Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Graduate” led the studio revolution, these companies quickly snatched up the most promising young directors (mostly male of course), including competing and sometimes outperforming overseas releases in films. difficult elements.

Yet the subtitle market dominated works of art. The significant exception came from two films by John Cassavetes. Her “Faces” in 1968 and “A Woman Under the Influence” in 1973 both reached large audiences after starting out as a specialist. Still, they appeared to be exceptions with a specific sui generis quality difficult to transfer to other filmmakers – and even if they did, studios would likely accept them.

Enter “Hester Street”. Micklin Silver and her producer husband were unable to find a credible distributor to handle the film, including Don Rugoff’s dominant Cinema 5 or Dan Talbot’s smaller niche, New Yorker Films. It didn’t fit into the concept of what could work. So they released the film on their own, with the help of young veterans who had similarly handled “Woman” by Cassavetes.

They managed to get it booked at key exclusive theaters in New York and Los Angeles. Then a miracle happened – its first week in both locations at the end of 1975 grossed the equivalent of over $ 100,000, an extremely high result at any given time for a specialty film. He broke the house record at Laemmle Music Hall in Beverly Hills.

That still didn’t guarantee a high playoffs. Perhaps it was a fluke, with strong support from local Jewish communities that could not be replicated elsewhere. Regardless, by this time the top single-screen art rooms were booked months in advance, mostly showing movies from a small number of regular vendors.

But numbers like this have made a difference for theaters like the Cinema in Chicago. And his date of play turns out to be fortuitous. During her first few weeks there and on other dates, Carol Kane received a surprise Oscar nomination for Best Actress. It came from a word-of-mouth campaign and the contacts of a seasoned publicist who managed to get the actors to see the film (presets, difficult task for a small film). This spurred him on and helped his further expansion and some crossbreeding.

"Delancey crossing"

“Crossing the Delancey”

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Despite this, it took several years and directors such as John Sayles and Spike Lee in the early 1980s to lead the transition from subtitled films to American films as the dominant force in specialty theaters. And even longer for a regular chain of female directors to gain ground in the field. Micklin Silver directed a second independent film – the underrated “Between the Lines” on a Boston weekly newspaper, which featured a cast that included young Jeff Goldblum, John Heard and Lindsay Crouse. But that hardly got any attention, although the director was later able to gain studio attention for “The Chilly Scenes of Winter” and “Crossing Delancey”.

The reissue of “Hester Street” reminds us that Joan Micklin Silver was stepping out of the specialist field, even though they didn’t know what to do with it.

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