Joan Micklin Silver: Gifts Are Used

Carol Kane in Hester Street (1975).

Tenn in Conversation
New Orleans

I was spending an inordinate amount of time in cinemas at this time, because I was convinced that I would find some fog from which a woman might emerge, and a voice would lead me to the pale judgment, and the pale judgment would become a play, and I might be saved. I might matter.

    I told you earlier that all of life is seduction—a series of seductions. I have always believed that the very nature, the very rhythms and needs, of life do not truly allow for our existence: We carve out and secure and protect our existence in the midst of wildness and carnage and persistent ecological progress. The earth careens toward its natural tasks, and here we are trying to live, to sing a little, to make some sense of this odd ball of fauna on which we have found ourselves. We seduce the ground in a sense to allow it to feed us, to spring forth something for our sustenance. We seduce—through friendship, kindness, comfort—those around us, so that we might remain in the community, where we can bond and reproduce and matter. We seduce in order to become that thing we feel has been our dream: doctor, lawyer, writer, actor, director. The act of convincing others of our worth is a herculean act of seduction, and those who earn a title at the table of art are all to be commended for their amatory abilities.

    Just as you seek both comfort and a surcease through the skin with a lover, you also seek a bonding, a level of comfort, with those whose acting or directing is placed before you. I have never taken the act of watching a film or a play lightly: For me, this is very serious and intimate business. I am seeking and learning and being inspired. I am learning a great deal about everyone involved. I know that I am not your average moviegoer, but that is beside the point here: I want to explain to you how I came to believe that I could write. How I came to believe that I could master the act of being an artist again.

    When particular people arrive on the screen, you react in a particular way—in ways, I am sure, that could be detected by instruments and machines. Lila Kedrova is a nervous lover, twiddling with your tie, adjusting her hair and her slip, smiling sweetly, adjusting your pillow, getting you to a place of trust and comfort to watch her expand. She seduces me successfully: There is both comfort and control in her approach.

    Lee Grant, Zoe Caldwell, Katharine Hepburn—to name three very different actresses—would appear to have no doubts at all when they approach the act of seducing their audiences: As far as they are concerned, you are interested, aroused, lubricated, and available for the ravishing. I admire and love these women very much, but I do not have the emotional bonding with them that I do with Kedrova or with Masina or Anna Magnani or Maureen Stapleton, all of whom arrive in what I could only call a strong state of supplication. Those three women—tough, resilient—beg for nothing, deserve everything, demand your energies.

    Babies understand the arms into which they are placed, and they relax and smile and sleep according to the warmth and strength they feel encircling them. Directors do this for me, and I can relax and allow the experience of the film to seep into my consciousness, feed my fog, if I come to see and to feel that the arms of the director are strong and assured and caring.

    I utterly relax with William Wyler, Clarence Brown, Michael Powell, at times. George Cukor, when someone has ultimate control over his output. Elia Kazan, always. I can relax with portions of George Stevens, but he has absolutely no inner clock, no sense of the need to reduce tension, to move away from sensitive areas. In failing to do this, he often weakens his best work. I cannot imagine that George Stevens is much of a lover, based, at least, on his film work.

    I always loved films, and I always watched films, and I looked for stories, tricks of narrative, marvels of structure, characters who led me to other people and places. It has not been until recently—when the act of writing has begun to escape me—that I have looked at the work of directors as a direct inspiration to my sitting down before the pale judgement.

   If you sit through a film two or three or four times—as I am wont to do—you truly come to experience the film to a degree that you feel you might truly know how the creative process occurred, how performances were coaxed and husbanded, how energies were disbursed. I may be deluding myself, but we do what we can.

   On that rainy day in October about which I told you, I sat through Hester Street and fell not only into the narrative that was being presented, but into the very style and texture of the film. I do not mean to simplify this, but there was a very clear feeling of pages turning, of a voice, comforting and calm, stating with every reel Let me tell you what happened, and I found myself lost again in that spell of the story that I used to feel when my mother read to me. It is vital in our plays and our films—not to mention our novels—that we are lost, subsumed, in the story.

    I was subsumed within Hester Street.

Carol Kane, another angle, in Hester Street.

    I have since seen other films directed by Joan Micklin Silver—the director of Hester Street—and if I were to attempt to adopt what I would imagine is her attitude and present it before my blank pages, I would make myself a very calm, open, loving, and maternal presence. There may be a wine skin involved. There is plenty of time. There has been much concentration and care before sitting before the page. I have no information at all about Ms. Silver; I do not know how she works at all. I am working from the effect her work has had on me.

    She has an uncanny ability to expand upon what an actor presents, to pull from a performer attributes and gifts that might have been unknown or unappreciated by that same actor. She has an ability to make actors far more attractive—physically and psychically—than they have been in other material. The degree of confidence that was felt by John Heard in Chilly Scenes of Winter turned him into an astonishingly handsome actor, a man for whom audiences of all genders and persuasions could feel protective, aroused, curious. There is the physical scaffolding of John Heard in other films, and he is handsome, but he is not attractive, alluring, commanding in the way he was in that film. Why?

    Gloria Grahame was a sort of pal to me for a brief spell in my early days of Hollywood. Our cards had not yet been punched beyond recognition, and we had some currency in the town. I liked her: She was funny and mean and lubricious; she knew where shit was buried, and who put it there. She packed her mouth with cotton to make her lips pouty, and when she got drunk and laughed, cotton would cascade down her cleavage. She was a character. She was one of my characters. So twenty years or so pass, and where the hell is Gloria Grahame? Well, she’s in Chilly Scenes (which was stupidly called something else for a time), and she’s marvelous. Fully in control; funny; seductive; sad. Now the gifts had not disappeared, which you might think was the story. The gifts had not been used.

   Joan Micklin Silver used the gifts.

Peter Riegert, Gloria Grahame, and John Heard in Chilly Scenes of Winter (1979).

   Mary Beth Hurt is a nefarious actress—wonderful, malignant. Under Silver’s thumb she has moments when she’s like a hemp-infused Jean Arthur—funny and spirited and crisp. I had seen her hilarious on the stage, but I feared that her film work would be limited to repressed, constricted women with migraines and grudges, but there she was flowering and glowing.


John Heard and Mary Beth Hurt in Chilly Scenes of Winter.

    You see I have to sit down at a page, and I have to seduce these words and these women to show up and dance with me, to hang out for a time and get a conversation going. How do I do that? When I was young, I was fast and funny and had great ideas of how they could be used to their best advantage: I was their best friend, who could tell them that they looked best in lavender or with their hair pulled up, and why didn’t they go over and talk to that boy, the one named John? I don’t have that quickness anymore, so I need to imagine myself with the grace and the confidence of someone like Silver, who gathers a circle of actors around her and smiles and wonders what might come of all of this, but we are all wonderful, and we are all perfectly ready for these challenges.

   Trust me, I think she says, and those are good, caring, strong arms, and they encircle the crews for which she works, who work for her. And they are carried, and they arrive, and a story is told.

    We can learn from this.

Joan Micklin Silver

Scenes from Hester Street and Between the Lines can be found on the Facebook page for Follies of God.


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