Classic Movie Review: 'Hester Street' Starring Carol Kane
Carol Kane's Oscar nominated debut performance in Hester Street has been remastered in 4K for a new generation.
For those who might only know actress Carol Kane from her work on television in the series Taxi or, far more recently, the Netflix comedy, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, you might not be aware that Carol Kane is an Oscar nominee. In 1975, Kane co-starred in the movie Hester Street and her thoughtful, sweet and vulnerable performance as Jewish mother arriving in America at the turn of the 20th Century earned her a nomination for Best Actress. Kane lost out to Louise Fletcher’s daringly dastardly performance as Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Now, 45 years after the Academy honored Kane’s work with a nomination, Hester Street is making a comeback. Directed by the brilliant Joan Micklin Silver, Hester Street has received a full 4K restoration and that restoration will get its first public performance as the opening night presentation at the New York Film Festival on September with another showing at the NuArt Theater in Los Angeles on October 1st. Sadly, Joan Micklin Silver passed away in December of 2020, but the legacy of her remarkable work, Hester Street will nevertheless be celebrated.
Hester Street stars Steven Keats as Jake, or Yankel, though he’s dropped his Russian-Jewish name in favor of being Jake. Jake is a womanizer with a roaming eye and a caddish charm. He’s fallen in love with the turn of the century New York City and its many delights, especially women. Jake has his roaming eyes on Mamie (Dorrie Kavanaugh), a woman he met at a dance class and has spent many a night trying to get her into bed.
There is just one problem for ol’Jake, he’s married. Though you couldn’t tell by his manner, back in Russia, Jake has a wife named Gitl (Carol Kane) and a son. When Jake receives a letter telling him that his father has died and his wife and son have nowhere to go, he does the right thing and sends for them to come to America. Somehow though, Jake refuses to give up on Mamie, despite now having a wife and son living in the apartment that he borrowed money from Mamie to rent.
Needless to say, this is quite a pickle for Jake who takes out his frustrations by ignoring or being verbally abusive toward poor Gitl. Gitl is meek and very traditional. She may have willingly come to America but she is not eager to take to American culture. She’s very particular about her hair and manner of dress which sets Jake off to no end. Eventually, when Gitl does begin to take to some American culture, at the behest of her new friend, Mrs Kavarsky (Doris Roberts), Jake finds new reasons to be upset and to push Gitl away.
This sounds very dramatic and some of it very much is dramatic, these characters have naturalistic qualities, they feel authentic to the time and place of what we know of the Lower East Side of Manhattan at the turn of the 20th Century. This particularly Jewish enclave vibrates with echoes of real history. The look of the movie is astonishingly detailed and vibrant, even as the film was shot in black and white. There is a crispness to the 4K transfer, aside from a couple of insert shots that appear badly degraded.
The tone of Hester Street is a tricky mix of melodrama and whimsy. There is a palpable good natured quality to the movie even as the marital strife is the main feature of the story. Director Joan Micklin Silver doesn’t allow the kitchen sink drama of Hester Street to become overbearing. It all feels very relatable and familiar. It’s sad that this family is on the brink of breaking apart, but there is a sense that all will be well in the end and the movie clicks along at a joyous pace that never lingers on the sadness for too long.
One of the keys to the tricky tone of Hester Street, one that takes these characters and their feelings seriously without becoming morose or allowing sadness to take hold too long, are the performances. Kane’s Gitl may appear meek and retreating but behind her eyes is an indomitable spirit. She might get rattled but you can sense she’s not one to be mistreated for very long by anyone, even by the husband she once idealized and admired.
Doris Roberts is the secret weapon of Hester Street. The multiple time Emmy winner for TV’s Everybody Loves Raymond, Roberts delivers a lovely and delightful performance in Hester Street as a loyal friend, protector and hype man for her new friend. I loved how Mrs Kavarsky takes to Gitl and takes every opportunity to talk her up to people, how pretty she is and how she has no need for a man like Jake who clearly doesn’t value her.
There is a subplot about another man potentially in Gitl’s life but I don’t want to spoil anything. Actor Mel Howard plays Mr Bernstein, a co-worker of Jake’s who tries to play peacemaker between Gitl and Jake while also being their border, sleeping in one of the corners of their tiny apartment for two bucks a week. Mr Bernstein would just like to study the Torah and not be a bother to anyone and I loved his dedication to learning and his kindness toward Gitl is a welcome relief from Jake’s rudeness and overall disregard for his wife.
Even Jake isn’t a complete villain in Hester Street. That’s part of the wonder of Hester Street, the big emotions are all there but they’re never overstated. Joan Micklin Silver is fair to these characters. Jake may be loud and temperamental, but he’s more thoughtless than anything. He sets his sights on Mamie and for him, that’s true love. Sad as it is that he treats Gitl badly because she’s an obstacle to the life in America that he truly wants, he’s also acting on an impulse for love which doesn't so much redeem him as much as it allows us to understand him.
Jake is a jerk and rather obnoxious and he certainly does edge up toward being abusive but you can’t completely write him off because Micklin-Silver appears invested as much in his happy ending as anyone else's. He is forced to pay a literal price for his happiness and that, for me, was more than enough to let go of Jake’s lesser qualities. Steven Keats delivers a spirited performance and that also goes a long way to making me like Hester Street.
In the end, Hester Street is simply charming. This lovely slice of Jewish life at the turn of the century is beautifully shot and wonderfully performed. Joan Micklin Silver keeps the pace brisk and the drama enticing throughout. Most of all, Micklin Silver succeeds in creating wonderfully indelible characters that you want to know more about. You come to feel for Gitl, admire Mrs Kaversky and tolerate Jake for all his flaws. It’s not the kind of story you expect to have wide appeal, given the subject but I found this movie far more relatable than I expected it to be.
Hester Street will be opening the New York Film Festival on September 25th, 2021 and will open in Los Angeles at the NuArt Theater the following weekend, October 1st. The film is under control of the Cohen Film Group and I do hope they will make the movie available on 4K Blu Ray in the future as I would love to add it to my own personal collection. The film was added to the National Film Registry in 2011 after being deemed culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant by the Library of Congress, another reason I hope more people get the chance to see it.