There’s a scene halfway through Crossing Delancey (1988) - screening at the TIFF Bell Lightbox April 2nd, that takes place at a late-night hot dog joint in downtown New York. It accurately captures the different types of people who can be found lining up for a greasy midnight snack: a young man playing rap on a boombox, senior citizens in knitted hats, and pseudo-yuppies like Isabelle Grossman (played by Amy Irving)- out late celebrating her birthday with a friend who requests extra sauerkraut for the occasion.
A mature woman with feathers in her hair enters. She’s heavily made-up and wears an artificial flower pinned to her evening gown. Without saying a word, she places a bucket to collect change on the counter and starts singing ‘One Enchanted Evening’ from the musical South Pacific acapella. The customers respond: some with nervous smiles, some ignoring her. The youth with the boombox respectfully turns the volume down. The singer locks eyes with Isabelle as she reaches the song’s climax, as though she knows that Isabelle’s trying to work out her personal romantic entanglements: “Once you have found him, never let him go.”
It’s a perfect New York moment in a movie all about New York. I would go as far as to say that the subject of the film is the binding ties of community, specifically the Jewish community in the Lower East Side that contains the titular Delancey Street, rather than the love triangle it appears to be on the surface.
At the film’s start, we’re introduced to Isabelle, who works at an independent bookshop which hosts intimate soirees with celebrated poets. It’s a place where she gets to meet successful writers, like the suave, European Anton Mayes (Jeroen Krabbé). He’s exciting and passionate, even if his favourite subject is his own work. Her career is on the upswing and, like a modern woman of the 1980s, she’s trying to have it all.
Isabelle’s grandmother (‘Bubbe’) sees things differently. Played by the marvelous Yiddish theatre veteran Reizl Bozyk in her only English movie role, Bubbe is a diminutive force-of-nature. With a commanding splay-footed walk, Bubbe patrols the neighbourhood like she owns it, and who would argue with her? She wants nothing more than to see her 33-year-old granddaughter married. Without Isabelle’s consent, she engages a marriage broker who talks with her mouth full and comes equipped with a bag full of photographs of eligible men and exaggerated promises.
Isabelle is so embarrassed by the situation that she doesn’t give the first man the matchmaker brings around the time of day. It’s a shame because Sam (Peter Riegert) is kind, smart,charming, and responds respectfully to the inherent awkwardness of the setup. He’s also immediately smitten with Isabelle, but there’s another snag: his job as a pickle seller, which sets off Isabelle’s latent snobbery. He’s proud to continue the family business, but he also has to soak his hands in milk and vanilla at the end of the day to rid them of the smell of brine.
Isabelle is forced to admit that despite herself she’s interested in both the sweet, down-to-earth Sam and the flirtatious, self-important Anton, as the two men come to represent the push and pull between the world she grew up in and the wider world. It’s a conflict between her family’s expectations and her own ideas of what her life should be. There’s not a manual on how to strike the balance between respect for traditions and your elders, and forging a new path that works for you. The pleasure of Crossing Delancey is that it suggests we can find the right mix by dropping our egos and following our hearts. Afterall, what’s not to like about the smell of milk and vanilla.
Director Joan Micklin Silver, faced barriers as a woman director in the 1970s and 1980s and as a result often worked outside the studio system. These roadblocks popped up when making Crossing Delancey, with studio executives claiming the story - written by Susan Sandler adapting her original play - was “too ethnic” and would not be relatable to non-Jewish moviegoers.
(You can almost hear the boardroom discussions - “Can we make the family Irish, or maybe Italian?” “Can we cast a big name for the grandmother, like Anne Bancroft?”)
What the studio execs misunderstood is that a film grounded in the colours and textures of a specific community (in this case, the Jewish neighbourhood of New York’s Lower East Side) can speak not only to members of that community but encourage viewers of all backgrounds to see themselves in the characters - simultaneously learning about different cultural traditions but also that, deep down, people are people.
It was only after the intervention of Steven Spielberg, who was married to Irving at the time, that Warner Brothers agreed to distribute it.
The film went on to be a critical darling, snag modest financial success and nab a Golden Globe nomination for Irving. Still, it’s angering to consider all the diverse stories the powers that be in Hollywood have denied us and the structural barriers that continue to the present day. Very few of us can get Steven Spielberg to pull some strings.
Max Mosher is a writer, communications specialist, and Old Hollywood Correspondent for The Town.