NEW YORK — A jar of pickles changed his life. “You’re the pickle man?” fans would ask actor Peter Riegert for years after the release of “Crossing Delancey,” the 1988 romantic comedy written by playwright Susan Sandler, directed by Joan Micklin Silver and starring Amy Irving.
“I play a good pickle man sometimes,” Riegert would shrug back. One time a woman accosted him on 7th Avenue to say her daughter wasn’t married, and he should come back to her building to meet her. Another time an African-American man said that Bubbie Kantor, played by then-74-year-old Yiddish stage actress Reizel Bozyk in her only significant film role (and first one in English) was “exactly like my grandmother.” This “small, ethnic, New York movie,” as glib studio executives called it, touched a lot of people.
“Crossing Delancey” is a universal story but very rooted in its time. Amy Irving plays Izzy Grossman, a modern, independent woman living on the Upper West Side who has (lovingly, politely) turned her back on the “old ways.” She runs the most prestigious reading series in town (“I have Isaac Bashevis Singer’s unlisted number!”) at a bookstore beloved by writers and intelligentsia. Her parents have moved to Florida but her grandmother has stayed put on the Lower East Side, where the men play handball, the women consult with matchmakers and everyone eats a lot of roasted chicken.
The film is soaked in the styles of what it was like to be a New York Jew in the late 1980s, the clothing, the music (mostly the synthesizer-folk of vocal group The Roches) and the push-pull of tradition and modernity. Nothing says this better than when a friend is applauded for “going it alone” as a single mother; the scene takes place at a ceremonial bris.
Izzy Grossman isn’t looking for a man. There’s a fella that shows up for sexual encounters now and then, and she certainly has eyes for the handsome, celebrated European author who comes to the shop. But Bubbie and the perennially smiling, eating, talking shadchen Hannah Mandelbaum (Sylvia Miles in an incredible performance) thinks the guy who sells pickles out of barrels on Essex Street would make a nice match.
Riegert, perhaps best known for “Animal House” or recent TV roles on “The Good Wife” and “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” isn’t the star of “Crossing Delancey.” But the man who played cinema’s ultimate mensch kinda stole the limelight from his co-star Amy Irving and director Joan Micklin Silver at a special 35mm screening at Manhattan’s Film Forum.
“I always try to upstage everyone,” he confessed after another story that had everyone rolling, “but when we met Reizel that first day, I knew there was no upstaging her.”
Silver, the spry 82-year-old director of “Hester Street,” explained how she was having trouble casting the role. She heard of Reizel and asked to have her come read and when word came back that she said “Why should I go meet with her?” she knew she had the right person.
Riegert had appeared in one of Silver’s earlier films so already had the part, but there was difficulty finding the right Izzy. Silver was at a theater in New York one night when she saw Irving across the aisle, wolfing down popcorn, and she knew that that was her. Irving’s agent turned the script down before her client even read it, saying it was “too small.” Luckily a friend (noted New York publicist Peggy Siegel) ran interference, though at the time the movie hadn’t secured all of its financing.
One studio said they’d do the movie if they changed the Jewish setting to Italian, thinking that audiences were more familiar with those tropes. Luckily, Silver had an ally in Irving’s then-husband, Steven Spielberg. At a meeting in Spain (I did a little post-mortem and my guess is that the Spielberg-Irving family were there due to the production of “Empire of the Sun”) the most successful director in Hollywood history was stunned that Silver was having trouble completing a deal.
“Why don’t you do this at Warner Bros.?” he asked.
“I don’t know anyone at Warner Bros.,” Silver responded.
Spielberg said he’d make a call to which Irving concluded “great, so we’ll do it at Warner Bros. then,” and that was that.
“Ain’t this business great?!?” Riegert chortled to the stunned Film Forum crowd.
Cynics may think that Silver cast Irving for the clout of her ex-husband, but watch 30 seconds of this film and you’ll see how perfect she fits. (Much like the brown Stetson hat Sam Posner the Pickle Man buys her.) Irving did bring the room down a bit during the post-screening Q&A when she confessed that she does not think Izzy and Sam live happily ever after.
“They aren’t ready for one another then,” she said, still thinking about the “two different worlds” that the Lower East Side and Upper West Side represented at the time. “I think they are together now. They found one another on the Internet or something, they’ve already had kids, but now they’ve reconnected.”
Riegert only said that he loves how the movie ends on a freeze-frame. The Bubbie thinks they are going to end up together and that’s all that’s important. Silver was hesitant to weigh in on the matter.
Not enough can be said about Joan Micklin Silver’s enormous talent, especially considering she worked at a time when there were so few women directors. (Not like there are a lot now, but it’s at least getting better.) Every supporting character, even if they only have a single line, instantly comes across as an individual.
This is a movie that revels in New York’s diversity, and not just the Jewish community. There’s a famous scene in a Papaya King hot dog place where all of the city’s characters mingle. Other directors would ruin it by laying it on too thick. Silver has the patience and confidence to hang back and let the scene breathe.
There’s also a surprising amount of visual panache for what is ultimately a romantic comedy. Much of this simply takes advantage of what the Lower East Side looked like back then, like walking by a Schapiro’s House of Kosher and Sacramental Wine with the sign that boasted “The Wine You Can Almost Cut With A Knife.”
Admittedly, this night ended with a bit of whiplash: feeling nostalgic for a period that was already nostalgic for a dying way of life. Who knows, 30 years from now we may see a movie about Jewish New Yorkers going to special event screenings at Film Forum and feel nostalgic about that, too.