In Oscar history, Carole Kane certainly belongs to the group of actresses that only evoke a ‚Who?‘ when their name is mentioned but this one-time nominee at least found success on TV (winning two Emmy Awards) and lately won new fans with her turn as Madame Morrible in the Broadway-hit Wicked or a guest appearance on the TV-series Two and a Half Men. She also had a small but memorable part in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall so she did not completely disappear again like so many Oscar nominees do. Or even winners – just ask this year’s champ Louise Fletcher. But while the actress herself managed to keep a maybe low but still successful level of visibility, her Oscar nomination feels rather obscure and largely forgotten today. Hester Street may have been the highpoint of Carole Kane’s success and recognition as an actress simply because an invitation to the Oscars is the crowning achievement of every career (okay, co-nominee Glenda Jackson may disagree) but the movie was probably already forgotten again after her nomination was announced. But a low degree of popularity has never been an indicator of a movie’s actual quality and so it’s no surprise that Hester Street is a very well-made and engaging motion picture that wins most of its quality from the realism with which the story and the characters are presented.
The story of Hester Street surrounds a group of Jewish immigrants who left their old home in Europe behind and started a new life in New York at the end of the 19th century. In the center are Yekl and his wife Gitl who both react very differently to their new life – Yekl immediately accepts the ‘American way of life’ and does his best to become a part of his new country while Gitl wants to keep their traditions intact and wants to maintain their old way of life even if it means separating themselves from their new environment. Carole Kane who usually appears to be so completely off-beat compared to other actresses found a very conventional character in the role of Gitl – the obedient and silent wife who does her best to please her husband. But very soon Gitl becomes a much more three-dimensional role when she finds herself in the middle of her own desires to live her life the way she was taught to and the desires of her husband to fit into this new society as quickly as possible. In his eyes, he is living the way he wants, free from the conventions of their old home. But Gitl demands the right to live the way she wants, too – according to traditions, conventions and unwritten rules that have guided the life of her and her ancestors for centuries. Tension arises between them and very soon Gitl will have to decide between the life she wants to have and the life she is leading with her husband.
As mentioned above, Carole Kane worked especially well to display the initial obedience in Gitl and later the blossoming of her own character when Gitl begins to speak and think for herself. Right from the start, Carole Kane shows the love and loyalty Gitl feels towards her husband – her joy when she sees him for the first time after her arrival is done very beautifully and immediately helps to establish both Gitl and Carole Kane as an intriguing presence in Hester Street. Carole Kane also has a believable chemistry with her co-stars and especially the relationship with her husband, the anger and frustration, feels very authentic. Later, she movingly displays Gitl's new life in New York – a life that basically only happens in a small apartment as she never goes out into the street because she keeps feeling like a stranger and is unwilling to change herself the way Yekl did. She refuses to take off her wig, keeps speaking in Yiddish and prefers to surround herself with people who think and feel like her. Carole Kane uses all these early moments for some effective scenes in which she shows only with her eyes and her sad face how much Gitl is suffering in her new life, not able to understand her husband and not willing to give up everything she believes in. Carole Kane’s soft and delicate voice adds to the characterization of Gitl as a very tender and loving person who is lost in a new world she doesn’t understand while her husband slowly escapes her, too.
And later, Carole Kane begins to demonstrate the second most important aspect of Gitl and believably shows a woman who is slowly finding her own character. Gitl begins to rebel against her husband after she couldn’t win him back, even having tried to buy a love potion. The most moving and memorable moment in her performance comes when Gitl got a new haircut and wants to surprise her husband – but he still thinks she is wearing her wig and he wants to tear it off her head which causes Gitl to break into tears and shout that this is her own hair and that she has enough. The divorce that follows seemed inevitable right from the beginning of the movie but Carole Kane made the wise decision to show the change in Gitl only in very small steps – Gitl doesn’t change completely, she just cannot live the life her husband wants anymore. Gitl is not happy about the divorce but she doesn’t regret it either and Carole Kane continues to play Gitl as the quiet and tender woman because that’s what Gitl is – Hester Street presents the very interesting concept of a woman deliberating herself by staying exactly as she is. Most movies do rather the opposite – showing a woman who finds a new, undiscovered personality inside herself, only waiting to break free but Gitl is not like this as she only wants to lead the life she is used to. The ending of Hester Street shows that Gitl finally walks out on the street, without a wig, but she needed somebody else, somebody who was able to combine the new world with the old one. Because of this, the consistency in Carole Kane’s performance is a very important aspect for the character of Gitl and Carole Kane succeeded to show that Gitl actually learned a lot during the run of the movie but it did not change her as a person. The fact that Carole Kane showed this development in Gitl while also demonstrating that Gitl does not want to develop at all is a beautiful and touching achievement, especially because it was done so very subtly.
The character of Gitl certainly does sound very challenging and intriguing and Carole Kane found a touching and beautiful way to bring her to life but at the same time she also made her limitations often rather obvious – there is always the feeling that more could have been done with this role and that Carole Kane did not use her limited material to her own advantage as co-nominees Louise Fletcher and Isabelle Adjani did the same year. Carole Kane’s performance has no true flaws but the material she is given doesn’t allow her to become overwhelming either. It is a small and touching role in a small and touching movie but without any hints at a deeper truth – Carole Kane plays Gitl with the right amount of silence and self-confidence but Hester Street is such a small frame for her work that it constantly seems to hold her down. But also Carole Kane herself often feels too underdeveloped in her part – she is touching but there is always the feeling that she could have done more. She guides Gitl through her process of growing independence from her husband with a beautiful amount of emotional confusion but she always seems to stop one step before she could have reached a level of true greatness. In his review, dinasztie compared Carole Kane’s work to that of Luise Rainer in The Good Earth – certainly an interesting observation since both women played silent and obedient wives but where Luise Rainer was able to tell the whole story of O-lan’s life with just one look, Carole Kane stayed too much on the surface. Luise Rainer showed how a stereotypical part could be turned into an epic achievement – Carole Kane surrendered to the limitations of the role, even if she filled those limitations beautifully. Still, it’s a moving and tender portrayal of a memorable character that receives a strong