James Ivory – A Filmmaker with an Unobstructed View

Producer/Director/Screenwriter James Ivory directed his first feature in 1963 – 55 years ago and ten years into his career – and, for the first time since 1993 (when he was nominated for Best Director for Remains of the Day) he is yet again in strong Oscar contention as both producer and screenwriter of Call Me by Your Name. Should he win, at age 89, he will be the oldest Oscar winner, unseating composer Ennio Morricone who currently holds that honor. And, like Morricone, it could be his first Oscar after decades of near misses and outright snubs.

Anyone new to cinema history, i.e. under the age of 30, might hold a vague idea that Ivory was that guy who directed all those Brit costume dramas – you know, the ones they haven’t gotten around to see yet. Well, let’s delve a bit deeper and see what exactly this hero (of mine) has contributed to the big screen.

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The Dyed-in-the-Wool Independent

First and foremost, James Ivory was a primary player in the establishment of the thriving independent film sector. His films, primarily produced by partner in life and business, Ismail Merchant, and written, for the most part, by their scribe, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, independently from the major studio grist mill. Merchant/Ivory productions not only looked as good as – and usually better than – period dramas that came out of the big studio system, they were made considerably cheaper. Together, they could take a literary classic most of us resisted in school and make it come alive, surprising us with just how rich and involving the original material truly is.

Major distributors would snatch each up for release, almost always to critical acclaim. Ivory flourished for his entire career without ever having to don the yoke of servitude to a major studio. In interviews, Ivory claims this was because studios weren’t interested in making the kinds of films he wanted to make. The result was film after film made it to the screen with the filmmakers’ original vision intact. SONY, Warner’s, Miramax, Universal, TriStar, and Columbia are just a few who benefitted from having a Merchant/Ivory production in their stables, elevating – in appearance, at least – their literary cred and level of sophistication.

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The Un-blinkered Social Observer

Something one notices immediately upon viewing a James Ivory film is total gender equality in the characters portrayed. Male and female roles are balanced and given equal weight, and gay and straight characters of both sexes always imbued with the same respect as their hetero counterparts. Part of that is due to Jhabvala’s writing and the assignment of the roles to the cream of the acting establishment, but it was due to Ivory’s astute interpretation and execution that James Wilby’s Maurice and Vanessa Redgrave’s Olive, the lesbian suffragette in The Bostonians, are as indelible as Anthony Hopkins’ butler Stevens in Remains of the Day and Emma Thompson’s Margaret in Howard’s End. Perhaps it’s his Oregonian upbringing, but Ivory’s humanity knows no boundaries.

Ivory is a true egalitarian, unrestricted and uncensored. He always makes a point to exposing class structure, so of course turn-of-the-century Britain was a ripe fruit for the picking. His literary sources of the period were structured around the existing class system, a crazy quilt of do’s and don’ts’s, of lineage and entitlement. By examining past inequities, audiences could subliminally transpose situations seen in his films to parallel contemporary inequities. The first Ivory film I saw was in 1972 – Savages – where a mud-smeared tribe discover a croquet ball and trace it to an estate where they party and begin to morph into a society that would normally reside there. They ultimately reject the system and return to the wild. Needless to say, it was not a hit at the box office, but remains a cinematic curiosity and an accurate indicator of the director’s sympathies.

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Frightening the Horses

Watching a James Ivory film, regardless of the period in which it is set, one consumed by the amount of detail in both setting and mannerisms found among the social strata his stories traverse. From the genuineness of the décor to the frank and sincere relationships of the characters, he immerses us in the period, culture, and moral standards of the day. His uncanny ability to involve us in the most intimate moments of the characters is what sets apart his renditions of 19th / early 20th Century settings from nearly every other period film made. His characters don’t remain cloistered in the drawing room, they frolic, skinny-dipping in A Room With a View, the local pastor among them. Scudder, the young under-gamekeeper, makes a midnight climb up a ladder to seduce a repressed Maurice in a film now considered way ahead of its time. In Heat and Dust, both partners (Greta Scacchi and Christopher Cazenove) appear as they should – equally exposed and vulnerable – in the marriage bed. Although sexuality and especially nudity was never something associated with period films, Ivory’s unveiling of his characters feels natural and innocent. That feeling was shared by most countries, as shown by their rating classifications for the films. With few exceptions, his films were deemed suitable for anyone over the age of 12 – except for the US, who slapped an “R” on Maurice and Heat and Dust and withheld classification for A Room With a View (which I saw in Quebec where it was rated “G”).

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Call Me by Your Name

When Ismail Merchant passed away in 2005, followed by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala in 2013, most of us expected James Ivory to fade into the sunset, but when partners Peter Spears and Brian Swardstrom optioned Andre Aciman’s stunningly brilliant book, Call Me by Your Name, they approached their buddy, James Ivory, initially offering producing, screenwriting and co-directing responsibilities to the master of the genre. Ultimately, producing and writing were sufficient for Ivory, leaving the directing to Luca Guadagnino.

Author Aciman is often asked how a straight man could write such an accurate portrayal of a gay love story. His replies generally fall in the realm that his is a love story, an intimate and pure tale of two people who happen to be male. When you trace James Ivory’s filmography that includes romantic encounters across the spectrum, all done with passion and impartialness, we have to assume that he was way ahead of most on this. Love and attraction have little to do with the equipment one may be packing – that’s reserved for later in the game. That Ivory seized the opportunity to smash not one, but two glass ceilings, first with Maurice, then with Call Me By Your Name – each accurately reflecting the evolution of intimacy of their respective times – seems just and fitting. An Adapted Screenplay Oscar for his efforts would be nice, too, of course.

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Ever Forward

James Ivory’s career-long intellectual freedom, precise observation of human interaction and fiercely independent spirit was instrumental in elevating film to the level where a book like Call Me by Your Name could be translated to cinema, and, at 89, it’s a thrill to all of us who have followed his career that he got to write the screenplay and co-produce another milestone. Where does he go from here? He has been developing a version of Shakespeare’s Richard II for a number of years, hoping to get Tom Hiddleston to star, but word last summer was Ivory was struggling to find financing. It’s nothing he hasn’t faced before, so I would not count it out, despite his age. After all, there are many of us who have resolutely decided James Ivory will be with us for a long time to come.

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