Bay Area Reporter :: ‘Solid Ivory: Memoirs’

Famous gay film director James Ivory is one of the founders of independent films, which is part of the successful collaboration between Ismail Merchant (producer) and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (screenwriter) which began in 1961, creating classics of the period intelligent literary like A Room With A View, Howard’s End, Remnants Of The Day, and Maurice. At 93, he wrote a sort of memoir, looking back on his life and career.

This straightforward, courteous and sinuous book is a pastiche album of letters, diary entries, travel accounts, magazine articles, sketches of famous personalities from the entertainment world (i.e. sad George Cukor, the litigious Vanessa Redgrave) and Reflections on Childhood / Young Adult Memories, edited by novelist and friend Peter Cameron.

Many of the essays were printed by Cameron’s small independent Shrinking Violet Press, intended for a limited, private audience, not originally intended for publication, but have been repackaged here. It’s a self-centered portrayal of an iconoclastic artist, but also an intermittently fascinating glimpse into gay childhood in mid-20th century America.

James Ivory, Ismael Merchant and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

A doll’s house
Born Richard Jerome Hazen and renamed James Ivory by his adoptive parents, he grew up in Klamath Falls, Oregon. His father was a successful owner of a logging company that thrived during the Depression. Sexually precocious at the age of 7, he experiments in a piano case with a local boy and “his little worm-shaped white penis”.

Educated by nuns, when asked at age five what he wanted for Christmas, he replied, “A doll’s house” and was mercilessly ridiculed by his classmates. “From that day forward, I started to see myself as a little bit apart from everyone else. I started to see myself as something more.”

He pursued his interest in the arts at the University of Oregon, eventually enrolling in a graduate film program at the University of Southern California. His thesis film was a documentary on Venice and his enthusiasm for European and other cultures (notably India) will be found in later films. Ivory portrays her same-sex relationships and brief encounters with classmates, college friends, and co-workers, including vivid and memorable descriptions of penises (“heavy, loaded, hosepipe variety”).

In 1959, he received a commission from the Asia Society of New York to make a documentary on Delhi, where he sought his mentor and his greatest cinematographic influence, the Indian director Satyajit Ray. When in 1961 he screened his film in New York, he met Ismail Merchant, whose short (The creation of woman) was nominated for an Oscar the same year. They have become a couple both privately and artistically.

James Wilby and Rupert Graves in “Maurice”

Fame eclipsed
When Merchant suggested their first film should be adopted from the novel The master of the house by Ruth Prawar Jhabvala, a wealthy Indian author, they asked her to write the screenplay. “But I never wrote a screenplay,” she remarked.

“Well, I’ve never produced a movie and Jim never made one,” Merchant replied. Thus, the most famous and enduring independent film team was born, continuing until Merchant’s death in 2005.

You might expect comments on how some of their films were made or on filmmaking in general, but readers will be disappointed as there is little exploration on these topics. Better read James Ivory in Conversation: How Merchant Ivory Makes His Movies by Robert Emmet Long for these types of discussions.

However, there is a chapter on the 2017 film. Call me by your name, for which Ivory at 89 became the oldest winner of an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. He was supposed to have co-directed with Luca Guadanigno, but was dropped without being told why. He was annoyed that the explicit sex and frontal nudity demanded in his script was being ignored due to the actors’ contracts. He is also sarcastic about the Oscar itself, saying “his fame overshadows even Michelangelo’s ‘David’ and the Statue of Liberty.”

Julian Sands and Helena Bonham Carter in “A Room with a View”

Private life
What is particularly surprising is the little space that is devoted to his personal partnership with Ismail Merchant. In fact, Ivory’s casual lover, famous travel writer Bruce Chatwin (whom he fails to mention, died of AIDS in 1989), has a chapter almost twice the size of the one on Merchant. In fact, there is literally only one page on their sexual affair. They apparently had an open relationship.

He writes: “That doesn’t mean that Ismail didn’t have other partners – he was a very sexed man – or that I wouldn’t, but these didn’t last because I was always there and he was always there. One or two of these were very attractive, and when they were, we shared them … I was kind of like a powerful French matriarch, who knows that her husband has mistresses, but who also knows that she is the center of her world, her home, her children, and if she is intelligent, her very life. In this way, he and I have carried on for over forty years, facing everything the good and the bad together.

Ivory notes that they came together for one purpose, which was to make movies together.

“I came to believe that two gay men, united in their commitment to each other, doggedly pursuing a common goal, could end up ruling the world.”

One of Merchant’s lovers, composer Richard Robbins, became the unofficial fourth member of the Merchant-Ivory production team, designing the music for all of their films starting in 1977.

Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson in “Howard’s End”

The fame of cinema
The best chapters are the first charming ones reminiscent of his childhood and college days, even devoting an entire chapter to his favorite restaurants during the Depression. Ivory is not an introspective writer. He tells of his father as emotionless and the same label of emotional restraint could apply to Ivory (a major theme in his films). When they detail her sexual dates, they are linked in a superficial way, without any deep passion, even with a crucial partner like Chatwin. Additionally, nothing is disclosed about Merchant’s unexpected death and its impact on Ivory personally or professionally.

Refreshingly, Ivory seems to have suffered little from the guilt or oppression of the pre-Stonewall era about her sexuality. Still, he doesn’t examine how his own sexuality affected his gay-themed films, especially Maurice and Call me by your name. It is fascinating that after Merchant-Ivory’s enormous success with Forster’s A room with a view (made for $ 3 million, grossed over $ 70 million worldwide, was nominated for eight Oscars, winning three) where they could have made any movie they wanted, they chose Forster’s posthumous queer romance Mauritius, but LGBTQ readers will miss any analysis of why they made this decision or the difficulties encountered in making it.

Several chapters settle old scores, such as his critique of Luca Guadagnino. He paints a damning portrayal of Raquel Welch as a diva: “She wanted to be an actress, not just a star, so I treated her like an actress, not a star. That was my fatal mistake.” He also criticizes Jhabvala for not doing housework (“Ruth never lifted a finger except at her typewriter. Her servants did everything.”) And has never forgiven her for refusing to ” write the screenplay Maurice considering it as “under-Forster” and “under-ivory”.

Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer in “Call me by your name”

Less lives
Ivory is also on the defensive in the face of any criticism of her films, dismissing excavations as if their films came from “Laura Ashley Film School”, too literary (as Ivory corrects, they mean literate) or “post-literate”. cardy “,” coffee table “, films, all critics calling a lesser life form, with a special venom reserved for Pauline Kael. These attacks tend to degrade Ivory’s main virtue as a filmmaker, his visual acumen and his ability to frame scenes beautifully like paintings, a gift that is evident in his meticulous and vibrant descriptions of Lake Oregon where he spent. summer family vacations, lavish dinners (i.e. in a Maharajah’s palace), or adventurous world tours (i.e. Kabul).

Some readers will be annoyed by the loose, non-chronological, disjointed structure and shortcomings mentioned above. Yet Ivory’s candor (he admits to being a “scary snob”), his caustic wit and sporadic warmth, as well as his post-war American melancholy, atone for the frustrations of memories. Also a highlight are the direct and engaging photographs, many of which were taken by Ivory, scattered throughout the text.

Perhaps it’s best to see Solid Ivory as a movie with a disparate montage of intricately crafted scenes and episodes with unforgettable characters etched into a remarkable and elegant life. Ivory in the final analysis gives us the example of a homosexual who ended up doing what he wanted to do, which is to make films.

And while many of his film dramas involved repressed or illicit desires, no one can accuse James Ivory of such inhibitions, and readers will be richer for his fearless verve, erotic or otherwise.

Solid Ivory: Memoirs of James Ivory. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $ 30.00

Help the Bay Area Reporter keep going through these trying times. To support local, independent and LGBTQ journalism, consider becoming a BAR member.

Previous 10 Amazing American Campgrounds Beloved by RVs (2021)
Next Internationally renowned judge, playwright and novelist among locals honored by the Order of Canada