The James Ivory Interview: The oldest recipient of an Academy Award ever in an intimate chat about his film Call Me By Your Name and his 40-year relationship with Ismail Merchant
#CallMeJim he says over a lunch in NY, where he gives HT Brunch his most honest interview ever!brunch Updated: Dec 15, 2018 22:52 IST
On the morning of March 5 this year, I rose early to watch the live telecast of the 90th Academy Awards. I was particularly invested in one award category; that of Best Adapted Screenplay, and I wept and cheered unabashedly when 89-year-old James Ivory made his way to the Dolby Theatre stage to accept his much-deserved Oscar for Call Me By Your Name.
It was an emotional moment for me and for the million fans of this beloved auteur, who has previously been nominated three times in the Best Director category for A Room With A View (1985), Howards End (1992) and The Remains Of The Day (1993). But the Oscar had eluded Ivory until this historic moment when he clutched the golden statuette and gave a heartfelt speech paying eloquent tribute to his partner of over 40 years, the late Ismail Merchant.
My father and Ismail had been best friends through school and college in Mumbai and later partnered in a film equipment business. Uncle Ismail and Jim (as James Ivory prefers being called) had been visitors at our home for as long as I can remember. I was fortunate to work on several Merchant-Ivory movies after Ismail announced one day to my parents that he had decided that I was too intelligent to squander my life as a lawyer. Nobody could refuse the mercurial Ismail and so I dutifully (and happily) dropped out of law college and became an acolyte with the Merchant-Ivory dream team.
Having graduated with a degree in English literature, it was a joy for me to work on films adapted from the works of E.M. Forster, Kazuo Ishiguro and Anita Desai. Ismail was always flamboyant and gregarious, and Jim mild-mannered and shy, but with a wry sense of humour and an intellect, that I adored. His meticulous attention to detail and nuanced directorial style greatly influenced me and I feel blessed that my formative years were spent learning at the feet of these master filmmakers before I launched my own production company in 1995.
Story of strength
When Ismail died unexpectedly in May 2005 after a botched surgery in London, my thoughts went out to Jim, who had lost not only his producing partner but also his life companion. Everyone wondered if Jim could continue making movies without the maverick Merchant by his side. But Jim soldiered through and completed The White Countess (2005) with Ralph Fiennes and Vanessa Redgrave and then went on to make The City Of Your Final Destination in 2009 with Anthony Hopkins, his fourth film starring the talented thespian.
On a recent visit to New York, I resolved to reconnect with the man who has been such an important influence in my life. Jim said he was delighted to hear from me and we fixed to meet at his apartment building on the Upper East Side.
On all the sudden attention after the Oscar win: “[Amongst many others], Alexander Payne enquired if I would deign to adapt a short story by Ruth [Prawer Jhabvala], I said of course I’d ‘deign’ to do it!”
Jim emerged from the elevator sporting a walking cane and a warm smile. He is now a sprightly 90 and I felt a surge of nostalgia as we shook hands and then hugged. Stepping into a chilly November morning, we strolled down First Avenue to Jim’s favourite café for a leisurely brunch.
It had been 15 years since we had last met and there was much to say. I was surprised at how seamlessly we slipped into conversation, picking up from where we had left off, reminiscing movies, memories, and, of course, Ismail Merchant.
On the struggles of the past: “We were constantly short of money... Shashi Kapoor had to bail us out when we ran out of funds... it’s been the story of our lives!”
I asked Jim if he regrets not having directed Call Me By Your Name, given that it was a coming-of-age film about gay romance, a theme that he has adroitly handled before in films such as Maurice (1987) and The Bostonians (1984)? Jim replied that while he was content to write the screenplay and allow Luca Guadagnino to helm the film there were aspects he would have done differently. He was annoyed that Luca had done away with male frontal nudity even though it was specified in Jim’s screenplay. “It felt phony to have the camera pan out the window rather than show the lovers in a natural way.” Jim himself has never shied from portraying male nudity in films like Maurice and A Room With A View and critics and audiences have appreciated his candid approach to this squeamish subject.
A life of integrity
And now that he’s won an Oscar, a BAFTA, The Writer’s Guild of America Award and several other accolades for his outstanding screenplay, was he flooded with offers to write films for other directors, I asked? “Well, the day after the Oscars my agent called saying that Alexander Payne had enquired if I would deign to adapt a short story by Ruth. I said of course I would ‘deign’ to do it!” Jim laughed and revealed that he was in the midst of writing The Judge’s Will for Payne, the celebrated director of such films as Sideways (2004), About Schmidt (2002) and Nebraska (2013). I found it poignant that Jim should now adapt Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s work given that their long-time friend and collaborator had written 22 screenplays for Merchant-Ivory before her death in 2013. Interestingly, Ruth herself won two Oscars for her screen adaptations of Howards End (1992) and A Room With A View.
Recently the Cohen Media Group acquired 30 films produced by Merchant-Ivory and Jim was relieved that early classics like The Householder (1963) and Shakespeare Wallah (1965) would be preserved for posterity.
On the director eliminating male nudity in call me by your name: “It felt phony to have the camera pan out the window rather than show the lovers in a natural way!”
The indefatigable filmmaker serves as creative director on this project and consults on restoration, re-release and promotion of each of the 30 films. In fact, later that day Jim was scheduled to attend a special re-release of The Bostonians at a Manhattan cinema. I recalled a hilarious story that I had heard growing up about how the production had run out of money while filming in Boston and how the film’s hero Christopher Reeve had flown his personal jet to LA and returned with bags full of cash and T-shirts for the entire unit that read ‘I did it all for Curry!’ cheekily referencing how Ismail would cook Indian meals for the crew but not pay them their wages.
Jim seemed bemused. “I’m not quite sure that story is true but it’s quite likely as we were constantly short of money and even Shashi Kapoor had to bail us out when we ran out of funds while filming Heat And Dust (1993) in Hyderabad… it’s been the story of our lives.”
Of course, it was Ismail who famously managed to charm, cajole or bully people into working for Merchant-Ivory for a fraction of their usual fee. The legendary hustler took on the onus of raising funds for films that no one was ready to back and let Jim get on with the business of crafting exquisite films without having to fret about production issues. Jim recounted the troubles they had faced while working with Harvey Weinstein and how the notorious producer tried to interfere with the creative process on The Golden Bowl (2000), starring Uma Thurman. But the duo stood up to him and eventually bought back the rights to their movie. “Ismail had to raise four million dollars overnight but he did it rather than allow Harvey to have his way,” said Jim, misty-eyed, recalling his partner’s unwavering commitment to artistic integrity.
The void left by the death of Ismail and then Ruth must have been immense, but the surviving member of this iconic trifecta keeps remarkably busy, having recently directed a short film set to an aria by Handel that depicts two medieval knights who become lovers. He revealed with an impish smile that he shot the film in the backyard of his Claverack estate in upstate New York where he had just spent the Thanksgiving weekend after having returned from a trip to Paris. The inveterate traveller also loves vacationing in Italy, particularly Venice, where he has friends and where he made his much lauded short film Venice: Theme and Variations in 1957, two years before he first met Ismail at a screening of another short film The Sword And The Flute (1959).
That encounter would result in a collaboration spanning four decades, 44 films, 31 Oscar nominations and six Oscars. Ironically neither Ismail nor Jim won a personal Oscar during their 40-year partnership and the win for Call Me By Your Name therefore becomes all the more moving as Ivory is now the oldest recipient of the Academy Award in any category.
Having finished his skillet eggs and cappuccino, Jim posed for photos and chided me for having picked up the tab. I mumbled something about how I owe him more than he will ever know. We hugged and said our goodbyes, promising to keep in touch. And then, as I watched him slowly walk away, I found myself reciting lines from Tennyson’s Ulysses, that heroic warrior who despite his advancing years and fallen comrades still continues to fight the good fight:
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
(Author bio: Fahad Samar is a filmmaker, food and travel writer, and bestselling author of two novels Scandal Point and Flash Point)
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From HT Brunch, December 16, 2018
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First Published: Dec 15, 2018 21:15 IST