American director James Ivory (born 1928) has become known for his unrivaled screen adaptations of major classic and contemporary novels, including A Room With a View, Howards End, and The Remains of the Day. He has also enjoyed a successful and lucrative partnership with Indian producer Ismail Merchant, in their independent film company, Merchant Ivory Productions.
Seemingly destined for a career somewhere in the arts, James Ivory studied fine arts before film, and then made documentaries about art. His fascination with exotic places led him to Europe, then India, where he teamed up with the Indian producer, Ismail Merchant, and the German-born writer, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Since 1961, Ivory has collaborated with them on more than twenty movies and television productions in India, the United States, and Europe. The films of Merchant Ivory Productions have evolved into a genre of their own.
Born June 7, 1928 in Berkeley, California, James Francis Ivory grew up in Klamath Falls, Oregon. He started painting at the age of six. Ivory told Bart Mills in Biography, "A teacher noticed my drawings and brought me and another little boy to the attention of a nun in the school who was a painter. We got art lessons every Friday afternoon, a dollar a lesson." Later, his father built a small stage in their home for Ivory and his sister.
Ivory became interested in film at the age of 15, after a visit to the Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM) studio. He went on to study architecture and fine arts at the University of Oregon, and film at the University of Southern California.
Ivory's father financed his master's thesis, a half-hour film documentary, Venice: Theme and Variation. He traveled to Venice to film the alluring city he had seen in paintings. His film depicted the significance of Venice in the art world by showing it in the context of historical paintings of the city. In 1957, the New York Times named Venice: Theme and Variation. among the best non-theatrical films of the year.
While searching for reference paintings for the Venice documentary in California and New York, Ivory discovered collections of the miniature paintings of traditional India. The miniatures, which depict epic myths and legends, became the subject of his next documentary, The Sword and The Flute. With his second film, Ivory was awarded a grant from the Asia Society of New York to make an hour-long documentary about Delhi, India.
Ivory was in the process of making his third documentary, Delhi Way, when he met Ismail Merchant. Born and educated in Bombay, Merchant came to the United States for a graduate degree from New York University. His first short film, The Creation of Woman, was an official entry from the United States at the Cannes Film Festival. When the two filmmakers met, their interests converged into a plan to make movies in India for Indian audiences. They formed the partnership of Merchant Ivory Productions. The filmmakers approached Ruth Prawer Jhabvala about making a film based on one of her novels. The German-born, English educated author was married to an Indian architect and wrote about life in India.
Ivory's father provided the financial backing for the first Merchant-Ivory collaboration, The Householder (1963). The comedy about an Indian husband coming of age in an arranged marriage, was a screen adaptation of Jhabvala's novel. Directed by Ivory and produced by Merchant, the film was picked up by an American company and distributed worldwide to critical acclaim.
Ivory and Jhabvala wrote original screenplays for their next three Indian features. Shakespeare Wallah (1965), a romance about a British theater troupe at odds with newly-independent India, resonated with audiences. It was a commercial success at the time of its release and is considered to be a classic. This film was followed by The Guru (1969), a comedy about a British rock star who goes to India to study the sitar, and Bombay Talkie (1970), an homage to Indian cinema about an American writer and an Indian movie star.
Ivory returned to the United States and struggled for several years. He directed Savages (1972), a comedy about the occupants of a stately mansion invaded by a group of savages and their civilizing influence. The film was well received only in Europe. The Wild Party, (1974), about a tragic Greenwich Village party, was a disappointment. In 1975, Ivory directed Jhabvala's The Autobiography of a Princess, for British television.
Riding a small wave of success, Ivory returned to the United States to direct the Merchant Ivory production of Jhabvala's original screenplay, Roseland (1977) set in the New York landmark dance palace. In three episodes about dance hall denizens, the nostalgic film captures the fine line between romance and reality within that waning sub-culture. More than a decade later, Ivory directed another subculture movie, Slaves of New York (1989) which was adapted from the stories of Tama Janowitz. It relates the story of an aspiring hat designer in an avant-garde neighborhood who breaks free from the class system of apartment rental and relationships, and strikes out on her own. His portrayal of the New York alternative art scene made the film a cult classic in art circles. Ivory directed Jhabvala's original screenplay Jane Austen in Manhattan (1980) for British television, and the screen adaptation of her novel, Heat and Dust (1982) set in India.
As a director, Ivory is perhaps best known for his literary adaptations, a series of period pieces about upper-middle-class gentility and alienation. The films were vehicles for Ivory's sharp renderings of emotion constrained by manners and reflected in the details of home decor. Writing for the "Film & TV" section of the Boston Phoenix, Jeffrey Gantz noted, "For the past 35 years, Merchant Ivory have been making movies about the slight angle at which we all stand toward one another. The trio express the difficulty of connecting through a number of metaphors: past/present, Hindu/Muslim, England/India (or Italy), America/Europe, homosexual/heterosexual, man/woman." In his previous films, Ivory had explored cultural barriers to traditional romantic love; in the novels, he found sexual ambiguities to describe on film.
In The Europeans (1979) adapted from the Henry James novel, prim New Englanders are visited by sophisticated European cousins. Efforts are made to bridge the romantic gap and implications of incest. Quartet (1981), from the novel by Jean Rhys, is about a British couple in Paris vying emotionally and sexually for the attention of a young woman. Ivory returned to James for The Bostonians (1984) and a shrinking world of cousins, lesbians, and menage a trois.
It was the adaptations of E. M. Forster novels that brought critical success and enormous popularity to Ivory. Forster's belief that "the private life holds the mirror to infinity" resonated with Ivory. In The Denver Post movie critic, Stephen Rosen said, "Ivory believes the lives of these people are interesting because they are singular, not representative of a greater us or them. That is so refreshing it amounts to a revelation." A Room with a View (1986) was Ivory's first blockbuster movie, followed by Maurice in 1987. Howards End, (1992) which won three Academy Awards, including best actress for Emma Thompson, is considered to be Ivory's artistic masterpiece.
Ivory applied similar artistry and sensibilities to Mr. and Mrs. Bridge (1990) set in Kansas City and Paris, adapted from the novels, Mr. Bridge and Mrs. Bridge, by Evan Connell. The Remains of the Day (1993) was adapted from Kazuro Ishiguro's novel.
Ivory returned to Paris for his next three films. They told the story of wealthy, influential men in mid-life, with a focus on their relationship to the women in their lives— daughters, wives, and lovers. Jefferson in Paris (1995), is about U.S. president Thomas Jefferson, Surviving Picasso (1996), relates the story of Pablo Picasso, and A Soldier's Daughter (1998) describes James Jones, an American writer. Ivory returned to a Henry James novel for the story A Golden Bowl (2000).
Merchant Ivory Productions
"Filmmaking just wouldn't be as much fun without Ismail and Ruth. Working together has become a way of life for us, not just a way of work," Ivory told Mills. "Of course, we quarrel often, but never in a loud-voiced way. In the end we work together, each with a strong ego, but never coming down flatly on one another. If one of us is not with the others, that one is missed." Although the team often travels to India and Europe, they come home to New York. They all have apartments in the same building on 52nd Street.
The Merchant Ivory team also includes the actors and technicians who work on the movies. Many of them keep returning to work on the next movie, due to the family atmosphere of the company, and because they share in the profits, which are sometimes considerable. The Europeans, Heat and Dust, and Howards End did quite well at the box office, while A Room with a View made millions.
Ivory has been greatly influenced by Indian director, Satyajit Ray. In 1992, when the Indian director was to receive an Academy Award for his lifetime achievement in films, the Academy began searching for clips to show as a tribute, and found his films in deteriorated condition. Having drawn inspiration from the great director, Ivory and Merchant took on the task of having his films restored. Nine of these films were digitally refurbished and are again being shown
In 1994, Ivory received the D. W. Griffith Award from the Directors Guild of America for distinguished achievement in motion picture direction. "I feel humbled— especially when I saw who the other recipients of this award have been, and for the fact that it is for all my work," he told Carolyn Hill in an interview for DGA Magazine. He credited the turning point of his career to meeting Ismail Merchant and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. "I have always thought the three of us are a bit like the United States Government," he continued in his conversation with Hill. "I've said this before and I don't mind saying it again. I'm the president. Ismail is the Congress and Ruth is the Supreme Court. That's how we operate. That's how our business gets done and I think that defines our functions."
As noted in Ivory's biography on the Internet Movie Database, "Ivory and his producer/life companion Ismail Merchant, have enjoyed a collaboration that is probably unequaled in movie history for its success and consistency."
Further Reading on James Ivory
Biography, November 1998.
Christian Science Monitor November 20, 1996.
Cosmopolitan, March 1992.
Newsweek March 16, 1992; May 1, 1995.
"The Elegance of James Ivory," DGA Magazine, http://www.dga.org/magazine/v20-2/ivory2.html (November 9, 1999).
"Film & TV: Mr. and Mrs. Bridge," The Boston Phoenix, April 13, 1998, http://www.weeklywire.com/ww/04-13-98/boston-movies-1.html (November 10, 1999).
"James Ivory," 35 Years of Merchant Ivory, http://www.geocities.com/Hollywood/Hills/2850/movies.html (February 12, 2000).
"James Ivory," Internet Movie Database (IMDb), http://www.imdb.com/(February 12, 2000).
"James Ivory takes a stab at American film again," http://www.usc.edu/student-affairs/dt/V135/N10/04-james.10d.html (February 12, 2000).
"A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries," Denver Post Online: Entertainment, http://www.denverpost.com/movie/sold0925.htm (November 10, 1999).
"Sundance Filmmaker Focus: Merchant-Ivory," Sundance Channel, http://www.sundancechannel.com/focus/merchant/index.html (November 10, 1999).