Merchant and Ivory. These two legendary names emblazoned on a movie poster or trailer instantly lit fires of anticipation inside cinephiles of the 1980s and early 1990s, myself included. This label was always good news, for it heralded a new offering in the works by the master producer/director team: Ismail Merchant and James Ivory — think “A Room With A View,” “Maurice,” “Howard’s End,” “The Remains Of The Day.”
Born in Berkley, Calif., and living in New York City, N.Y., James Ivory is now nearly 90 years old. His long-time lover and business partner, Ismail Merchant, passed away in 2005 at age 68.
I had the chance to have a chat with Ivory recently, but not because he has a new movie coming out. Rather, his 1987 film “Maurice,” based on the E.M. Forster novel of the same name (and, incidentally, Hugh Grant’s first film) is getting a theatrical rerelease, courtesy of a 4-K restoration by Cohen Media Group, currently one of the biggest independent movie studios. Their “The Salesman,” released in conjunction with Amazon Studios, won the 2017 Best Foreign Film Oscar.
The movie “Maurice” is set in pre-World War I England, where Maurice Hall (James Wilby) and Clive Durham (Hugh Grant) find themselves falling in love while attending the University of Cambridge. In a time when being gay was punishable by imprisonment, the two must keep their feelings for one another a complete secret. After their friend Lord Risley (Mark Tandy) is arrested and sentenced to six months of hard labor after soliciting sex from a soldier, Clive abandons his true-yet-forbidden love and marries a young woman. Maurice, however, struggles with questions of his identity and self-confidence, seeking the help of a hypnotist (Ben Kingsley) to rid himself of his undeniable urges.
Whilst staying with Clive and his shallow wife, Anne (Phoebe Nicholls), Maurice attracts the attention of Alec Scudder (Rupert Graves), the under-gamekeeper. Alec then leaves his family in order to stay with Maurice, whom he tells, “Now we shan’t never be parted.”
To this very day the most successful independent movie of all time, “A Room With A View” was made for $3 million, but raked in over $70 million worldwide. Naturally, I asked Ivory if there was any pushback from the movie studio about “Maurice,” his follow-up to “A Room With A View,” since the picture was a bona-fide gay love story, replete with male nudity. Remember, this was 1987. There was no gay marriage; there were no gay rights in the workplace. Very few professional men were out of the closet. Finding an openly gay boy in any high school anywhere in the world was probably more challenging than finding a unicorn and leprechaun in a field at the same time.
“None. There was no blowback,” answers Ivory. “The only possible problem was that E.M. Forster’s estate, [King’s College], thought that the book was not up to the literary value of the other Forster novels and that making it into a film in some way might harm Forster’s literary reputation. That is the only slight hesitation that they had. But they ended up letting us shoot the entire film there. No one said anything about its [gay] subject matter. And when it came out here [in the U.S.], it found its audience.”
What James Ivory wanted, James Ivory got.
It all began in 1983. Merchant/Ivory (and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala) had done their first movie, “The Householder,” for Columbia Pictures back in 1963. They had also made a number of well-received art-house films during a five-year span, among them “The Europeans” (1979), “Quartet” (1981), and “Heat And Dust” (1983), when Columbia Pictures came knocking, asking the Merchant/Ivory duo to produce and direct their upcoming epic “A Passage To India,” based on the acclaimed E.M. Forster novel.
“No. I don’t want to direct ‘A Passage To India,’ I told a room full of Columbia executives,” recounts Ivory. “I want to produce and direct ‘A Room With A View.’ Their mouths all fell open,” he says. “They couldn’t believe I would pass up the opportunity to direct ‘A Passage To India’ instead, wanting to direct and produce Forster’s little book, ‘A Room With A View.’ That’s what they called it, ‘that little book.’ Ivory stuck to his guns, passing on “A Passage To India,’” for which its legendary director David Lean also penned the screenplay and which went on to earn 11 Oscar nominations, including Best Director and Best Picture in 1985.
Ivory struck a deal with a fledgling independent movie studio, Cinecom, in 1984, to produce and direct “A Room With A View” under the Merchant/Ivory banner.
“The main reason I wanted to make ‘A Room With A View,’” adds Ivory, after a slight pause, “was because I hadn’t been to Italy in over 20 years.” Of course, part of the reason “A Room With A View” became so popular was its brilliant cinematography, which turned the film into a must-see travelogue — images of Florence and Tuscan and Edwardian English countryside looking better in that film than when viewing the scenery with one’s own two eyes — in addition to Oscar-winning dramatic effort.
“When I auditioned Hugh Grant for the role of Clive for ‘Maurice,’” says Ivory, “he reminded me that he had been sent up to audition for the Daniel Day-Lewis role in ‘A Room With A View,’ but I threw him out after 30 seconds. Well, maybe it was because he was unbelievably handsome and too good-looking for the role of Cecil.
“But for Clive [in ‘Maurice’] he was perfection. Appearance, class-wise, in terms of accent and all that. So he got the part right away.”
Did Hugh Grant hesitate at all about playing a gay role? I asked Ivory, again remembering that it was 30 years ago and Hugh Grant’s first movie. “None. No one has ever hesitated. We have had gay characters in quite a few of our films and no one ever passed on them. Remember, Anthony Hopkins with a Japanese lover in ‘City of Our Final Destination,’ and he just did it.”
There is a third link to the Merchant and Ivory banner: Jhabvala. Before passing away at age 85 in 2013, Jhabvala won Oscars for adapting the screenplays for “A Room With A View” and “Howard’s End,” the other two E.M. Forster novels that Ivory directed and Merchant produced. But she did not adapt “Maurice.” Why, I asked Ivory, did she pass on this film, which Ivory ended up writing the screenplay for?
“Two reasons,” he answers. “The biggest reason, she was writing a novel, “Three Continents,” and wanted to give that her full attention. But, secondly, she didn’t feel it was one of Forster’s better books and for that reason wasn’t interested in adapting it. In all of her years of working with us, if she was busy writing a novel, she wouldn’t work on a screenplay. She was careful how she dealt out her time.”
While by no means as successful as “A Room With A View” (and, realistically, there will probably never be an independent movie that is more successful in terms of Oscar recognition and box office returns), “Maurice,” which cost $2.6 million to produce, took in exactly that much in U.S. theaters, thereby just breaking even in the U.S. It earned one Oscar nomination, Best Costume Design, compared to “A Room With A View” and its eight Oscar nominations (and three wins), including Best Picture and Director for Ivory.
It is back, however, better than ever, for a whole new generation to see where it is meant to be seen on the big screen.
There is hope, too, that Cohen Media Group will restore “A Room With A View” for a whole new audience to see on the big screen and for the millions who originally saw it in movie theaters to be able to enjoy its splendor once again.