Ismail Merchant and James Ivory.
These two legendary names emblazoned on a movie poster or trailer instantly lit fires of anticipation inside any 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: Merchant and Ivory. Think A Room With a View, Maurice, Howard's End, The Remains of the Day and more.
Born in Berkley, California, and living in New York City, Ivory is now nearly 90 years old. Merchanthis longtime lover and business partnerpassed 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 on the horizon. 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.
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 homosexuality 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."
Still 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 more than $70 million worldwide. Naturally, Windy City Times asked Ivory if there was any pushback from the movie studio about Maurice, his follow-up to "View," since the picture was a bonafide gay love story, replete with male nudity. Remember, this was 1987. There was no same-sex 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," Ivory said. "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 United States], it found its audience."
What Ivory wanted, 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 also had made a number of well-received art-house films during a five-year spanincluding The Europeans ( 1979 ), Quartet ( 1981 ), and Heat And Dust ( 1983 )when Columbia Pictures came knocking, asking the Merchant/Ivory duo to produce and direct its upcoming epic A Passage to India, based on the acclaimed Forster novel.
"No. I don't want to direct A Passage To India,' I told a room full of Columbia executives," recounted 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, which legendary director David Lean penned the screenplay for, and directed, and which went on to earn eleven Oscar nominations, including ones for 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," added 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 because of its brilliant cinematography, turning the film into a must-see travelogueimages of Florence and Tuscan and Edwardian England countryside that look better in that film than in when viewing the scenery with your own two eyesin addition to Oscar winning dramatic effort.
"When I auditioned Hugh Grant for the role of Clive for Maurice," said 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 perfectionappearance, class-wise, in terms of accent and all that. So he got the part right away."
When asked if Grant hesitate at all about playing a gay role, Ivoryagain remembering that it was 30 years ago and Hugh Grant's first moviesaid, "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/Ivory banner: Jhabvala. Passing away at age 85 in 2013, Jhabvala won Oscars for adapting the screenplays for A Room with a View and Howard's End, which were the other two Forster novels that Ivory directed and Merchant produced. However, she did not adapt the Maurice screenplay.
When asked why she passed on this film, Ivory said, "Two reasons. The biggest reason, she was writing a novelThree Continentsand 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 "View" ( and, realistically, there will probably never be an independent movie that is more successful in terms of Oscar and box office ), Maurice, which cost $2.6 million to produce, took in exactly that much in U.S. theaters, thereby just breaking even. It earned one Oscar nomination ( Best Costume Design ), compared to "View" and its eight Oscar nominations ( and three wins ), including for Best Picture and Director for James Ivory.
It is back, however, better than ever, for a whole new generation to see where it belongs to be seen, on the big screen.
There is hope, too, that Cohen Media Group will restore "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.