Oscars 2018: Tracing Academy Award-winning screenwriter James Ivory's peerless art, beyond Call Me By Your Name

Gautam Chintamani

Mar,06 2018 08:50:24 IST

Till yesterday an entire generation would have best known James Ivory, the much-celebrated American filmmaker who elevated literary adaptations to great heights, as the ‘second oldest’ person to ever get an Oscar nomination. Today, there is a slight change in the status as the 89-year old became the ‘oldest’ person to win an Academy Award. In the run-up to the Oscars this year, he was the frontrunner to win the Academy Award for the Best Adapted Screenplay for Call Me By Your Name. Ivory, who is often mistaken for being a Briton — thanks to most of his oeuvre being English — said in an interview that long after all his films had become dust, being the second oldest Oscar competitor “could be what I am remembered as.” Ironically, while it may boil down to that, there is much more that the younger generation of filmmakers as well as audiences need to laud Ivory for.

James Ivory. Image from Twitter/@Telegraph

James Ivory. Image from Twitter/@Telegraph

One-half of the legendary Merchant-Ivory Productions along with producer and his long-time partner, Ismail Merchant, Ivory could be single-handedly credited for transforming the stature of literary adaptation. After they formed their partnership in 1961, Ivory and Merchant worked together for 44 years. Besides producing 40 films until the latter’s death in 2005, they also hold a Guinness World Record for being the longest collaboration in independent cinema. What makes his art unique is the manner in which his cinema has metamorphosed from documentary to humanism just like the tradition of Satyajit Ray and Jean Renoir. His style, as described by Ivory himself, is characterised by Brits meddling in the matters of the upper-class heart, which is nothing less than a study of cinema. Besides Ismail Merchant, Ivory also formed a very deep-rooted partnership with novelist Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who beginning with The Householder wrote 22 Merchant-Ivory productions including A Room With a View (1986), Howards End (1992), which fetched her an Academy Award each and The Remains of the Day (1993).

Many filmmakers are considered to be geniuses or great artists. But it’s only a handful of them who come to be acknowledged as the gold standard in their kind of cinema, thereby becoming synonymous with the genre. It is here that the true brilliance of James Ivory comes to the front. The name ‘Merchant-Ivory’ was nearly an industry standard when it came to cinematic adaptations of literary works and there are two instances where one can see what the brand truly meant.

During the making of making of Mr. and Mrs. Bridge (1990), Ivory and Merchant were embroiled in a creative fight with the now disgraced Hollywood Mogul, Harvey Weinstein. Merchant was a hands-on producer and the fashion in which he got things done was the stuff of legends but Weinstein, who was producing the film, had his own ideas. He wanted to tinker around with the ending, change the way the film looked as he thought it would help him market it. He even refused to pay Merchant and Ivory money that he owed them and kept insisting on the changes but when Paul Newman, who was the lead in the film, heard about Weinstein giving a tough time he called him and said, “lay off and pay ‘em.” This incident recounted in Peter Biskind’s book, Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance and the Rise of Independent Film, conveys the exceptional value that the ‘Merchant-Ivory’ brand had. In 1993, when Martin Scorsese ventured into the period drama terrain with an adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novel The Age of Innocence with Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer and Winona Ryder, the genre was famously considered to a strictly Merchant-Ivory territory. Despite Scorsese’s distinctive stamp on the narrative critics such as Roger Ebert, as well as the audiences were not mistaken that this was just the kind of story that had been “filmed, very well, by the Merchant-Ivory team.” After all, this was the early 1990s and the trio of James Ivory, Ismail Merchant, and Ruth Jhabvala were at their peak with Howards End and Remains Of The Day.

In a career spanning across 50 years, James Ivory’s works have remained timeless, important and peerless. His art has attracted some of the best talents in the industry including James Mason, Peggy Ashcroft, Shashi Kapoor, Isabelle Adjani, Alan Bates, Maggie Smith, Christopher Walken, Geraldine Chaplin, Christopher Reeve, Emma Thompson, Helena Bonham Carter, Anthony Hopkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Nick Nolte, Greta Scacchi, Thandie Newton, and Gwyneth Paltrow, most of whom would happily work for scale in order to take on a career-changing role. Before Call Me By Your Name, James Ivory had been nominated thrice for Best Director for A Room With a View, Howards End and The Remains of the Day. He lost out to Oliver Stone (Platoon), Clint Eastwood (Unforgiven) and Steven Spielberg (Schindler's List) respectively. But more than his craft or the crew he brings together to convey emotions, it’s the way in which he forms the connection with the nameless audiences that make James Ivory a true all-time great.

Openly gay, Ivory believes that coming to terms with his sexuality was not difficult for him and while it was not something he wanted to tell everybody, it never struck him as wrong. Call Me By Your Name has been hailed as one of the freshest love stories in recent years but this isn’t the first time that Ivory has delivered a seminal gay-themed movie. In 1987 he co-wrote Maurice that centered around a young man’s homosexuality in the early 1900s. Maurice released at a time when there was widespread panic due to AIDS and the world was probably not ready for a historic gay love story but it did leave an impact on people whose lives mirrored the narrative. Till date, Ivory has random people on the streets thanking him for how the film changed their lives. The many worlds that James Ivory has created in his films have resonated with millions across continents and it’s the way he puts in a bit of himself and a bit of the viewer within them that makes it worth celebrating.

Updated Date: Mar 06, 2018 08:55 AM