|James Ivory. Photo by Tim Knox|
For many gay men coming of age in the eighties and nineties, James Ivory's "Maurice" was revelatory: a first glimpse, onscreen or anywhere, of what love between men could look like.
By Sarah Larson
The New Yorker – May 19, 2017
In an interview for the 2004 Criterion Collection DVD of the first film by Merchant Ivory Productions, "The Householder" (1963), James Ivory and Ismail Merchant, gray-haired and wearing similar oxford shirts, sit together in a muralled room in their 1805 Federal-style house in Claverack, New York, and companionably bicker about how they met. It was in 1961, at the Indian Consulate in Manhattan, at a screening of Ivory's short documentary about Indian miniature paintings, "The Sword and the Flute". Ivory says that they met on the steps. "He accosted me", he says. Merchant invited Ivory for coffee.
"You were in the screening room", Merchant says.
"No!" Ivory says. "You met me on the steps. I remember very well". They debate; Ivory smiles. "You looked around –"
"No, I didn't look around!" Merchant says. "My eyes always focus on the right things."
"It's chemistry", their friend Saeed Jaffrey says in the video. "When I first introduced them to each other, I knew that the chemistry was there, and it has remained all through these years."
Merchant died in 2005. "He was my life's partner", Ivory told me, when I visited him on a recent Friday at the house in Claverack. "From the beginning right on down to his final day. I lived openly with him for forty-five years, in New York and wherever else we were" – Manhattan, London, Paris. "That says what it says."
Merchant grew up Muslim in Bombay and went to grad school at New York University. Ivory, the son of a sawmill owner, grew up Catholic in Klamath Falls, Oregon. He will be eighty-nine in June. He travels frequently. Upstate, he drives a car; in the city, he rides the subway. He walks with a cane. He seems to remember everything from every movie he has made. He described to me how, in 1963, he and Merchant visited the novelist Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, whom they had never met, at her house in Old Delhi, and convinced her to work with them on adapting "The Householder". The partnership continued throughout their lives. Jhabvala and her husband eventually moved to the East Side apartment building that Merchant and Ivory lived in while in Manhattan; she often stayed at the house in Claverack. Her daughter later got married there. Jhabvala's highly literate screenplays, Merchant's showmanship, finagling, and charm, and Ivory's sensitive, exquisite direction resulted in gorgeous, emotionally realistic films, made in India, the United States, Italy, the U.K., and beyond. The films, featuring exquisite costumes and shot on location, sometimes in friends' houses, appeared to have cost a fortune but were made for relatively little. "We've never had the grandest kind of English people in our movies", Ivory said, about the stereotype of their films being aristocratic. "I mean, the English are famous for their nice houses." From the sixties onward, Merchant Ivory averaged about a movie a year, both original and adapted screenplays, from work by Jhabvala, Henry James, Cheever, and others. In 1985, they turned to E. M. Forster. Merchant fell in love with "A Room with a View". In the film, we watch the ingénue Lucy Honeychurch (Helena Bonham Carter), in Italy and Edwardian England, fall for the unconventional George Emerson (Julian Sands), and, for a time, suffer the absurdity of being engaged to the priggish Cecil Vyse (Daniel Day-Lewis). To blow off steam, she plays Beethoven, thunderously. Mr. Beebe (a pipe-smoking Simon Callow), an amiably omnipresent vicar, says things like "If Miss Honeychurch ever takes to live as she plays, it will be very exciting, both for us and for her".
"A Room with a View" is probably best remembered for Lucy and George's swooning first kiss, set to Puccini, in a field of poppies. But its exuberant spirit is also embodied in another memorable scene, in which Lucy's brother, Freddy (Rupert Graves), George, and the Reverend Beebe head into the woods, to a sun-dappled lake, strip naked, and jump in, whooping and splashing and wrestling; they get out and run around, leaping and bouncing; then they get caught. At the world première, at the Paris, in New York, the audience's laughter was so loud, Callow said, that you couldn't hear the dialogue. You hadn't seen that kind of male nudity onscreen before. "And you haven't seen it since!" Ivory told me. "A Room with a View" was nominated for eight Oscars and won three. "It changed our whole lives, that film", Ivory said. "We could probably have done anything we wanted then." They made "Maurice" – a story about love between men. (A newly restored 4K print of "Maurice", currently showing in New York, will soon open in cities nationwide.)
E. M. Forster wrote "Maurice" in 1913 and 1914; it was published in 1971, after his death. "A happy ending was imperative", Forster wrote, in 1960. "I was determined that in fiction anyway two men should fall in love and remain in it for the ever and ever that fiction allows... I dedicated it ‘To a Happier Year’ and not altogether vainly." Ivory saw it as a natural successor to "A Room with a View". "It was the same author, same period, same country", he told me. "Same situation, really. You had muddled young people living a lie." Maurice Hall falls in love with his schoolmate Clive Durham; Clive loves Maurice, but fearfully, and then spurns him. In the end, Maurice finds happiness with Alec Scudder, a gamekeeper on Clive's estate.
"As for the subject matter, there wasn't the slightest hesitation about it", Ivory said. "I didn't feel that I should worry. And neither did Ismail." But Jhabvala called the novel "sub-Forster and sub-Ivory", Ivory said – she thought "Maurice" was a minor work – and didn't want to write the screenplay. Ivory wrote it himself, with the help of Kit Hesketh-Harvey, a former BBC music and arts producer who had studied Forster and attended the same schools that Forster had. Julian Sands, originally cast as Maurice, dropped out, and was replaced by James Wilby; Hugh Grant played Clive; Rupert Graves played Alec Scudder. Graves was worried he couldn’t pull it off, because "he'd never played a working-class type", Ivory said. "Which is ridiculous, because he left home at sixteen to join the circus."
The book dares to imagine a better world – but only just. Maurice suffers throughout, and his happy ending is a bold and unlikely gift. Forster didn't publish the novel in his time because of obscenity laws. ("If it ended unhappily, with a lad dangling from a noose or with a suicide pact, all would be well, for there is no pornography or seduction of minors", he wrote. "But the lovers get away unpunished and consequently recommend crime.") In 1987, attitudes were the problem. Gay romance onscreen, especially at the multiplex, was rare. Happier endings were rarer still. A Times piece called "A Gay ‘Love Story’", about the novelty of the film's subject matter, imagined skeptics' responses to the film – "Is so defiant a salute to homosexual passion really to be welcomed during a spiraling aids crisis?" – and reassured readers that it was about love, not "bathhouse promiscuity".
One of the film's most tender scenes takes place in a room at Cambridge. Maurice sits in a chair; Clive sits on the floor, and Maurice strokes his hair. "They've obviously never embraced before", Ivory said. The scene is nearly silent except for the creaking of a chair. "The sound of that wicker chair is so sexy", Ivory said. "It's a fantastic sound. It just happened."
In both "A Room with a View" and "Maurice", the awkwardness of human intimacy is heightened by the constraints of upper-middle-class manners in Edwardian England. "A Room with a View" includes both some of the most stiffly unsexy kisses ever filmed, between Lucy and Cecil, as well as true barn-burners, between Lucy and George. In "Maurice", the moments of liberation are all the more euphoric. Before shooting, Graves and Wilby agreed to make their love scenes convincing. "Rupert said, ‘Let's go for it. Let's give 'em a real kiss’" Ivory said. "And they did – the sort of thing you don't really see in movies with male lovers. It just never happens." Male nudity makes a welcome reappearance, too. "I have always felt that people who have made love should be able to get up and move freely around the room", Ivory told the Times in 1987. "They do so in foreign films, but in Anglo-Saxon pictures they rarely do. And it seems to me so phony and ridiculous... Why should we subscribe to basically Victorian ideas about morality?"
Maurice and Scudder meet late in the story; Scudder can feel like a heartening deus ex machina. "But you also feel that they're going to make up for it somehow", Ivory said. "They're young, and they're going to make up for it."
The house in Claverack, bought in 1975, has nineteen rooms, with high ceilings and huge windows. Its eleven acres have a pond and several small buildings; "A Room with a View" was edited in a former apple-storage barn. At one point during my visit, Ivory brought me into the parlor where the interview with Merchant from the "Householder" DVD had taken place. The murals, which Ivory commissioned, are of imagined Hudson Valley landscapes circa 1800. He opened a cabinet topped with baftas to reveal a collection of elegant dioramas, one of them in a former pralines box. He handed them to me one by one and let me look through each tiny doorway: into an 1820 New Orleans boudoir; a 1761 Mt. Pleasant, Philadelphia, drawing room. He made them when he was thirteen.
That weekend, in a convivial Forsterian scenario, he had three houseguests. All of them had worked on Merchant Ivory films. Jeremiah Rusconi, the art director for "The Europeans", has also directed, over the years, the restoration of the house; now a restoration consultant, he currently lives there. Melissa Chung, a friend who began working for Merchant Ivory as a production assistant right out of Yale, in 1992, is there most weekends. That day, she and Benoît Pain (camera loader, "Le Divorce"), both in black-and-white striped Breton shirts, made lunch, as Ivory directed ("Have we started the asparagus?"). The group ate around a table in a sunny, windowed porch bursting with geraniums.
"Led by the maestro – the captain of our ship", Chung said.
"I invented this pepper soup", Ivory said. It was a bright-red purée. "But Melissa, and Benoît, too, knows all about hollandaise."
This year, Ivory had a hand in another gay coming-of-age romance – "Call Me by Your Name", directed by Luca Guadagnino. Ivory adapted the screenplay from the novel by André Aciman, in which Elio (Timothée Chalamet), seventeen, is wary of, then attracted to, Oliver (Armie Hammer), a twenty-four-year-old scholar who's assisting Elio's professor father at the family's Italian villa for the summer. The film has the Italian-countryside pleasures of "A Room with a View", and mirrors that and "Maurice" 's journeys from awkwardness to connection and joy. But it's also set in the eighties – so, like Clive, our hero's first love marries a woman and breaks his heart.
For many gay men coming of age in the eighties and nineties, "Maurice" was revelatory: a first glimpse, onscreen or anywhere, of what love between men could look like. One man recently told me that until "Maurice" he'd seen same-sex attraction only in "The Rocky Horror Picture Show". "So many people have come up to me since ‘Maurice’ and pulled me aside and said, ‘I just want you to know you changed my life’", Ivory said. One such man got off a bus and ran up to Ivory on the street, then ran away. The lifetimes of Merchant and Ivory spanned generations in which the cultural landscape changed slowly but radically; they both came from milieux in which being openly gay wasn't common or acceptable. "Such things were unthinkable, I think, to people of my parents' generation", Ivory said. "If you grew up in a small town somewhere – I didn't know about such things till I went to college." Did he struggle with it?
"I didn't", he said, looking content. "I didn't. For some reason, in the same way it was not a struggle to give up my religion. You know, a lot of people give up their religion, but, oh, my goodness, they go through such agonies. I never did." He laughed a little. "As I was telling someone, I always had this attitude about myself – Well, if I do it, it's O.K. And my friend said, ‘Jim, that's the attitude of a serial killer’". He laughed again. "I guess I had such a high opinion of myself that I really couldn't do wrong." Another way to look at it might be that happiness, once found, is definitively the right answer. With the right partner, you can create the world that you want to live in – and as an artist you can show us what it looks like.
|James Ivory and Ismail Merchant at a New York hotel on July 27, 1999.|
Photo by Mark Lennihan
Maurice (1987) – A film by James Ivory – James Wilby, Hugh Grant, Rupert Graves (Download the movie)