James Ivory and the making of a historic gay love story
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.
Maurice is a novel by E. M. Forster. A tale of same-sex love in early 20th-century England, it follows Maurice Hall from his schooldays, through university and beyond. It was written in 1913–1914, and revised in 1932 and 1959–1960. Although it was shown to selected friends, such as Christopher Isherwood, it was only published in 1971 after Forster’s death. Forster did not seek to publish it during his lifetime, believing it unpublishable during that period.
Forster was close friends with the poet Edward Carpenter, and upon visiting his Derbyshire home in 1912, was motivated to write Maurice. The relationship between Carpenter and his partner, George Merrill, was the inspiration for that between Maurice and Alec Scudder.
Forster resisted publication because of public and legal attitudes to same-sex love – a note found on the manuscript read: “Publishable, but worth it?”. Forster was particularly keen that his novel should have a happy ending, but knew that this would make the book too controversial. However, by the time he died, British attitudes, and law, had changed.
The novel has been adapted once for film and once for the stage
n 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.)
(A separate piece on “Maurice” the movie appears elsewhere)