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Solid Ivory: Memoirs, by James Ivory


Solid Ivory: Memoirs

James Ivory
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, pp.399, $30

Over the course of more than forty years of globe-trotting filmmaking, James Ivory and Ismail Merchant plunked their cameras down in India, France, Massachusetts, and even Kansas City. Yet, because their best known films were, almost without exception, adaptations of British literary classics, including E. M. Forster’s Room with a View and Howards End, there existed a misapprehension among some in the public that the director-producer team must have been British themselves. Even the name “Merchant Ivory Productions” contributed to the confusion: when understood as nouns rather than surnames, the pairing of “merchant” with “ivory” was redolent of colonial-era elephant hunting (or something like that).

The extent of this misunderstanding is difficult to gauge, but, in an era before the advent of the Internet Movie Database, D.V.D. commentaries, or YouTube, it was understandable that some might have assumed Merchant or Ivory to have been Britons by birth, circumstance, or choice. In fact, Merchant, who died in 2005, was born in India, and Ivory, who is very much alive at age ninety three, was born in Berkeley, California. All of this seemed to have amused Ivory, particularly when showing his films in European cities. “In some ways, you know, they just assumed I was British, and they couldn’t tell from my accent that I wasn’t,” Ivory said in an interview in 2016. “But, no, I’m completely American—I mean, I’ve always lived in the United States. Even when I was making my films overseas, I still continued to live in New York.” As it happens, the novelist Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who in her capacity as the team’s faithful screenwriter adapted numerous classic novels (and a few of her own) and who died in 2013, comes closest to having an insider’s perspective on the British society that Merchant and Ivory so often took as subject of their films: Jhabvala was born to a Jewish family in Germany and, in flight from the Nazis, immigrated to England while still a girl. There, she studied English literature at Queen Mary College. She married Cyrus Jhabvala, an architect from Bombay whose name she took, and picked up stakes for India before moving permanently to New York.

The filmmakers’ unlikely jumble of backgrounds—Indian, American, German—turned out to be a major advantage. Their genuine diversity offered them entrée into a variety of milieus—the India of The Householder (1963), Shakespeare Wallah (1965), and Heat and Dust (1983); the early America of The Europeans (1979) and The Bostonians (1984); the modern America of Slaves of New York (1989) and Mr. & Mrs. Bridge (1990); and, of course, the England of A Room with a View (1985) and Howards End (1992)—while also assuring that, on any given film project, at least one member of the team was just enough of an outsider to see that world through fresh eyes. These are films that capture the authentic details of time and place—locations, clothing, behavior, and speech patterns—while remaining always the work of outsiders, travelers, and voyagers. India was once fresh and surprising to Ivory; so presumably was Kansas City to Merchant.

Indeed, Ivory’s interest in the passions and plights of society’s nonconformists, odd ducks, and round holes in square pegs was career-long. We find it in the displacement of Eugenia Munster (Lee Remick), a long-exiled-to-Europe relation of an American family who finds herself ill-at-ease in Unitarian Massachusetts, in The Europeans;  the stifled passion of Lucy Honeychurch (Helena Bonham Carter), who pounds at the piano more decisively than she conducts her romantic life, in A Room with a View; in the earnest striving of the social-climber Leonard Bast (Samuel West), who checks the boxes of things to do to better himself—reading books, going to talks—but still pulls up short, in Howards End; and in the melancholy isolation of Channe Willis (Leelee Sobieski), a girl born to American parents but raised in Paris (a fictionalized version of Kaylie Jones, daughter of the novelist James Jones), in A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries (1998). In the last film, largely unheralded but perhaps Ivory’s greatest, there is a genuinely Proustian moment when Channe, on the eve of being taken back to America by her parents, walks through an empty corridor in her family’s Paris apartment and asks, “No one’s home?” before the film superimposes an image, from years earlier, of Channe and her little brother playing in the same corridor. The question—“No one’s home?”—is so touching because Paris won’t be Channe’s home for much longer, and it never really was to begin with.

The roots of Ivory’s sympathy for social exiles and actual expatriates make for some of the most compelling passages in his new memoir, the engaging if haphazardly structured Solid Ivory. Ivory came by his nonconformist instincts naturally. Not only was the filmmaker adopted—a status young James seems to have relished, since, after getting over the shock of the news, he reckoned that his adoption “must be a big thing if everybody at school was talking about it”—but he was raised in a place about as far removed from England’s green and pleasant land as any imaginable: Klamath Falls, Oregon. Ivory came to what he describes here as “a very western lumber and cattle-ranching town” in 1933, after his parents’ savings were obliterated in the stock-market crash. In his adopted hometown, his father prospered as the co-founder of the Ivory Pine Company. 

Located in the southwestern portion of the state, Klamath Falls still marches to its own drum in one of the most militantly liberal states in the union. The town is the seat of Klamath County, which in the 2020 presidential election favored Donald Trump over Joe Biden by nearly forty percent. What could be a better training ground for an outsider? Ivory writes with affection of being among “all the oddballs, the school weirdos, the types who did not quite fit in anywhere else” and took a high-school dramatics class. He seems to have been sure of who he was from an early age, noting that it was when, at age six, he asked for a doll’s house for Christmas, that he “began to think of myself as something more, in the sense of being distinct and perhaps also higher in value.”

Perhaps growing up in such rugged, rough-hewn country, seemingly so unpalatable to anyone with artistic or intellectual gifts, made Ivory more curious about the wider world and tolerant of its manifold traditions and shibboleths than if he had been raised in a place as homogeneous as, say, the Upper West Side. Far from wishing to slough off his origins, Ivory delights in referring to his first meeting with Merchant, at a screening of one of Ivory’s early solo films, as the convergence of two roads, “one beginning on Manzanita Street in Klamath Falls, the other in Pindi Bazaar in Bombay.” The third road runs through Old Delhi, where, in 1959, Ivory, whose nomadic ways had already taken him to Venice and the other far-flung spots, crashed a New Year’s party thrown by the Jhabvalas. The following year, having by then teamed with Merchant, Ivory proposed to turn Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s novel, The Householder, into a movie. So they did.

Solid Ivory advertises itself as having been “edited by Peter Cameron,” and Cameron, a gifted author whose novel The City of Your Final Destination was turned into a fine film by Ivory and Jhabvala in 2009, does indeed seem to have done yeoman’s work in stitching together a series of memories, anecdotes, and previously published bits and pieces. Whatever the limitations of this approach, it allows Ivory’s personality to emerge intact. 

It’s a pleasure to read a book by a man so comfortable in his own skin that he can admit, despite a lifetime of traveling in cosmopolitan circles, that he has never lost his enthusiasm for his mother’s plain cooking: “I have never been able, in my own house, to attain the snowy whiteness and smooth consistency of her mashed potatoes, which were really a puree, and that before the days of food mills and blenders.” Despite directing material thought to be highbrow, Ivory himself is no snob, defining filmmaking as a profession whose members must be “wide but not deep, because a director has to deal with hundreds of things going on horizontally and he must deal with all of these things confidently, but he may not be able to deal with them in the depth that he would like.” Not even Sidney Lumet, in his classic book Making Movies, gave a better definition.

Ivory seems decidedly unimpressed with the moods and whims of actors, describing the preposterous caravan of aides-de-camp that preceded the arrival of Raquel Welch, the self-important star of The Wild Party (1975), on the set with a dresser, hair stylist, makeup artist, and “personal drama coach.” Welch may be an easy mark, but Ivory is to be applauded for admitting exasperation at Vanessa Redgrave’s politically correct impatience with The Bostonians when she was cast as Olive Chancellor in Ivory’s film version: “Was not the reactionary Basil Ransom a slave-beater, Vanessa asked? Was he not deeply evil, and should he not therefore be made to seem more satanic? Had Ruth shown this clearly enough?” Jhabvala, perhaps anticipating the present rebellion against such woke readings of classic texts, “had imagined that all this sort of thing had already been gotten resolved,” writes Ivory, who, elsewhere, refuses to spare Susan Sontag (presented as a pretentious snoop), Luca Guadagnino (who apparently reneged on a deal for Ivory to co-direct Call Me by Your Name), or Jhabvala herself (whom he clearly adored but whose insistence that starry skies aren’t visible in the West is presented as the affectation of someone who had lived too long in the East). 

These scores are settled amiably. Somewhere in the middle of the book, Ivory remembers a frustrating encounter with the great Hollywood director George Cukor, who, in his old age, had a propensity for, shall we say, profane language (somewhat mirrored in Ivory’s own needlessly descriptive accounts of his youthful sexual exploits). Ivory puts a button on his meeting with the angry, foul-mouthed Cukor by recalling that the great man’s debut was a 1930 picture called, appropriately, Grumpy. Well, let it never be said that James Ivory is that. 

Decades ago, when their films were prominent enough to invite scorn, Merchant Ivory productions were sometimes discussed as though they were little more than grandly produced episodes of Masterpiece Theatre. Of course, the vibrancy and excitement of the films themselves belie that notion—there’s wit worthy of Lubitsch in their portrayal of Lucy’s stuffed-shirt suitor Cecil Vyse in A Room with a View and a sense of romantic melodrama on the order of Borzage in their depiction of the abortive relationship between a butler and a housekeeper in The Remains of the Day—but so does this memoir, which shows just how far Ivory traveled, and how wide his eyes were open along the way, to reach India and England and France, and assorted points in American and world history, from good ol’ Klamath Falls. 

Peter Tonguette contributes frequently to the American Conservative, National Review, and the Wall Street Journal.

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