Before I begin recanting his extraordinary life and career, I would firstly like to thank James Ivory for single-handedly ending my quarter-life crisis. For, like many in their early twenties, I spent a long time feeling utterly lost, only too aware of the milestones I had not yet completed by 23. However, after achieving his first solo BAFTA for his “Call Me By Your Name”screenplay (and perhaps his first solo Oscar this Sunday!) at the grand age of 89, Ivory has given a confused young millennial some hope. Perhaps there is still time for me to do something with my life; there is seemingly no age limit on greatness after all.
My fellow brethren of Generation Y might be further assured to know that Ivory didn’t immediately recognise his call into the golden lights of Hollywood. Even though he was born in Berkeley, California, a dazzling hub of actors and filmmakers, he was raised in the more grounded Klamath Falls, Oregon. His father, Edward Patrick Ivory, owned a lumber company whilst his mother, Hallie Millicent Ivory, devoted her time to raising him and his sister Charlotte. Although, with his brilliant imagination and great passion for art and history, it was clear that he was not going to follow in his father’s footsteps, young Ivory actually aspired to be an architect, based on the advice of one who frequented his family home. After high school, Ivory continued with this ambition, graduating with a degree in Architecture and Fine Art from the University of Oregon in 1951.
Yet, it seems inevitable that he would eventually succumb to the winking eye of the silver screen. Even from a young age, Ivory adored film, spending every Saturday of his young life at the cinema with his mother. He also got to regularly visit film sets, as his father often sold lumber to MGM Studios. In hindsight, he should, perhaps, have recognised his directorial spirit a bit earlier; even as just a boy on the cusp of adolescence, he could not refrain from offering critiques to the filmmakers and production team around him. On one particular occasion, he could not help scolding them for using a carpet on set that he found particularly “inappropriate”. This eye for detail, and desire to maintain a film’s integrity would go on to serve him well in his career, although it was possibly not best appreciated at this time.
After briefly running away to France post graduation with the vague notion of learning French (a plan of action this writer relates to a little too well…), Ivory found his inner filmmaker. He enrolled at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts to do a masters in film, during which he travelled to Venice to create his master thesis: the documentary “Venice: Theme and Variations”. His studies were, however, interrupted by the Korean War, where he spent two years serving in Germany. The background warfare, however, did not diminish his love for art and drama; he passed most of his time in service organising the soldiers’ shows, something he furtherly enjoyed and fondly remembers. After the war, he finished off his master thesis documentary, and graduated from USC in 1957. The legacy of “Venice: Theme and Variations” did not end with the descent of his sky-flung mortarboard; it went on to be named by the New York Times as one of the ten best non-theatrical films of that year.
It was with Ivory’s next film, “The Sword and the Flute”, released in 1959, that his life was truly transformed. It was at its New York premier that Ivory met Ismail Merchant, the young business student who would become a “powerful engine” in Ivory’s life. They together, collaborating with the writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, would form the powerhouse production company known today as “Merchant Ivory”. Their partnership, lasting 44 years, has been noted in the Guinness Book of World Records as being the longest in the history of independent cinema. As well as being one of the longest, it also undoubtedly one of the most successful partnerships in cinematic history. Producing such films as “Howard’s End”, “A Room With A View”, “Mr and Mrs Bridge” and “The Remains of the Day”, Merchant Ivory have received countless accolades, including 23 Academy Award nominations, of which they won 6.
Other than their career success, it is worth noting that meeting Merchant changed Ivory’s destiny in another way; in him, he found his soulmate. They spent the whole of their 44 year professional partnership as romantic partners as well.Their relationship was by no means conventional; years into their partnership, the couple decided to have an open relationship and both did see other people whilst remaining together. Despite this, they stayed truly loving and dedicated to one another until Merchant’s sudden death in 2005. Ivory described Merchant’s death as being “the worst thing that ever happened to [him]”, to which “nothing will compare”. However, in a way, Ivory was lucky – Merchant’s passing occurred whilst the duo had been editing “The White Countess”. Having to focus on finishing the film helped Ivory avoid falling into too deep a depression. It wasn’t until, however, Ivory started shooting “The City of Your Final Destination” years later, that he felt alive again. He explains that it was through “shooting a film, doing what [he] was supposed to do” that he managed to find “happiness” once more.
Beyond his own love life, James Ivory has been an amazing and incredibly positive influence on the LGBT+ community. His impact is particularly shown through his work. “Call Me By Your Name” has received brilliant praise for capturing homosexual love in film in all its purity and loveliness, free of political agenda and villains. However, I would argue that it is his earlier film “Maurice”, adapted from the novel by E.M. Forster, that has had the greater cultural influence. During the late 1980s, a time where AIDS paranoia and homophobia was rife, Ivory had the utter bravery to release a film capturing the forbidden love between two men in Edwardian England. He gave gay men a voice, a narrative, and mostly hope, in a time where they were silenced and forced to hide in shame. Through “Maurice”, Ivory was a light, one that penetrated the darkness of closets, guiding their inhabitants out with love and pride. Even now, people come up to Ivory to thank him for making “Maurice”; that is how much power it has had in their lives.
I started this article by thanking Ivory for the inspiration that his most recent success has given me in my life. I wish to finish it by once again thanking Ivory for the strength, hope, and beauty that his whole film legacy has given to so many.