“It’s, like, some hiccup in nature,” chuckles the legendary filmmaker James Ivory as we sit down at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter‘s ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast and note that on Sunday, March 4, just three months and three days before Ivory’s 90th birthday, he might well become the oldest person ever to win an Oscar. Ivory and Ismail Merchant, his partner in life and work for 44 years until Merchant’s death in 2005, made films that accumulated 31 Oscar nominations and six Oscar wins. (The most well-known are period-piece literary adaptations with high production value: 1986’s A Room With a View, 1992’s Howards End and 1993’s The Remains of the Day.) But neither Merchant nor Ivory ever personally won an Oscar. Now, at 89, Ivory is the heavy favorite to win best adapted screenplay for turning Andre Aciman‘s 2007 novel Call Me by Your Name — a story about two young men falling in love during a summer in Italy — into a moving script for the film of the same name that has also been nominated for the best picture Oscar. The fact that Ivory, at his age, is still working at all amazes many, but he says the alternative is unthinkable, and in fact he’s “involved in two other films” yet to be released. He says with a smile, “It keeps me busy.”
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Ivory was born in Berkeley, California, and raised in Mammoth Falls, Oregon. His father ran a lumber company, his mother was a homemaker and he loved beautiful things. “Even as a child,” he explains, “I was always interested in buildings and architecture and rooms, and the films I saw just sort of enflamed that.” He fell in love with the movies at a young age — especially “big, lush MGM movies” — and decided he wanted to become a set designer, heading off to college to study architecture and then to USC Film School to study film. At the latter, Ivory says, he “shed the notion of being a set designer” after taking a trip to Venice that “so amazed” him that he wanted to write, direct and shoot a whole film about it. USC allowed him to do so as his thesis, his father agreed to fund it and so he was now a director.
From the age of 14, Ivory knew something else about himself: that he was gay. Considering that he has made multiple acclaimed films about young gay men — most famously, 1987’s Maurice and, 30 years later, Call Me by Your Name — one can’t help but wonder what his own experience was in coming to terms with his sexuality in the repressed 1940s. “There was no ‘discovery,'” he explains. “It didn’t work like a discovery. I always knew who I was and who I am and what I wanted.” He continues, “I knew that I had to keep those ideas to myself. They were not something you could talk about. And it took several years until they could be put into play, as it were.” And, Ivory adds, “I never did speak to my parents — either of them — about that,” although he believes that they were enlightened enough that, decades later, they would have been as accepting as the father of the protagonist of Call Me by Your Name.
Everything came together for Ivory, personally and professionally, soon after he completed his film about Venice. In “one of those key moments of my life,” he happened upon an art dealer’s collection of miniature paintings from India and became so enamored that he decided to make his next film about them. That documentary, The Sword and the Flute, was screened at the Indian Consulate in New York in 1961, where one of the attendees was India-born Merchant, who was passing through the city en route to Cannes with his own film, which had recently been nominated for the best live-action short Oscar. Merchant asked him to coffee, the two hit it off and, before long, both found themselves in India working on separate projects, and then deciding to join forces. Merchant, meanwhile, had been encouraged to reach out to Ruth Prawer Jhabvala about adapting her novel The Householder into a film; Jhabvala, a German-born Brit living in India, asked to adapt it herself, and it became the first project — of dozens, over the ensuing decades — on which Jhabvala was screenwriter, Merchant was producer and Ivory was director.
Merchant-Ivory films, as they came to be known, were initially English-language films made in India for the foreign market, because Merchant had realized that Hollywood companies were unable to extract their profits from Indian movies out of the country, but instead had to reinvest them there. Starting with 1972’s Savages, however, they decided to work out of America, mostly on an independent scale. “It’s the oldest independent film company in this country,” Ivory says proudly. Merchant-Ivory’s association with literary adaptations and high production value really dates back to 1979’s The Europeans, the first of two adaptations of Henry James works, the second being 1984’s The Bostonians, that immediately preceded the beginning of the most fruitful chapter of the company’s history: its E.M. Forster era. Ivory had read Forster’s A Passage to India because India, of course, was of interest to him. But rather than trying to adapt that novel (which was made into a film in 1984 by David Lean), he and Merchant zeroed in on another Forster work, A Room With a View.
Ivory says today that his primary motivation for making A Room With a View — just like Call Me by Your Name 32 years later — was the opportunity to return to Italy, which has always held a special place in his heart. The film, which cost just $3 million, grossed nearly $21 million, making it, by far, the biggest Merchant-Ivory hit to that point, and it eventually garnered eight Oscar noms, including best picture (Merchant), director (Ivory) and adapted screenplay (Jhabvala); Jhabvala won. “It changed our lives,” Ivory remembers. “It was a charming love story set in a beautiful place, in the same way that Call Me by Your Name is. Call Me by Your Name and A Room With a View are almost twins, in terms of their appeal to people, I think.” A Room With a View was then followed by another Forster adaptation, the aforementioned Maurice. It didn’t attain the same commercial or awards success as A Room With a View, but its reputation has only grown with time. Maurice was highly unusual, as a book and a film, in that it depicted young gay lovers who are not subjected to some form of “punishment” before the end credits. After one film away from Forster, 1990’s Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, Merchant and Ivory returned to the world of Forster with Howards End, which was their most successful of the three Forster adaptations, grossing $26 million and landing nine Oscar noms, including, again, best picture (Merchant), director (Ivory) and adapted screenplay (Jhabvala); Jhabvala and lead actress Emma Thompson accounted for two of its three wins. “I had reached a point where I could deal with such a thing, and before, maybe I hadn’t,” Ivory says of Howards End. “I felt that I was somehow mature and developed enough as an artist to handle it. I had reached a different kind of level.”
Over the next 13 years, Merchant and Ivory, with Jhabvala and other frequent collaborators, continued to churn out acclaimed works, such as 1993’s Remains of the Day, an adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro‘s novel of the same name, which landed eight Oscar noms of its own, including best picture (Merchant), director (Ivory) and adapted screenplay (Jhabvala). But in 2005, their collaboration came to an abrupt end when Merchant died suddenly following surgery for abdominal ulcers. “I had to go on because we were in the middle of finishing The White Countess,” Ivory says. “In a way, thank God I had that work at that time, because Ismail’s death was the most terrible thing that ever happened to me in my whole life.” Ivory directed only one other film after that — 2009’s little-seen The City of Your Final Destination, which he and Merchant had planned together — but not because he was no longer willing to work. Indeed, when his neighbors acquired the film rights to the novel Call Me by Your Name, they approached him about adapting it and co-directing it with Luca Guadagnino, and he agreed. The film’s French financiers later raised concerns about having two directors, fearing that bickering could cause delays, so Guadagnino ended up directing the film by himself. Ivory says that he enjoyed writing the script, and often thought of writing tips he had learned from Jhabvala, who died in 2013. The film, which is set in the 1980s, means a great deal to many, particularly to gay men who came of age at that time, just before AIDS and years before widespread acceptance of same-sex relationships. “Today, everyone goes off and gets married whenever they want to, to whomever they want, and that is an enormous change,” Ivory says, “to allow people to be who they are and love who they will.” Asked if he and Merchant would have married had Merchant lived long enough to see gay marriage, Ivory says quietly, “We were married — we didn’t have to get married.”