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August 5, 2005

 

The end of an era

Ismael Merchant leaves a legacy of classic cinema

In the world of western cinema there have been some marvelous, long-lasting duos.

Hepburn and Tracy.

Lucy and Ricky.

Stan and Oliver.

Merchant and Ivory.

The last pair, known mainly to art house film lovers, reinvented independent cinema and left the world with a legacy of films that will be remembered for a long while to come.

Half of that duo, Ismail Merchant, died on May 25 leaving behind his longtime partner in life and in film. The romantic aspects of that almost 44-year relationship have often been ignored or dealt with in a revisionist manner. Even the New York Times in its obituary didnít deal with that amorous collaboration in a direct manner. The Los Angeles Times did refer to them as longtime partners.

Some of this is the mediaís fault, still uncomfortable with giving gay couples the same due as straight ones. But it must also be remembered that Merchantís generation and culture didnít exactly make it easy for him to be open about his relationship and sexuality.

Merchantís generation is one that kept its sexuality concealed and on a need-to-know basis for the most part. His Indian and Islamic roots and upbringing also certainly had something to do with his own reticence in being open about that aspect of his life, especially in the public eye.

Born on December 25, 1936, Merchant was educated in India and abroad, and eventually made America and England his home, although he maintained very strong ties to his native India.

Merchant went to New York University in 1958 to work on an MBA. A year later he produced his first film, The Creation of Woman, which was nominated for an Oscar for best short film and shown at the Cannes Film Festival.

It was at Cannes that he met James Ivory and in 1963 the two released their first film, The Householder, directed by Ivory and produced by Merchant in what would become their familiar filmmaking roles. That film was based on a novel by German-born Ruth Prawar Jhabvala, who became a frequent screenwriting collaborator.

Over the course of their prodigious and prolific partnership, the three made more than 40 films together, many of them adaptations of classic novels by writers like E.M. Forester and Henry James, both of whom were gay.

The team first came to prominence with gay and straight audiences for their suffragette-inspired 1984 film The Bostonians. The film tells of a tortured triangle between a young suffragist (Madeline Potter), her teacher (Vanessa Redgrave) and her mentorís cousin (the late Christopher Reeve). It is not only a wonderful tribute to the struggle for womenís equality, but it tenderly and non-salaciously portrays a lesbian relationship with maturity and complexity.

The pair cemented their queer credibility with the 1987 adaptation of E.M. Forsterís Maurice. The film is a wonderful one in which homosexuality is dealt with frankly and sensually.

In the story, Maurice (James Wilby) falls in love with Clive, an aristocrat (Hugh Grant). When Clive betrays Maurice by marrying a woman, Maurice falls in love with a servant named Skudder (Rupert Graves). The film deals beautifully with the Victorian obsession with, and denial of, the love that dare not speak its name.

Another E.M. Forster adaptation, A Room with a View, starring Helena Bonham Carter and Daniel Day-Lewis, became one of the gems in their collection of period films, always done with lush authenticity and beautiful production values.

In the early 1990s the team made two films that would become the standards by which all other period films would be judged. Howardís End, their final Forster adaptation in 1992, was nominated for a best picture Oscar, and star Emma Thompson won the statue for best actress.

A year later, Remains of the Day, also nominated for best picture, teamed up Thompson with Anthony Hopkins and Christopher Reeve.

Many of Merchant-Ivory films dealt with the nexus of class, gender, sexuality and the politics of the time.

While one can admire their films for their artistic merit, one can also applaud them for using their art as a vehicle to make us think and better ourselves.

Even though Merchant is gone and the future of what Ivory and Jhabvala will produce is uncertain, there are a few films already completed just before Merchantís death that will allow audiences one last look at this great producerís works.

The Goddess, starring rock diva Tina Turner as an Indian goddess was Merchantís last directorial venture. His previous directorial features include Cotton Mary and The Mystic Masseur.

It must be noted that as a director Merchant had nowhere the success that he had as a producer.

The White Countess, starring Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave and Ralph Fiennes in a story of a blind diplomat in China, will also be released in the near future.

Currently, director Chris Terrioís gay-themed movie Heights, produced by Merchant and Ivory, is making the rounds of the art theaters. Starring Glenn Close, Isabella Rosselini, Jesse Bradford and James Marsden among others, it tells the tale of five interrelated lives in New York City.

Ismail Merchant has left behind a legacy of films that will be remembered for years to come. In recent years he and his partner worked on remastering old films that were on the brink of disappearing from the world of cinema for good. There is no fear that most of Merchantís films, especially those made with Ivory and Jhabvala, will be gone anytime soon.

He truly was a merchant of some of the best cinema ever made.

 

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