Saturday, March 16th, 2024

Queerguru reviews MERCHANT IVORY a celebration of the work and lives of the queer pioneer filmmakers


Stephen Soucy’s new documentary MERCHANT IVORY is one of those rare films that actually surpasses all the hype and the anticipation that preceded it.   This affectionate profile on the legendary queer film pioneers makes for such joyous viewing.  Especially if you are of a certain age (!) and grew up on the splendor of such films as Room With a View.  Even more so if you are a gay history buff, as you will want to pay respect to this fearless couple and their impact on gay cinema.

Many of you will (hopefully) know their ground breaking adaption of EM Forster’s classic queer novel Maurice.  Closeted Forster had insisted that the book not be published until after his death in 1974, and it wasn’t until 1987 that the film was released.  That in itself was very significant as it took a great deal of courage to show a gay romance with a happy ending right in the middle of the AIDS pandemic.  One of the many touching anecdotes that are peppered through the film, is from actor Rupert Graves who sat behind Merchant during the Premiere and spotted him bawling his eyes out   

Their own story start back in 1959 when Merchant met movie director Ivory at a screening in New York of Ivory’s documentary The Sword and the Flute in 1959. They soon became partners in every sense of the word……. Ivory said it was love at second sight ……   and thier partnership lasted 44 years, from 1961 until Merchant’s death in 2005.  On paper it seemed the most unlikely  of ‘marriages’ Merchant had a very simple upbringing as the son of a Bombay Textile Dealer.  His natural confidence had him as a 9 yer old  child delivering a speech about India’s partition at a political rally in front of a crowd of 10,000. It would prove an asset he would so build on during his career.

Ivory was born Richard Jerome Hazen in Berkeley, California, and adopted shortly after birth and renamed him James Francis Ivory.] He grew up in Klamath Falls, Oregon. and studied Fine Arts at University and was honored with recipient  the Lawrence Medal, UO’s College of Design’s highest honor for its graduates. He then attended the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, where he made Venice: Theme and Variations, a half-hour documentary submitted as his thesis film that was named by The New York Times in 1957 as one of the ten best non-theatrical films of the year. 

Merchant Ivory’s first film was THE HOUSEHOLDER  with a screenplay by author Ruth Prawer Jhabvala  based upon the  her own novel.  They would go on to make nearly forty films together, many of which were written by Jhabvala.  Later the trio would be jouned by Richard Robbins a queer American-born composer, would write all the music for the films, and at one time or another, he had affairs with both Merchant and Ivory.

The four of them would go onto to adapt a string of literary classics, such as Henry James‘ The Europeans (1979)  and The Bostonians (1984), E.M. Forster‘s A Room with a View (1985) and Howards End (1992), and Peter Cameron‘s The City of Your Final Destination (2009).   It was quite a shock to discover that all of these splendidly opulent looking films were made on shoe string budgets.  Its credit to Merchant for his silver tongue to talk actors into working for ‘peanuts’, pester any potential investors for funds, and even max out his own credit cards to finance their latest film.  He would also be on the Set to make lunch for the whole crew as he wanted to make for a family atmosphere …….. but also because he couldn’t afford to pay the caterers!

Merchant Ivory’s films always had the most talented actors of their generation and Sourcy lined up several of them: Vanessa Redgrave (The Bostonians) confessed to having a few screaming matches wth Merchant,  but she explained you only fight with people you loved.  Hugh Grant making his film debut (Room With A View)  confessed he missed those days when everyone fell in love on Set.  Emma Thompson (Oscar nominated for The Remains of The Day) fessed up that Ivory had told her she was ‘boring’ in a scene and made her shoot …. and she didnt mind at all.

What was running through all  of these anecdotes from a veritable who’s who of actors, was the unbridled passion and respect for both the filmmakers and the films itself.  Thankfully with out a hint of theatrical fawning.  The other aspect of this profile was discovering a wealth of new facts that now make me so keen to go back and re-view so many of them.


Nearly every single film was critically acclaimed but it wasn;t until 1985 and A Room With A View that the pair had a commercial success.  An unexpected development was when in 1990’s companies such as Disney lined up to fund the Company, yet even with this financing taking all the pressure off, the films just didnt have the same impact.

In 2005 Merchant suddenly died  aged just 66, but the story doesnt end there. In 2017, Ivory wrote and co-produced the film adaptation of Call Me by Your Name, a 2007 coming-of-age novel directed by Luca Guadagnino   At the age of 89, Ivory became the oldest-ever Academy Award winner in any category.

Sourcy uses Ivory, the sole survivor, as both a guide and narrator   throughout the documentary : theirs was a life that so needed to be shared



ROGER WALKER-DACK Creator, Editor-in-Chief Miami Beach, FL / Provincetown, MA IG @QUEERGURU Member 
of G.A.L.E.C.A. (Gay & Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association) and 
NLGJA The Association of LGBT Journalists. and The Online Film Critics Society. Ex Contributung Editor 
The Gay Uk & Contributor Edge Media Former CEO and Menswear Designer of  Roger Dack Ltd in the UK

Posted by queerguru  at  14:07


Genres:  documentary

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