For nearly fifty years, Merchant Ivory Productions had the market so thoroughly cornered on lush, elegant costume drama that it was at times easy to forget that it was only the name of a single company; films like A Room with a View, The Remains of the Day, and Howard’s End strike such a distinctive tone that “Merchant Ivory” felt more like the name of a genre. Such was the chemistry between producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory (frequently aided by screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala) that their very names became shorthand for onscreen class and sophistication. Merchant Ivory was more than a production shingle; the singular nature of the team’s work has enshrined them on the cinematic Table of Elements.
Though Merchant passed away in 2005, and the Merchant Ivory brand was officially retired following 2009’s aptly titled The City of Your Final Destination, James Ivory remains a force to be reckoned with. In 2017, the filmmaker won his first Oscar (following three nominations) for penning the screenplay for Call Me by Your Name. That film will be part of a celebration of Ivory’s life and work this weekend at Hudson Hall in upstate New York, along with Ivory’s 1965 breakout Shakespeare Wallah and– most relevantly to these pages– The Bostonians, which Ivory shot in and around Boston 40 years ago.
Based on the 1886 novel by Henry James, The Bostonians tells the story of young Verena Tarrant (Madeleine Potter), torn between the interests of her mentor, the domineering suffragette Olive Chancellor (Vanessa Redgrave), and the charming, if somewhat politically regressive, southern lawyer Basil Ransom (Christopher Reeve). The important thing, Ivory says looking back on the film’s production, was “to be truthful to Henry James.” James, Ivory notes, had a slightly complicated relationship with the novel. “When Henry James brought out all his published work [in] about 1906 in slender new additions, he did not include The Bostonians. He chose just about every other novel he’d written to republish, but he didn’t include The Bostonians. Partly it was felt that that was because the story that unfolds in The Bostonians between the two women was too much like that of a story that involved his own sister. And so for that reason, perhaps as a family duty, he did not include that story.”
One challenge in shooting The Bostonians nearly a century after its publication was the ever-changing face of Boston itself. “The [challenge] of The Bostonians for us was really to find very good locations in and around Boston, and it’s not that easy anymore to find period buildings which were relatively unchanged from the 1870s, particularly exteriors. They’re mostly gone, or transformed, if not torn down. It’s very, very hard.” You wouldn’t know it from watching the film; Ivory and his crew had a knack for capturing picturesque spots on Beacon Hill, including the Gibson House and the Boston Athenaeum, as well as on Martha’s Vineyard. Even Harvard, notoriously stingy regarding filming permits, allowed the crew to film on the Yard: “They know how to deal with it, as long as you don’t make it difficult for the teachers to teach and the students to be taught.”
Greater difficulty came from a more unlikely source: the film’s leading lady. Vanessa Redgrave, while shooting her Oscar-winning performance in 1977’s Julia, lived with a pair of Palestinian students in Paris, and was so inspired by the experience that she produced and narrated a pro-Palestine documentary titled The Palestinian and publicly advocated for a cultural boycott of Israel. The response to that film, compounded by Redgrave’s Oscar acceptance speech in which she denounced “Zionist hoodlums,” turned Redgrave into a political flashpoint (interestingly, that controversy, and particularly a widely circulated image of Redgrave smiling with a Kalashnikov rifle, bears a striking similarity to the firestorm which had surrounded Redgrave’s Julia costar Jane Fonda earlier in the decade). In 1982, Redgrave had been slated to appear with the Boston Symphony Orchestra to narrate a performance of Stravinsky’s “Oedipus Rex,” but was sacked at the last minute following protests (Redgrave later unsuccessfully sued).
It was, to say the least, an inopportune moment for Redgrave to star in a movie called The Bostonians. “There was a period when Vanessa Redgrave was not in everybody’s good books, [and it was] at that moment when we were shooting,” Ivory recalls. Certain locations, such as the Athenaeum, withheld filming permits until they were sure Redgrave would not be present on those days. “We were making that film at the time when Vanessa was least popular in Boston,” Ivory continues, “The whole thing was just such a crazy thing. And it all went away in time, but it was certainly going on when she arrived.”
In typical Jamesian fashion, The Bostonians has inspired debate over which characters– if any– are to be sympathized with. Ivory rejects the reading that Basil Ransom is the scoundrel of the piece: “He was the hard headed hero of Henry James’ story– not probably always to Henry James’s liking, but he was the hero.” In any event, he describes the experience of working with Christopher Reeve as “wonderful.” “He was a great guy. He really got into it and he was very, very conscious of how his accent had to be right. He found somebody from Mississippi who coached him on the accent. He was very, very much into it.” In a note that points up the cyclical nature of Hollywood’s focus on blockbusters, Ivory adds, “I think he was very happy not to be doing Superman for once.”
When asked whether it feels like it’s been as long as it has since the beginning of his career– 70 years since his first film, and 60 since the first Merchant Ivory production– Ivory answers self-evidently by double-checking my math. “I don’t feel it’s been too long, or I don’t want to do it anymore,” he replies. Indeed, though currently stalled due to the ongoing writers’ strike, Ivory currently has two projects on the burner, one involving Tennessee Williams and another regarding Elizabeth Taylor. “I’m still around,” Ivory reassures us, “I’m still doing stuff, and I’ve been enjoying myself.”
dir. James Ivory
Screens as part of a celebration of James Ivory at Hudson Hall in Hudson, NY – Saturday, 9/16