Solid Ivory by James Ivory

The 93-year-old director James Ivory is the Ivory of Merchant Ivory, the ne plus ultra of literary filmmakers. One thing I did not expect to find in his memoirs was quite so much talk about penises, and by “quite so much” I mean “any.” If those are your expectations, they will be gratified often and early.

On page 9, Ivory recalls a time when he was seven and playing with a little boy named Eddy inside a playhouse made by Ivory’s father from a Victorian piano case. “One day Eddy and I were in there, trying out putting our penises into each other’s mouths,” he writes. “I don’t know whose idea that was but I made clear that Eddy’s dick must not touch my lips or tongue, nor the inside of my mouth. I had learned all about germs at school by then. Eddy went first, and I can still exactly see him doing it. I can also remember his acrid odor as he carried out my instructions and I took charge, guiding his little white wormlike penis myself.”

Yes, don’t bother to double-check; you are still reading a review of James Ivory’s memoir. Later, he tells us which of his high-school friends were uncircumcised and which were not.

Ivory, in Los Angeles, edits his short film about Venice, 1953.

He also tells a story about a boy he had a crush on, and how they often shared a bed, though they did not have sex. “I imagined holding him and putting my hands all over his body,” Ivory writes. “Then without touching him or myself, I just flowed over, you might say, in a kind of waking wet dream.”

I don’t know if the American Urological Association picks a Book of the Year, but this should be it. If you are contemplating giving the book to an elderly relative who loves the Merchant Ivory movies for their civilized dignities, think again.

The Merchant of Merchant Ivory was Ismail Merchant, Ivory’s partner in life and work, who produced the films. The best were written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.

A Run for the Ages

Ivory has made more than 30 films, including a couple of documentaries and a short film about Venice. He has been at it since 1957. That’s a very good run, especially for an intelligent and literate filmmaker working in a system that grew—and grows—increasingly less interested in literate intelligence. I was eager to know how he pulled off and sustained his extraordinary career.

Yet the other great surprise of Solid Ivory is that the four-time-nominated and one-time Oscar-winning filmmaker devotes very little of the book to his films. He has almost no anecdotes or insights about his most celebrated works: A Room with a View, Howards End, and The Remains of the Day, each of which earned him an Oscar nomination for best director.

Julian Sands, Simon Callow, and Rupert Graves in A Room with a View, 1985.

He doesn’t tell us how the projects came to be, whether they were novels he loved or if one of his team pushed them. (The Remains of the Day was originally to be directed by Mike Nichols, from a screenplay by Harold Pinter. There is no account of how the film ended up in the Merchant Ivory stable.) He says nothing about why any of those stories appealed to him, or what the challenges were in traversing the perilous canyon between the page and the screen.

One of the few films he does talk about is Call Me by Your Name. Ivory was meant to co-direct the film with Luca Guadagnino from Ivory’s adaptation of the novel by André Aciman. (Ivory later won the Oscar for best adapted screenplay for the film.) At some point, for reasons never explained to him, Ivory was out as the co-director.

There had been disagreements about casting. Ivory cast Greta Scacchi as the mother, which Guadagnino apparently didn’t like, so she was replaced. Shia LaBeouf was originally cast in the role that Armie Hammer would play, but was dropped when there was some unpleasant publicity about him. (Hammer’s bad publicity was yet to come.) It’s interesting to think of LaBeouf in that part, as opposed to the more traditionally handsome, and emotionally placid, Hammer.

The lack of focus on the films is frustrating not only because Ivory’s work is my principal curiosity about his life, but also because he is a very good writer and I was eager to see what he would say about the material he and Merchant chose, the people he picked to bring the material to life, and the many challenges he must have faced getting such seemingly uncommercial material before the public. (He makes no mention at all of Harvey Weinstein, with whom he and Merchant battled over a couple of films. On the other hand, one hates to fault anyone who has the decency not to mention Harvey Weinstein.)

Ivory and Paul Newman on the set of Mr. & Mrs. Bridge, 1990.

The book begins in what Holden Caulfield might call the David Copperfield way: at the beginning. Ivory writes wonderfully about his childhood in Klamath Falls, Oregon, with a great sense of place, period, and people. He tells of what they used to call “tramps” coming to their back door and asking for food. (His mother always fed them.) He writes well about school, the army, and his early film career. You get a sense of the nascent artist starting to find himself.

But then, just as we are coming to the work of his we know and want to know more about, he stops telling his story and offers a chapter called “Portraits,” about a range of other people. All storytelling momentum is lost. In lieu of that momentum, we get the compensation of Ivory’s lively renderings of, among others, Lillian Ross, Bruce Chatwin, and Susan Sontag; a too short but still interesting view of a late-career George Cukor; a long and engrossing account of Vanessa Redgrave; and, most surprisingly, a razor-sharp but not altogether unsympathetic profile of Raquel Welch—I know, I didn’t believe she was in a Merchant Ivory movie, either, but it was The Wild Party and she played a 1920s movie star.

He writes about Merchant here, too, but it feels curiously impersonal—we have no detailed sense of how Ivory feels for this man whose prodigious energies and charm, not to mention whose deft gift for connivance, kept them in business for five decades. Let’s take the broad view and hope that what Ivory felt for Merchant, who died in 2005, was too big to be reduced to a handful of sentences in a memoir, and that the noble thing was for those emotions to be felt but unsaid.

How very Merchant Ivory.

Douglas McGrath is a filmmaker and a playwright. He wrote the book for Beautiful: The Carole King Musical