The city of Florence feted director-writer James Ivory this week with its Fiorino d’Oro prize and three days of celebrations for the 30th anniversary of “A Room With a View,” the triple-Oscar-winning film that proved to be a game-changer for Ivory and his longtime producer and partner in life, Ismail Merchant. “A Room With a View” paved the way for their work on Hollywood pics such as “The Remains of the Day,” and was groundbreaking in its depiction of male nudity – a topic about which Ivory, who wrote the screenplay for new gay coming-of-age film “Call Me by Your Name,” directed by Luca Guadagnino, has strong feelings.
Ivory, 89, spoke with Variety from Florence. Here are excerpts from the interview, edited for concision and clarity.
One of the things that’s been pointed out about “Room” is the nudity in the scene when three men strip naked, jump in a lake, and start splashing and wrestling. It’s a type of carefree male nudity which you recently said hadn’t been seen onscreen before, and hasn’t been seen since. How deliberate was that?
My idea of the Sacred Lakes sequence, as it is called, was that it really had to be as Forster described it. We’d never really been bound by the studio requirements on things like nudity, so I said, “Let’s just do it, and what is seen is seen.” It was not even a “yes or no” decision. I had no idea that scene would get so much attention. It gets tremendous amounts of laughter. I had no idea that it was such a comical scene as well.
So it wasn’t a deliberate attempt to do something different.
I just figured, “Let it be.” I’ve always thought that about nudity. There are moments when I think the story demands it, and if you don’t get it you feel sort of short-changed. And I’ve felt that way about some other films as well, particularly “Maurice.” That said, I’m glad we broke some sort of barrier. But it all depends on nationalities. For instance, if you were to make that film today and you had American actors, it would be in their contract that they could not be shown nude. But in those days — in the ’80’s and these were all British actors — they didn’t give a damn!
Certainly in my screenplay there was all sorts of nudity. But according to Luca, both actors had it in their contract that there would be no frontal nudity, and there isn’t, which I think is kind of a pity. Again, it’s just this American attitude. Nobody seems to care that much, or be shocked, about a totally naked woman. It’s the men. This is something that must be so deeply cultural that one should ask: “Why?”
Can you talk about the part you played in the long journey of “Call Me by Your Name”?
Some friends of mine [producers Peter Spears and Howard Rosenman] bought the screen rights to the novel by Andre Aciman, and were trying in various ways to make it into a film. They couldn’t find a director and eventually they picked Luca, who then apparently said: “Let me co-direct it with James Ivory.” So they came and asked me and I said OK, but I also said: “If I’m going to direct it, then I want to write a screenplay.” That took several months, and that’s the screenplay that they then raised money on to finally make the film. Then at a certain point it was decided that they wanted just one director, and it was going to be Luca. I didn’t mind that much. I was still very much involved. We were working together right up to the point of the shoot.
You’ve often said that after “A Room With a View” you could have done anything. You chose to make “Maurice,” a passion project that your regular screenwriter, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, didn’t want to write. What was the urgency of “Maurice” for you? Did it have something to do with a desire to put a gay romance onscreen?
Not in that sense, no. Because of the many years spent in India, I had re-read “A Passage to India,” and that made me curious about all the rest of Forster’s novels. And in time I came to “Maurice” [a posthumously published E.M. Forster novel about same-sex love]. We had just made “A Room With a View” and I thought: “This is the other side of the coin.” As a story it’s again about muddled young people who are ready to live a lie rather than live truthfully, and I thought the two of them really go together.
“Maurice” has been considered too gay for its time, which may explain why even though it won a prize in Venice, reaction to the film was quite muted.
In New York nobody dwelled on that aspect. But in England, where almost every important film critic was gay, they came out against the film. Their reactions to it were extraordinary! You’d think that they would have been supportive, but they were afraid to be supportive.
The London Times reportedly wondered whether “so defiant a salute to homosexual passion should really be welcomed during a spiraling AIDS crisis.”
That’s the thing. That sums up a hidden attitude on the part of gay writers for those papers.
Do you think the climate has changed enough, perhaps thanks to “Moonlight,” so that “Call Me by Your Name” won’t suffer from the type of muted response that “Maurice” was met with?
I think so. It’s already happening. Every time “Call Me” is shown at a film festival, people are raving about it.