“Someone to Last Your Whole Life”: James Ivory on Celebrating Maurice Over 30 Years Later

Hot off of his Academy Award win for Best Adapted Screenplay, James Ivory’s 1987 follow-up to A Room with a View screened at this year’s TCM Classic Film Festival.

In front of a packed audience, Maurice unveiled itself slowly and deliberately, working its unique brand of magic that only a Merchant Ivory production can do. It tells the story of the titular character and his gradual journey from jilted lover to acceptance of his own sexuality within a repressed, uptight English society.

To introduce a gorgeous restoration of Maurice, TCM Host Ben Mankiewicz sat down with writer/director Ivory to speak about his recent success with Call Me By Your Name, the process of making Maurice as well as what his next few projects have in store.

On Choosing to Make Maurice

After making A Room with a View, there were various suggestions and offers from studios to make this or that. One pitch that we accepted was for a project with Tom Cruise about treasure hunting in the Caribbean. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala wrote the script, and we were all set to make it for United Artists. That didn’t work out, so we had a little hiatus. At this time, I started reading and re-reading the novel of E.M. Forster. I had read Maurice when the book was published in ’71 or so and I liked it quite a bit, but I never thought about making it into a film.

And then, after re-reading Maurice, I thought that Maurice was sort of the other side of the coin to Room. It was, in essence, the same kind of story. The same kind of people—privileged, upper middle class, educated English people who were going to live a lie rather than seek personal happiness or romantic happiness. In both movies, they go on to live some lie and pretend that they don’t love the person they really loved. I thought that was very relevant to today. A lot has changed since the turn of the century, but people’s attitudes about living a lie really haven’t changed.

Writer/Director James Ivory speaks about his career at 2018 TCM Classic Film Fest. Image courtesy of Getty Images for TCM.

On the Publication of Maurice

Maurice was written in 1913 or ’14 but wasn’t published a year after Forrester had died, in 1971. He couldn’t publish it until the ’60s because it would have been considered obscene. Its story contained what were considered criminal acts in England, so he could never publish it until the laws in England changed in the early ’60s. By that time, he was pretty old and wasn’t thinking about it a lot. He almost destroyed the manuscript at one point. Various friends of his who had read it convinced him not to.

When we approached his executors at King’s College in Cambridge, they were nervous about us doing it. Even though we’d made a huge success out of A Room With a View, they were afraid that a book not considered all that important without the prestige of the others might pull down his literary reputation.

On the Film’s Reception

Both actors shared the Best Actor prize at the Venice Film Festival, and the film won the Silver Lion, which we split with Ermanno Olmi. The film also won a prize for Richard Robbins’ score as well. After that, we did fairly well, mostly in the places where we ought to have done well, like England and New York. Maurice played several months in the Paris Theater in New York and developed something of a following.

Some people felt it was ahead of its time, while made some nervous, but the response was generally good. The film came out at the height of the terrible AIDs tragedy. I think, because of that, people might’ve been afraid of criticizing it. With everything that was going on, people who might’ve attacked the film actually backed off.

Ivory and TCM host Ben Mankiewicz onstage at the Maurice screening during Day 3 of the 2018 TCM Classic Film Festival.

On Nudity

Maurice has scenes of comfortable male nudity. With Call Me by your Name, it’s in the script but not the finished film. There’s always been a lot of nudity in the films we’ve made. I’ve always felt that, in love scenes, to put sheets around the lovers as they walk around is not natural. Those scenes should be shown as they are in real life. I’d hoped that would happen in Call Me by your Name but the two guys had it in their contracts that this wouldn’t happen.

English actors and French actors don’t care about this—they walk around naked all the time. This is not true of American actors—they’re too modest.

On What’s Next

Making a big budget production was not something I ever wanted to do. I never felt that I had been deprived of doing something I wanted to do. A big project I’ve been trying for years to get the money for is an adaptation of the Shakespeare play Richard II. It’s not been easy to get financing, and it wouldn’t even be an especially big budget movie.

I’m currently writing a screenplay for Alexander Payne for a film that’s going to be made in Chicago. It’s actually based on a story by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala that came out in the New Yorker a couple weeks after she died. [Payne] read it and liked it very much. He and Fox Searchlight optioned it and now, after two other films, he came back to it, got in touch with me, and asked if I’d do the screenplay. Of course, I was happy to. MM

TCM Classic Film Festival ran from April 26-29 in Hollywood. All images courtesy of Getty Images for TCM

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *