James Ivory: Call Me by Your Name, Maurice and the Invention of Gay Cinema
By Martin Lerma
James Ivory is the proverbial lion in winter. At 89 years of age, the California-born, Oregon-raised writer and director has created a film cannon all his own over a career that traces its origins back to his first documentary chronicling the beauty of Venice for his master’s thesis in 1957. Ivory is often remembered for the sublime trilogy of E.M. Forster novels (A Room with a View, Maurice and Howards End) adapted for the silver screen between 1985 and 1992 in collaboration with producer and lover Ismail Merchant. All of them received acclaim, yet it was the middle child of the bunch that proved the most groundbreaking. Practically forgotten for nearly 30 years since its 1987 debut, buried away by a culture unprepared to examine it, Maurice is more timely than ever. This year has seen both a 4K remastering of the original print and the opening of Ivory’s latest endeavor: a heartfelt screenplay based on the book Call Me by Your Name, a romance set in 1983’s Italian countryside. Despite not helming from the director’s chair, Ivory’s unmistakable fingerprints mold its aesthetic, completing a pair of cinematic bookends that together invent and redefine gay film.
It’s difficult to discern if it’s the subject matter he chooses or the manner in which he interprets it, though they are perhaps ultimately the same thing, but one of the thematic throughlines in Ivory’s resume seems to be spiritual awakening through sexuality and sexuality as a means of self-actualization. It is a concept that takes on inherently new meaning when applied to gay protagonists, where the very nature of that actualization is rigged with danger. Maurice is an account of its titular character, played by James Wilby, in 1910 Edwardian England as his relationship with a fellow upper crust schoolmate, played by an impossibly handsome Hugh Grant (with perhaps the greatest head of hair ever captured on film), develops into a sexual relationship that brings to light revelations about gender, sexuality, class and love. Emotions are heightened by the introduction of gamekeeper Alec Scudder played so brilliantly by Rupert Graves that any viewer is hardpressed not to become infatuated. In other words, it cannot be more complex or more satisfying a tale.
Maurice is lush in every sense, but it is the ending’s impact that is most enduring. It has been an unspoken rule in literature and movies for more than a century that gay characters must die either at their own hands or those of others, something originally instated due to their perceived moral failing. From the veiled insinuations of 1959’s Suddenly, Last Summer to the more progressive, textured representation offered by Brokeback Mountain, the rule always seems to stick. Not only that, but queer characters are traditionally portrayed as highly suspect with predatory inclinations, untrustworthy souls harboring sinister intent…that is, when they aren’t a complete mockery. Ivory stayed true to Forster’s original ending, and not only do none of our protagonists die, they get something greater still. Maurice was the first and, to date, remains the only major theatrical motion picture released featuring romantically involved gay characters to have an explicitly happy ending.
It was a defining moment in movie history not only because the risky venture came on the heels of Ivory’s critical darling A Room with a View, which was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won three, but because it premiered in the midst of the AIDS epidemic that ravaged queer populations across the globe. To most, gay love was dangerous, yet Ivory and Merchant made it something to strive for. It was one of many milestones the filmmaking duo would go on to achieve until Merchant’s death in 2005 from surgical complications. Ivory could have packed up shop then, satisfied with decades of stellar work acknowledged by the top echelons of the movie industry. But a mind as fertile as his isn’t content with past accolades. He directed more following Merchant’s death though not as much as he produced. After seven years away from the business entirely, he’s returned as the screenwriter for the film version of André Aciman’s coming-of-age novel Call Me by Your Name.
As a matter of almost unnatural coincidence, Call Me by Your Name, published in 2007, is written as a flashback that recalls the narrator Elio’s school break spent in Italy during the summer of 1987, the same year Maurice was released. Elio’s father, a university professor, takes in a doctoral student every summer as an assistant, a 24-year-old American named Oliver in this case. Their reluctant friendship evolves into a full-blown romance that circumvents typical, heterosexual stories of the genre. The film version, which opts for a setting a few years earlier than its source material, stars relative newcomer Timothée Chalamet as Elio and Armie Hammer as Oliver, both of whom have been lauded for their shattering performances.
The project’s unusual, as far as the mainstream is concerned, subject matter alone could be the reason Ivory chose it as the first piece after his extended absence, but it is also possible that the personal nature of that subject matter inspired deeper motivations for Ivory to tackle it. At a time when the rights of societal minorities, sexual or otherwise, feel under constant threat, this deep humanizing of character archetypes quite literally never before presented in this way feels like an artistic pushback against forces that want nothing more than retreat from advancing queer communities.
When actor James Woods caused an online ruckus earlier this year by suggesting that the story of Call Me by Your Name was one of pedophilia due to the age difference between Elio and Oliver (17 and 24, respectively) despite the age of consent in more than half of U.S. states being 16, it brought to light the double standards held against certain populations. Were one of the principals female, it seems unlikely that the issue ever would have surfaced. In an interview with Hollywood trade website The Wrap in 2015, Maggie Gyllenhaal recounted being told she was too old to play the love interest opposite a 55-year-old male lead though she was only 37. Movies with just such a jarring generation gap get made ad nauseum and one would be hard-pressed to find evidence of so many men speaking out against them, yet this one about gay young adults born only a few years apart played by adult actors only 10 years apart in age seems to be the exception for reasons that are all too obvious.
The script of Call Me by Your Name has left many in awe. There are countless adjectives to consider, but ‘haunting’ is the only descriptor that captures the mercurial passion and melancholy that permeates the film. A huge debt is owed to Aciman’s original writing, but the transubstantiation from novel to screen gem is in no small part Ivory’s genius. The visual language of the movie is perfectly reflected by the staging and dialogue laid out in the script, a rare harmony difficult to maintain. But just as, if not more, striking are the patient silences, the moments where the audience can breathe and take in as much of the warm Italian air as it’s able. These moments lend the necessary space for breathtaking cinematography while allowing the souls of each character to become just as free, inspiring every viewer to do the same.
A quiet provocateur, Ivory uses the glow of flickering images to transport us to places at once familiar and alien. He harnesses his own voice to project the voices of others, in some cases letting them echo from eras long gone. E.M. Forster wrote Maurice around 1913, but it remained locked away for fifty-seven years because of his insistence that it only be published posthumously for fear its gay content would publicize his own sexuality thereby resulting in imprisonment. Forster dedicated his secret tome ‘To a Happier Year’ by which he meant a time when the kind of ending he composed could happen outside the realm fiction. At the book’s triumphant close, Alec Scudder kisses Maurice before breathing in his ear, “Now we shan’t never be parted. It’s finished.” The hiding, the struggle, the lying, the loneliness: finished. Ivory has ensured that countless people in desperate need of that message have received it.