James Ivory didn't see “Call Me By Your Name” with an audience until the week before he was nominated for an Oscar for its screenplay. He caught it at a New York theater with a good audience, he says, that applauded at the end. It was his first tangible taste of the adulation for the film he wrote, about first love in Northern Italy, since it began its celebrated run at last year's Sundance Film Festival.
“I've just been thinking: What is it about the film that people respond to so much?” Ivory said in a phone interview from his upstate New York home in Claverack. “And I think it's a story about a happy love in a beautiful place. I think that just appeals to people. It ought to.”
The pure and glittering romance of “Call Me By Your Name” has taken on an almost escapist quality in an awards season consumed with sexual harassment revelations throughout Hollywood. But if “Call Me by Your Name,” about the sun-dappled relationship between 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and a visiting grad student (Armie Hammer), radiates with the tumultuous emotions of youth, it's also composed with the insight of age.
Ivory is 89, and should he win the Oscar for adapting Andre Aciman's 2007 novel – as Ivory is widely expected to – he'll become the oldest Oscar winner ever. (That is, unless the 89-year-old French filmmaker Agnes Varda, born a week earlier, also wins at the March 4 ceremony. Her “Faces Places” is up for best documentary.)
But regardless of the outcome, “Call Me By Your Name” has proven an unlikely yet altogether fitting encore for a master filmmaker whose films have already pocketed 31 Oscar nominations and six wins. For some 50 years, Ivory was half of perhaps the most long-running and illustrious independent filmmaking duo in film history. With Ismail Merchant, his partner and producer, they made up Merchant Ivory Productions, a name virtually synonymous with literate, refined period dramas.
Together, with their regular screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, they more or less wrote the book on literary adaptations with films such as “Remains of the Day,” “Howard's End,” “Maurice,” “A Room With a View” and “The Golden Bowl.” Though sometimes superficially seen as stuffy portraits of upper-class life, the recent and ongoing 4K restorations of their work by Cohen Media Group has only enhanced the films' intimacy of character and pristine economy of storytelling.
“A lot of directors don't bother to go back and look at their films, but I do,” says Ivory. “If I hear that a film of mine is going to be shown on a big screen somewhere and I haven't seen it in a while, I make a point to get to see it. I just want to see it up on the big screen. My feelings don't usually change much about it. I happen to like all our movies.”
No letting up
For filmmakers known for tales about British aristocracy, they were an unusual trio: Ivory, the Oregon son of a sawmill owner; Merchant, the son of a Bombay textile dealer whose family protested the 1947 partitioning of India; and Jhabvala, a German Jew who fled Britain during World War II. Merchant called them “a three-headed monster.”
Merchant died in 2015, Jhabvala in 2013 and Ivory's last film was 2009's “The City of Your Final Destination,” which he prepped with Merchant and which Jhabvala wrote from Peter Cameron's novel. The losses were profound, but Ivory never wanted to retire.
“No! I still don't,” Ivory says. “In fact, I'm working on a new screenplay. Maybe it's absurd to imagine that I would actually get to direct it at my age. But I don't know why. I'm much healthier than other people who are doing movies. And I'm in great shape. It's always a matter of convincing the insurance people. They seem to think that after a certain age, you're just going to fall over or something.”
For the past several years, Ivory has been trying to mount a “Richard II” film, with a script penned by Chris Terrio (“Argo,” “Justice League”) and potentially Tom Hiddleston and Damian Lewis starring. “A Shakespeare film does not grab the hearts of financiers, I can tell you,” he says.
Concerns over Ivory's age also fed into his experience on “Call Me By Your Name.” The rights to Aciman's novel were acquired by Ivory's neighbors, Peter Spears and Howard Rosenman. They asked Ivory to be an executive producer, and Ivory accepted.
After some difficulty finding a director or financing, the producers met with Luca Guadagnino, who suggested he co-direct with Ivory. Ivory again accepted but he wanted to write the screenplay. Ivory spent a year on the script but the co-directing framework was less appealing to investors.
“We wanted to make it with him as the director, but we were disappointed by the market,” says Guadagnino. “When we realized that could have been made was a teenie, teenie tiny movie in a very small amount of time, and that there was some interest in me doing it, we said, 'OK.' He was very generous. He said, 'I bless this project if you do it.'”
“James is at the peak of his career,” added Guadagnino. “I can't explain how full of life is James. It's extraordinary. His wonderment and love of discovery. I am 46 and he's almost 90, and the energy in his body is really more than mine.”
Gay cinema evolves
Ivory's script, which he typed on a typewriter, begins with a description of the villa owned by Ellio's family and an atmosphere “of upper-middle class comfort but nothing princely, or run-down aristocratic.”
As is commonplace, there were changes along the way. To save money, the film was uprooted from Sicily and re-set around Guadagnino's town of Crema. The film's beloved final close-up – which even Aciman has praised as superior to his ending – was originally located not by a fire but while Elio was hanging a candle on a Christmas tree.
The collaboration wasn't without issues. Ivory went to arbitration with the Writers Guild over whether Guadagnino deserved a co-writer credit. The WGA ruled he didn't. Ivory has also previously suggested disappointment that the film didn't feature more of the nudity in the script. (Both Chalamet and Hammer had contract clauses against frontal nudity.) But Ivory has walked back those comments.
“I think it has to do with nationalities,” he says. “In 'A Room With a View,' you have three young Englishmen running around naked and laughing and whooping and jumping in the water. It's something the English don't apparently find troublesome. They like that. But you would never get three American actors to do that. It's just not in our nature, somehow, to expose ourselves like that. It's a cultural thing.”
“Call Me By Your Name” is a kind of bookend to Ivory's 1987 film “Maurice,” a restoration of which was released last summer. Now regarded as a landmark in gay cinema, Ivory's adaptation of E.M. Forster's posthumously published novel is about two Cambridge students (James Wilby, Hugh Grant) who fall in love in Edwardian England. Released at the height of the AIDS epidemic, it dared something groundbreaking: a happy ending.
In “Maurice,” their love is tortured and strained by the times. But in “Call Me By Your Name,” any hurdles to romance are entirely interior. It's about, Ivory says, “young love that doesn't know how to trust itself.” Having both films in theaters a few months apart, Ivory grants, has been gratifying.
“It's been a really interesting year, I have to say.”