- Jun 7, 1928
Thanks to the content of his films, American director James Ivory has spent much of his long career being mistaken for an Englishman. Few filmmakers have been more closely associated with a particular type of genre than Ivory and his longtime collaborator, producer Ismail Merchant. The very mention of the hyphenate Merchant-Ivory effortlessly conjures… More Bio:
Thanks to the content of his films, American director James Ivory has spent much of his long career being mistaken for an Englishman. Few filmmakers have been more closely associated with a particular type of genre than Ivory and his longtime collaborator, producer Ismail Merchant. The very mention of the hyphenate Merchant-Ivory effortlessly conjures up heavily stylized images of Edwardian England, replete with stiff upper lips, effete aristocrats, and young women confined by both corsets and repressed desire. However, although much of Ivory's reputation has been built on his E.M. Forster-adapted period dramas, he has also earned considerable respect for the insightful examinations on the interplay of different cultures inherent in almost all of his work -- particularly his earlier films about India -- and his and Merchant's ability to make quality films on a minimal budget.
Born in Berkeley, California, on June 7, 1928, Ivory grew up in Klamath Falls, Oregon, where his father ran a sawmill. Having decided at the age of 14 that he wanted to go into film as an art director, he attended the University of Oregon, where he majored in fine arts. Following graduation, Ivory traveled to Tours, France, to study the language, but he soon lost interest in his studies. He relocated to the University of Southern California, where he entered the film department. It didn't take Ivory long to realize that he hated film school, so he took a leave of absence to travel to Venice, where he worked on his masters thesis, Venice: Themes and Variations. However, his work was interrupted by the Korean War, for which he did two years service in Germany; his time there was mainly spent putting on Soldier Shows, which, as he would later remark, gave him his introduction to show business.
While working on Venice, a 28-minute documentary that juxtaposed contemporary views of the city with paintings by the masters, Ivory was introduced to art from India's golden age. His ensuing fascination with the country's culture was manifested in his next film, a documentary on Indian artifacts called The Sword and the Flute (1959). The film was hailed by a number of critics, as well as New York's Asia Society, and it was during a visit to New York for a screening of the film that Ivory met Ismail Merchant. A young Indian who had been sent to the United States for business school, Merchant was passionate about film. He and Ivory became fast friends, and in 1961 they formed Merchant Ivory Productions. The two also became acquainted with novelist Ruth Prawer Jhabvala around this time; Jhabvala would become irrevocably associated with the two, acting as the screenwriter for all but a handful of their films.
The trio's first films were set in India, dramas concerned with questions of cultural interplay, personal identity, and physical and emotional isolation. All of these films were made independently (only one, the poorly received The Guru (1969), has been made for a studio during the course of Merchant and Ivory's years together), and ably demonstrated the kind of technical expertise the filmmakers were capable of achieving with a very limited budget. Their first film, The Householder (1962), was an adaptation of a novel by Jhabvala about an Indian couple experiencing the travails of an arranged marriage. It was shot in black and white by Subrata Mitra, otherwise known as Satyajit Ray's cameraman; Ivory had befriended Ray, who reportedly acted as the film's uncredited editor and music supervisor.
Shakespeare Wallah (1965), the trio's second film, was the one that first gave the filmmaking team international recognition. A sensitive, thoughtful portrayal of a family of English actors traveling through India, it helped to establish Ivory as a director adept at capturing particular moods through visual representation, much in the style of Ray or Jean Renoir. The film was a critical and financial success,
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