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Ivory, James (b. 1928), and Ismail Merchant (1936-2005)  

Perhaps the most enduring and influential gay partnership in film history, James Ivory and Ismail Merchant are known for their visually sumptuous period pieces based on familiar literary works. So closely intertwined was this team that many assume that "Merchant Ivory" is the name of one individual. But while associated in many minds with British literary and cultural traditions, their professional and personal relationship actually brought together diverse elements of American and Indian culture.

James Francis Ivory, who is the director in Merchant Ivory Productions, was born in Berkeley, California on June 7, 1928. After graduating from the University of Oregon, he received an advanced degree from the University of Southern California School of Cinema and Television in 1957.

His first film was an acclaimed documentary about Venice, and his second, The Sword and the Flute, examined Indian art. In 1960, at a New York screening of this latter film, he met his future partner and collaborator.

Ismail Noormohamed Abdul Rehman, later Merchant, was born December 25, 1936, in Bombay, India. He came to the United States as a student, and received an M.B.A. degree from New York University, a background that prepared him for his role as the producer and business mind of the partnership.

While working for an advertising agency, he produced a film based on Indian myth, Creation of Woman (1961), which earned an Academy Award for Best Short Subject. In that same year, he and Ivory formed Merchant Ivory Productions.

The Householder (1963), their first feature film, was set in India and based on a novel by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, a Polish-Indian writer who has since written the screenplays for most of their productions. Their early films, as well as some of their more recent ones, have focused on the culture clash between East and West in India, including Shakespeare Wallah (1965), The Guru (1969), Bombay Talkie (1970), Heat and Dust (1982), and Cotton Mary (1999). By the mid-1970s, however, they began to branch out so as to attract larger audiences.

After critical and commercial mishaps with Savages (1972) and The Wild Party (1975), Merchant and Ivory found what would become their characteristic mode with The Europeans (1979), a cinematic adaptation of Henry James's novel. Subsequently, their most notable films have been settings of canonical literary works, usually by gay or lesbian authors and with significant gay or lesbian plots or subplots.

In The Bostonians (1984), Vanessa Redgrave sympathetically portrays James's protagonist Olive Chancellor, a woman caught in a rivalry with a man for the love of another woman, while Maurice (1987) created a new audience for E. M. Forster's long-suppressed novel of love between men.

Other works based on queer literary sources include their adaptations of Forster's A Room with a View (1986) and Howards End (1992), Carson McCullers's The Ballad of the Sad Café (1991), and James's The Golden Bowl (2001).

By bringing controversial issues of sexuality and race into films accessible to a mainstream audience, Merchant and Ivory, often in subtle ways, made advances in cinematic representations of social difference. Although often made on modest budgets, their films are visually stunning and they frequently showcase leading actors.

The two men shared a home in Claverick, New York, as well as residences on the three continents that shaped their work.

After forty-five years of collaboration in life and in art, the Merchant Ivory partnership ended on May 25, 2005, when Ismail Merchant died in London of complications from stomach surgery.

Patricia Juliana Smith


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Long, Robert Emmet. The Films of Merchant Ivory. New York: H. N. Abrams, 1997.

Pym, John. Merchant Ivory's English Landscapes: Rooms, Views, and Anglo-Saxon Attitudes. New York: H. N. Abrams, 1995.

_____. The Wandering Company: Twenty-One Years of Merchant Ivory Films. London: British Film Institute, 1983.


    Citation Information
    Author: Smith, Patricia Juliana  
    Entry Title: Ivory, James , and Ismail Merchant  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated May 27, 2005  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2002, glbtq, Inc.  


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