'Howards End' director didn't look for job as movie-maker-laureate of Anglo-American literature

May 17, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Washington -- Once in a while, somebody comes along who looks and acts just the way he's supposed to.

James Ivory is a perfect example.

The esteemed "class" director of our era, Ivory -- with his partners Ismail Merchant and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala -- has engineered a grown-up opus like no other in film history. Breaking through to a mass audience with a beloved version of E. M. Forster's "Room With a View," Ivory and his associates have gone onto a brilliant skein of high-toned literary adaptations, including Forster's "Maurice," Henry James' "The Europeans" and "The Bostonians," as well as Evan S. Connell's "Mr. and Mrs. Bridge." And now they have produced "Howards End," the biggest Forster adaptation yet, which opens Thursday at the Charles.

The movies have been widely praised for their elegance, their gentility, their respect for the word, their luscious Englishness. And so it comes as no surprise that Ivory the man turns out to match exactly a dream-Ivory as extrapolated from those swanky, polished, droll and ironic productions.

He's tall and so aristocratic-looking -- those concave cheeks, that tight sheen of iron-gray hair, that nearly fleshless frame, the carriage so erect it seems cast from the most ancient of metals -- one yearns involuntarily to call him "sir," as in either "yes, sir," or "Yes, Sir James." He has that aloof bearing and slightly imperious posture of a man who absolutely knows where he fits into the world. He's the perfect headmaster, the foreign office minister, the commanding officer of H.M.S. Achilles.

Guy who can wear a bow tie

He's the kind of a guy who could wear a bow tie and nobody would crack jokes. And, in fact, he does wear bow ties, bright red little flags of imperial disdain, above a blue oxford cloth shirt rigid with either starch or strength of character, and -- no matter the temperature -- one of those Brooks Brothers herringbone sports coats that seems to reflect the entire history of the Anglo-Saxon race in its multi-flecked range of hues and whorls.

And yet Ivory says he wouldn't make the kind of movies he makes if it weren't for someone else. Hated England when he was a kid. Never read Forster or James until he was in his 30s. Likes to go to Hollywood movies.

"I didn't begin with literature," confesses this most literary of directors with a little laugh. "I had no idea of doing the kinds of books that we began to do."

In fact he confesses that the driving force behind the direction his career has taken is his "stern muse," as Time magazine called her, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who manages to publish a novel every two or three years, when she is not writing screenplays for Ivory and Merchant.

"It all came from the fact that we were working with Ruth, and she was completely at home in English literature. It would be hard to go off and do something completely idiotic because she wouldn't lend herself to it. It's not like she was pushing us to do 'Howards End.' She just led us to it naturally until we wanted to do these things. She kept us on a track."

In fact the Ivory-Merchant-Jhabvala trio is one of the most peculiar artistic groupings in history. Specialists in British literature, each is from a different continent but none is English. (Ivory is from the United States, Merchant from India and Jhabvala German-Jewish by birth and Indian by marriage).

"And now we all live in different continents, and we bring different sensibilities to the projects," says Merchant with a laugh.

For classicists, they are not even particularly well-educated: no Ivy League or Oxbridge degrees among them, what with Ivory a University of Oregon guy, Merchant an NYU guy and Jhabvala a London University lit major. One writes, one produces, one directs, but in the general creative welter these roles become somewhat merged.

Back to England

By different routes the three came together back in the early '60s, when Ivory, then a documentary filmmaker, journeyed to India where he met Merchant and Jhabvala. Their first collaborations were more Indian than anything else: "Shakespeare Wallah," now regarded as a world classic, "Autobiography of a Princess," "Bombay Talkie," "The Guru" and "The Householder."

Almost reversing the course of British imperialism, they "backed" into England, their eventual spiritual home.

To this day, Ivory is a little baffled himself by how he became the poet-laureate -- movie-style -- of Anglo-American literature.

"I don't know why," he says. "It's just a strange thing. When I was growing up, I had very little interest in England as such. I had very little interest in English history. I was much more interested in French history. I never went to England when I was young. I went to France and Italy and finally to India.

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