On a balmy autumn afternoon, I meet the director James Ivory in the Upper East Side apartment he’s been keeping for the last half century. My visit coincides with the return (from the dry cleaners) of what is now an iconic piece of Ivory lore—the shirt with a painting of Timothée Chalamet that he wore to the Academy Awards in 2018. “That was done by an artist friend of mine who, just for the hell of it, made a Timothée Chalamet shirt and then showed it to me,” Ivory says. “Then I thought, well, I’ll wear that to the [ceremony]… It was fun to do.” That night, Ivory made history when he won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for Call Me By Your Name, becoming the oldest-ever Oscar winner at a ripe 89.
“Have you ever held an Oscar?” he’ll ask me later, gesturing toward the trophy on his desk—which, Oscar aside, is teeming with an assortment of personal effects: a pack of Criterion postcards, a MacBook, and a pulse oximeter. “They’re quite heavy,” he says about the trophy, as he excuses himself to the restroom. (They are heavy, I learn before he returns.)
At 94, Ivory has outlived—and outworked—a few decades’ worth of changes and movements in cinema. He was a pioneer of independent movie-making in the ‘60s, emerged as an Academy Awards fixture in the late ‘80s and early ’90s, and in recent years has become a friend and collaborator to younger filmmakers like Wes Anderson and Luca Guadagnino. In his apartment, we are surrounded by physical testaments to those accomplishments. On one shelf sits the Golden Lion for Best Director he won at the 1987 Venice Film Festival for Maurice. And across that? National Board of Review plaques for Best Film and Best Director, both for 1992’s Howard’s End.
Taking pride of place on the bookshelf, though, foregrounding titles like Benjamin Rowland’s The Art and Architecture of India and Charles Allen’s Plain Tales from the Raj is a framed black-and-white photo of a youthful Ismail Merchant—Ivory’s partner in life, and, along with Ruth Prawer Jhabvala at their production company Merchant Ivory, in film. Merchant passed away in 2005, but walking through the New York apartment they shared together, it’s hard not to encounter his presence everywhere, not least in a beautiful pencil portrait of Merchant in the main room. “We were married,” Ivory told The Hollywood Reporter in 2018. “We didn’t have to get married.” Their relationship happened to change the course of film history: In the Guinness Book of World Records, Ivory and Merchant are celebrated as the longest partnership in independent cinema.
In an email, the director Wes Anderson writes: “Jim, with [Merchant] and [Prawer Jhabvala], may be among the most independent of independent film-makers ever—and their longevity is possibly unrivalled? They initiated their own projects and worked with their team of regular collaborators for something like 50 years. And of course Jim is still at it… What don’t we learn from him/them? Howard’s End and A Room with a View were so popular (and good!): maybe we overlook how wide-ranging and adventurous this body of work really is.”
Ivory’s output slowed considerably after Merchant’s passing, and even more after Jhabvala’s: he has not directed a feature-length since she passed. But the last five years have seen Ivory rally, introducing another triumphant chapter of his public life. There was the Oscar win in 2018, and then last year the release of his book Solid Ivory: Memoirs, a lush, insightful and sometimes bawdy remembrance of his youth and globetrotting artistic, professional and sexual adventures.
And, a few hours after we meet, he’ll head to the 60th New York Film Festival in Lincoln Center for the world premiere of A Cooler Climate, a documentary, co-directed with Giles Gardner, on the life-changing 1960 trip he took to Afghanistan. It is, counting shorts and TV movies, Ivory’s 35th film as a director. He directed his first film, the short Four in the Morning, in 1953.
“It’s a great pleasure to be here after all these years,” he’ll tell the crowd. “I was here on the third year of the festival.” Plenty, of course, has changed. “I lived my life and did what I wanted to do,” he says during the open forum. “I’m one of those lucky people that didn’t have to struggle with [being who I am]. I never felt a moment of guilt—that’s because that little boy standing there was thinking that there was something special [in him].”
A Cooler Climate marks Ivory’s return to the director’s chair 13 years after his last film. But, he says, “It wouldn’t exist if it hadn’t been for Giles. He knew I had all this footage of Afghanistan and he got interested.”
Gardner, a documentary filmmaker and editor, was set to begin work on his own film about Afghanistan when, over lunch one day in Woodstock, Ivory mentioned that he had footage from a trip he took there in 1960. “Maybe you could use a few shots,” he offered, giving Gardner access to the closet in Merchant’s room where he kept the footage.
“I was up there crawling around in this long wardrobe, underneath all of Ismail’s tunics from India,” Gardner tells me. “And there, sure enough, was a box at the back of the closet which I dragged out and opened up. There was something like 15 or 16 film canisters of 16 millimeter film—all a little bit rusty and with ‘Afghanistan’ written on the side. For an editor, this was very exciting,” he says. “This was like, oh my God, there’s a treasure here.”
The resulting film—co-directed with Gardner, with music by Alexandre Desplat—is part travelogue, part Proustian reverie. A Cooler Climate is about a 32-year-old filmmaker encountering a culture in transition, but it’s also about a young man encountering himself in a process of change.
While some documentaries use biography as a window into culture, A Cooler Climate takes the other route, initially teasing viewers with sweeping statements on Afghan culture in 1960 before narrowing its focus to Ivory’s coming of age.
“It is an intellectual film, but intellectual about emotions: It encourages us to think about how we feel, instead of simply acting on our feelings.” Roger Ebert wrote that about A Room with a View in 1986—but he might as well have been talking about A Cooler Climate, and of Ivory’s filmography in general.
Merchant Ivory made its most lasting impression on the culture during a mid ‘80s to early ‘90s run during which it became commonplace for a Merchant Ivory production to nab eight or nine Oscar nominations in a given year. Bringing to life masterpieces by E.M. Forster (A Room with a View, Howard’s End) and Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day), the films cut through the bombast of the time with a period-transcending sensitivity.
“They recognize the public’s desire for something more challenging than Hollywood usually provides, and even when operating on small budgets they engage superb cameramen and dedicated actors,” Anthony Korner wrote in Artforum in 1987. “In a sense they are building a bridge between theater and cinema, with full awareness of the struggle of the arts to survive in our electronic age.”
There’s something of the iceberg theory in their best work, with even-tempered gentility giving way to volcanic emotions bubbling underneath the surface. That quality is present in the films’ most indelible moments: in the way James Wilby gently caresses Hugh Grant’s hair in Maurice, for example, the discordant creaking of his chair becoming a kind of metronome to their intimacy. It’s in the way Joanne Woodward holds it together in Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, devastated after her son rejects her at a Boy Scout ceremony. And it’s there at the end of Shakespeare Wallah, Felicity Kendal looking out into the sea as she embraces the unavoidable uncertainty of her future.
“He’s very patient,” Gardner says about Ivory’s storytelling. “He’s very happy to go with the long story. And it’s a totally different rhythm than the rhythm we’re force-fed through streaming platforms… You get a much richer, deeper sort of hit than you do if you are in this very pumped up, superficial structure and language.”
In A Cooler Climate, one such moment occurs when the young Ivory, driving around the countryside in Kabul, meets two young Afghan men who invite him into their home. As he sits with them, his mind wanders to something an American told him about Afghan men. “How they raped other men, mostly boys,” the young Ivory says in the documentary. “When I finally left them, driving away in my Land Rover, I felt a kind of regret. Had I missed or passed up some great opportunity? Not of pleasure but of getting to know some personable Afghan men who were not unattractive to me?”
“We’re not making a statement and saying this is a fact [about Afghan men],” Gardner tells me. “It pointed towards the fact that he was thinking about these things and that while he was traveling and leaving America as a young gay man, he was a young man. He was interested in relationships and sex and so that was on his mind… I think they all just point to a young man who’s quite lonely and we can tell that he’s trying to connect with other men.”
“And I think it all helps somehow pre-stage his meeting with Ismail. And when he meets Ismail [in the documentary], it’s somehow a very rewarding moment. We all want a happy ending and it comes through,” Gardner continues. “We’ve talked about Maurice before, and E.M. Forster and the terrible time that E.M. Forster had suppressing his homosexuality. And I think what’s wonderful is that Jim, being 94, he’s an elder statesman of sorts. And he’s started talking about these things and being a little more open about these things than he has or has been able to in the past. In some ways, there’s something really terrific about seeing a man of his age being so forthcoming and so unashamed about talking about sex in very simple, frank terms.”
“Sooner or later, we must all come to terms with reality,” a character says in an early scene in Shakespeare Wallah, Ivory’s 1965 film about changing times and people who’ve stayed too long at the party. “We’re all forced to make cuts in the text written for us by destiny.”
By the late 1990s, the kinds of films that Merchant Ivory made seemed to have fallen out of public favor, with subsequent releases like The Golden Bowl and Surviving Picasso receiving relatively muted responses from audiences and critics.
“I’ve been through it time and again,” Ivory tells me. “We had our ups and downs—we’re still having them. People loved those films from our British phase, which started with A Room With A View and concluded with The Remains of the Day. But then the films that we made after that were quite different. They weren’t all that well received, actually. And then when I did Call Me By Your Name, suddenly that became a very popular movie. Our stock went up again—and still up.”
I ask him about his thoughts on the radically different trajectories the careers of Chalamet and Armie Hammer have taken since Call Me By Your Name. While Chalamet has become one of Hollywood’s top actors, starring in big-budget event films like Dune as well as auteur fare like Bones & All, Hammer has become a pariah, following accusations of sexual misconduct, cannibalism, and rape.
“Whatever they were, one really doesn’t know what they were,” Ivory says about the accusations surrounding Hammer. “It could have been the most innocent thing. We all say things like, ‘Oh I just love your ear. I could just eat your ear.’”
“Some mysteries really get blown up into things which they don’t deserve,” he continues. “For all we know, this was one of those crazy things. It was like the craziness that happened with Woody Allen… Timothée made an announcement, which I thought was shocking. He made an announcement, he would not work on another film with Woody Allen. I thought, well, talk about cancel culture. It’s shocking and stupid. I’m wondering whether the whole thing of the Armie Hammer isn’t something somewhat like that and just as stupid.”
At 94, though, Ivory is done tracking his own Hollywood fortunes. “I’m too old too to worry about things like that,” he says. “I’m not likely to direct a film again, like a regular feature film. I don’t think I’d have the stamina to do it—though maybe I would…I can’t imagine, though.” Later, he confesses that he doesn’t go to the movies much anymore, and isn’t as familiar with the work of new filmmakers. Still, it’s not as if he’s got many peers at this point. “I know there was that Portuguese director that lived to be 100 or something and was making films every year,” he says, referring to Manoel de Oliveira, who was directing films until he was 103 years old. “But somehow I don’t see that for me.”
But you never know with James Ivory. At a Q&A following the A Cooler Climate premiere, Ivory starts talking about how he recently found a metal box in his home containing the letters he wrote his parents while he was serving in the army in the early 50s.
“And I’m not saying that I’m going to make such a film…” Ivory says, chuckling to himself. “I mean, how can I?”
“We’ll take a look at that,” Gardner replies, to cheers from the crowd.