James Ivory “Spills the Tea”

Helena Bonham Carter, Judi Dench, and James Ivory on the set of A Room with a View (1986)

When A Room with a View opened in 1986, Pauline Kael gave it a gentle pat in the New Yorker, calling it “enjoyably trivial—a piece of charming foolishness.” Written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, produced by Ismail Merchant, and directed by Merchant’s partner in life and cinema, James Ivory, the adaptation of E. M. Forster’s 1908 novel was a hit with audiences and the Academy (eight Oscar nominations and three wins), though critics often dismissed Merchant Ivory productions as having been sewn together in the “Laura Ashley school of filmmaking.”

The tide has since turned. In 2010, the Guardian’s Catherine Shoard recommended a rewatch of A Room with a View, which introduced the world to Helena Bonham Carter and features such stalwarts of the British costume drama as Maggie Smith and Judi Dench. “Watch it today and you’ll blush to have ever smirked at the cliche,” wrote Shoard. “This is incredibly fresh and arresting filmmaking: moving and amusing, swooningly romantic and socially ferocious—nothing less than a full-frontal (in every way) assault on your soul.” Tomorrow evening, the Museum of the Moving Image in New York will screen A Room with a View following “a rare public appearance by Ivory” in the form of a conversation moderated by Michael Barker.

The occasion is the publication of Ivory’s new memoir, Solid Ivory, in which, at ninety-three, he looks back—albeit thematically rather than chronologically—on growing up in Oregon, traveling through Italy and India, meeting Merchant in 1959, living in an open relationship as an out gay man, and winning his first and only Academy Award in 2018 for writing Call Me by Your Name. “The fact that he’d been making films since the 1950s, and nominated for numerous Oscars, made it even more astonishing that he won for a film he had ‘taken up almost casually as a favor to some friends, and for the fun of it,’” writes David Vogel in the Chicago Review of Books. “It is this sense of perspective, good humor, and a willingness to go with the flow that shines through in his writing. Ivory’s book makes for a charming, yet unconventional, entertainment industry memoir.”

For years, Ivory kept the stories he had to tell about Satyajit Ray, Jean Renoir, Vanessa Redgrave, and Bruce Chatwin—among countless others—to himself for the most part. But Merchant passed away in 2005, and Jhabvala died in 2013. “After decades conjuring the Anglo-American aristocracy clinking cups in gardens and drawing rooms, Ivory, the survivor, is ready to spill the tea,” writes Alexandra Jacobs in the New York Times. “He spills it not in the typical big autobiographical splash but in dribs and drabs: letters, diary entries, tumbling sense-memories of fashion, food and furniture (and the other F-word), with scores of appealingly casual photographs sprinkled throughout. An established master of the slow reveal, Ivory serves gossip with a voile overlay.”

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