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Life as Art in “Solid Ivory”

Life as Art in “Solid Ivory”

In 2018, at age 89, James Ivory became the oldest winner of an Academy Award, winning Best Adapted Screenplay for Call Me By Your Name. In Solid Ivory: Memoirs, Ivory reveals he didn’t expect to win at all. His goal was to make quality films, not win awards. He describes the Oscar statuette, and its current importance, more than a little bit sarcastically: “Its fame eclipses even Michelangelo’s David and the Statue of Liberty.” 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.” 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.

Solid Ivory is divided into six sections by theme, rather than chronologically. Readers looking for a typical Hollywood “tell-all” should look elsewhere, because this is not that kind of celebrity autobiography. It is best to consider the experience of reading Solid Ivory as the opportunity to allow a prolific independent artist to share his insights. Many of the chapters consist of diary entries or personal correspondence, as a way of acquainting the reader more intimately with the characters involved. The story follows Ivory through his Depression-era childhood in Oregon, his travels to Italy and India, through adventures in Hollywood and New York City. As with any storytelling that isn’t strictly chronological, the book can sometimes feel a bit meandering. But Ivory’s descriptions of his experience as an out gay man during the mid-20th century is more than enough reward for some sections that might leave readers scratching their heads.

The most refreshing aspect of his memoir is the author’s outsider perspective of modern Hollywood conventions, such as the focus placed on awards. His detailing of the making of Call Me By Your Name is one of the most fascinating sections. He delves into the controversy surrounding the lack of nudity and censoring of the sex scene between Elio and Oliver with utter frankness: “Elio and Oliver’s lovemaking, with no need of frontal nudity, is described in my screenplay… such a shot, as described above, and if taken, would have said everything an audience might want to know.” Ivory displays no bitterness about the making of the film, from which he was dismissed as co-director. He admits that it could have been uncomfortable to have two directors, but seems most upset that Luca Guadagnino didn’t directly communicate his change in employment.

Ivory is at his best when discussing his partner in life and work, Ismail Merchant, who passed away in 2005. They were “united in a purpose, and that purpose was to make films together.” The sections dealing with Merchant flow cohesively, expressing hidden depths of emotion with restraint just as their best films do. Merchant was the love of his life, though he admits their relationship was unconventional. They were non-monogamous at a time when lasting gay relationships were hardly common, but Ivory clarifies that their dalliances “did not last because I was always there and he was always there.” Their commitment to each other was unique and singular, and one can tell by the way Ivory writes that their personal connection was a large part of what helped Merchant Ivory Productions, the film company they founded in 1961, be a success.

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At times, I found the flow of the book to be steady, if uneven. Many anecdotes rely on the fact that the reader is familiar with the people who were part of Ivory’s social circle (footnotes are included when explanation is deemed necessary.) There is very little discussion of the making of specific Merchant Ivory films. The focus remains solidly on Ivory and the experiences that formed him. At first, I was resistant to this style; I wanted more gossip and behind-the-scenes drama, but as I continued reading, I realized that wasn’t the point. Much like his films, Solid Ivory unfolds at its own speed, revealing stylistically beautiful and generous portraits of the personalities, locations, and events that shaped James Ivory. In our current age, so focused on measurable success, Solid Ivory reminded me that storytelling should be the most important thing to an artist. Art exists to illuminate life, and what greater creation is there than the life we build with the people close to us?

Solid Ivory: Memoirs
By James Ivory
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published November 2, 2021

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