Ivory, James

Alternative names
Dates:
Birth 1928-06-07
Americans
English

Biographical notes:

James Ivory was born in Berkeley, California on June 7, 1928. Edward Ivory, his father, had grown up in New York state where he attended Syracuse University and graduated in forestry. As an ROTC graduate he served as an officer in France during World War I and after the war was employed in Thomas Edison's experimental laboratory in New Jersey at East Orange. In 1921 he married Hallie DeLoney, descended from an old Louisiana family. Later they moved to Berkeley, California where he was employed by the Weyerhaeuser Timber Company in San Francisco. In 1933 he moved his family to Klamath Falls, Oregon where in partnership with an investor he bought a lumber mill adjacent to Klamath Lake and later built another in Bly, Oregon called the Ivory Pine Company.

The family maintained their primary residence in Klamath Falls and James attended Sacred Heart Academy. While discipline was strict, a teaching sister recognized his artistic ability and encouraged him to take drawing and painting classes. He later attended Klamath Union High School where he made many lifelong friends among students and faculty. In addition to an academic course, he participated in school drama and journalism, and spent many of his weekends skiing at nearby Crater Lake National Park where he also worked as a cabin attendant during the summer.

After high school graduation in 1946, he enrolled in the University of Oregon's School of Fine Arts majoring in architecture, later changing to a general art course. His years at Oregon were intellectually challenging and many faculty members at Oregon made a lasting impression on Ivory. He traveled to Europe for the first time in the summer of 1950 and after returning, received a BA degree. In 1951 he began a graduate program in film production at the University of Southern California. Although the school emphasized industrial film production, Ivory was able to convince his teachers to let him film a Master's degree documentary thesis on Venice as reflected in its art. In 1953 he was drafted into the U.S. Army and was trained for the Signal Corps. Through a stroke of luck and resourcefulness on his part, he was assigned to Seventh Army Special Services in Europe with the job of booking cultural events for army units in Germany. During leave times he was able to continue working on his Venice film. He returned to the U.S. in 1955 where he completed Venice: Theme & Variations and his Masters Degree in Cinematography in 1957.

Then living in Los Angeles, he set out to produce his next documentary film based on his new found interest in Indian miniature painting. Filming paintings in American museums and private collections, he completed the film titled The Sword and the Flute in 1959. Both that film and the Venice film attracted the interest of the Asia Society of New York. Ivory was commissioned, with the support of a $20,000 grant from the Rockefellers, supporters of the Asia Society, to produce two documentaries--one on Delhi and another on Afghanistan. He spent the year 1960 shooting film in India and traveling by jeep over the Khyber Pass and on to Kabul where most of his Afghanistan footage was shot. The Delhi Way was released in 1964 although the Afghan film was never completed.

It was on his return to New York that he met Ismail Merchant. Ivory was impressed by Merchant's drive and business acumen while Merchant appreciated Ivory's artistic and intellectual attributes. Together they shared a love and fascination with India and cinema and decided to return to the subcontinent and produce a feature film. While seeking a suitable property to film and after a number of misadventures they met Ruth Prawer Jhabvala who had by then written four novels including, The Householder . She agreed to let them produce a film based on it and offered to write the screenplay. Thus was formed a cinema triumvirate that over the years would become the longest lasting film collaboration in cinema history.

The University of Oregon Ivory collection presently represents forty years of this collaboration and from it we learn much about James Ivory as a director and about the films of Merchant Ivory. Although a number of their films were produced in India, the majority are set in western Europe and the United States--from Nazi occupied France to the frenzied art scene in 1980s New York. Time periods run from the eighteenth century to the twenty-first. Screenplays are inspired by older established authors and their classic works, to new writers just making their names. Underlying all, however, is the team's basic artistic foundation: the Ruth Jhabvala-James Ivory collaboration, backed up by the inventive financial and logistical support of their producer, Ismail Merchant.

Ivory has compared making a motion picture to a military campaign. Scores of personnel and tons of equipment must arrive promptly at designated locations, while all the logistical aspects to support actors and crew must be undertaken over the days of the shoot. The director acts as the general in charge of the day-to-day shooting operation. It is, however, in the planning, development and cutting of a film that we more clearly see the genius of James Ivory. This is illustrated in reading the collection's correspondence between Ivory, Jhabvala, and various authors whose books were being filmed. Ivory and Jhabvala are perfectionists. Months are spent analyzing characters, their motivations and how they fit into the script. In the days before faxes and email, both Ivory and Jhabvala had to depend on letters, as they were so often on different continents. These letters, and those with other writers involved in Merchant Ivory's films, make rewarding reading.

Much of the casting for the Merchant-Ivory films was done by Ivory and we see many pages of comments about dozens of auditioning actors (some now household names) as he sought the perfect individual for a role. To his credit, scores of unknown and beginning actors have received their starts in his films. It is James Ivory the artist and historian that we see reflected as we read his director's notebooks: the legacy he will be known by to future generations, in addition to the films themselves, their involving stories, and nuanced acting. The reader will see how he arrived at the historically accurate sets, the detailed accouterments from table place settings, to the right kind of dog or period car, to costumes, the moods of color and background. The results of this infinite care and skill have been impressive. Films such as A Room with a View, Howards End and The Remains of the Day are now regarded as classics and have been awarded numerous European and American awards.

The dictionary defines genre as "a category of art distinguished by a definite style, form or content." James Ivory has created the Merchant Ivory genre that is now recognized throughout the film-going world.

From the guide to the James Ivory papers, circa 1960-2005, (Special Collections and University Archives, University of Oregon Libraries)

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Subjects:

  • Motion picture producers and directors--United States

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