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White Countess marks end of Merchant Ivory

White Countess marks end of Merchant Ivory

It seems fitting that new movie The White Countess tells of the end of an era and a friendship because it also marks the final collaboration of gay filmmakers James Ivory and Ismail Merchant. For 44 years, Merchant Ivory brought widely acclaimed movies to theaters, including Oscar-nominated A Room With a View, Howards End, and The Remains of the Day. But Merchant, the producer to Ivory's director, died in May at age 68, ending their years together.

White Countess, a drama that begins playing in theaters on Friday, is set in 1936 Shanghai when China's ruling nationalists were being challenged by communists and the Japanese were plotting to invade the country's eastern region. The story revolves around a former American diplomat named Jackson (Ralph Fiennes) who befriends a mysterious Japanese man, Matsuda (Hiroyuki Sanada), and a former Russian countess (Natasha Richardson) working as a barroom taxi dancer. Elaborate sets and colorful costumes help dress up a story of Jackson's personal redemption.

"It's an old, old theme. We made so many films about outsiders in some strange, alien environment who are trying to live their lives in some way and connect," Ivory told Reuters in a recent interview. He said he and Merchant made good partners from the time they formed Merchant Ivory in 1961. At that time, they had similar interests in film and Indian culture and the same goal: making movies they wanted to make and telling tales their way.

Ivory, 77, was born in Berkeley, Calif., and Merchant was a native of Bombay, India. They first made 1963's The Householder, about Indian newlyweds dealing with cultural changes and their impact on their marriage. It was based on a novel by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who would collaborate with the filmmaking team for years to come. Ivory said his fondest memories are of their early years. With few financiers to back movies about Indian culture, they had to fight for every dollar. Yet the low budgets sparked both a creativity and fearlessness that caused critics to notice their work.

"People don't even remember the films anymore, but those were our heroic days," Ivory said. "Nobody was ever able to knock Ismail down and keep him from getting up again and going and raising money for the next film. He really had a tremendous optimism and strength and tenacity that, I'm sure if he hadn't been there, Ruth and I would've long since fallen by the wayside," he added.

Ivory said he is "amazed" they forged careers early because so many of the movies failed at the box office. Their careers suffered a few setbacks in the early 1970s, but late in that decade they began adapting literary classics like Henry James's The Europeans.

Merchant Ivory's first major U.S. hit was the 1985 romance A Room With a View, based on the E.M. Forster novel. It earned eight Oscar nominations and won three Academy Awards for screenplay, costume design, and art direction. Mr. & Mrs. Bridge, Howards End, Maurice, and Remains of the Day followed successfully. Howards End earned nine Oscar nominations, including best film, and won three of the awards.

In more recent years, however, their popularity waned, and movies like The Golden Bowl and Le Divorce did less well. Ivory is at a loss to explain why, and he said he is still always surprised when one movie is a hit and another is not. He thinks audiences continue to crave the kinds of movies Merchant Ivory produces, noting current hit Pride and Prejudice. "They keep making these films. In fact, people think I've made them, and I have to say, 'I'm sorry I didn't make that film,"' he said. "I think people never quite tire of that."

White Countess fits squarely in the vein of period dramas for which the filmmaking team is best known, but instead of writer Jhabvala, the screenplay was written by Kazuo Ishiguro, who also wrote the novel The Remains of the Day. The hero, Jackson, prefers to ignore the armed conflict in China. He creates a nightclub in which people can forget their differences and, at least for a night, escape the world. Matsuda befriends Jackson, but everywhere Matsuda travels in China, the Japanese army follows. Eventually they invade Shanghai, and the lives of Jackson and Sofia, who dances in his club, are changed forever.

Filming had ended on The White Countess and editing was nearly complete when Merchant died. Despite the loss of his business partner, Ivory continues on. He is planning a new movie, The City of Your Final Destination, based on a novel about a university professor who wants to persuade the family of a South American writer to allow him write a biographical account of the writer's life. Jhabvala wrote the screenplay, and Ivory will direct. (Bob Tourtellotte, via Reuters)

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