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Filmmaker Ismail Merchant dies at 68

Known for making costume dramas with James Ivory
/ Source: The Associated Press

Ismail Merchant, whose seamless 44-year filmmaking partnership with James Ivory defined the period-piece genre with such intelligent, sumptuous dramas as “A Room With a View,” “Howards End,” and “The Remains of the Day,” died Wednesday. He was 68.

Merchant, who was born in Bombay but spent most of his life in the West, was surrounded by family and friends when he died at a London hospital, Merchant Ivory Productions said in a statement on its Web site. He had recently undergone surgery for abdominal ulcers, according to Indian television reports.

The Merchant-Ivory brand of worldly, literate costume dramas and occasional contemporary tales spans some 40 films, from 1963’s “The Householder,” a domestic story set in India, through 2003’s art-house hit “Le Divorce,” a romantic farce starring Kate Hudson and Naomi Watts.

Their films won six Academy Awards, including the best-actress Oscar for Emma Thompson for the 1992 E.M. Forster adaptation “Howards End.”

Ivory directed and Merchant produced, but unlike other film duos in which the director usually steals the limelight, the two were equal partners to their devoted public.

“I thought Merchant Ivory was one person,” actor Wang Luoyong — who co-stars in the upcoming Merchant-Ivory film “The White Countess,” a drama set in 1930s Shanghai — joked last year as the movie was shooting in China.

Emphasis on productionWhen their movies came out, they generally were known not just as James Ivory films, but Merchant-Ivory productions — with emphasis on the word “production.”

Fans were assured of lavish production values, meticulous attention to period detail, sharp and often profound dialogue and richly melodramatic performances.

In an interview with The Associated Press last year, Merchant said the films worked because he and Ivory, an American, sought out great source material.

“It should be a good story — speak about a time and place that is permanent,” he said. “It should capture something wonderful with some great characters whether it’s set in the past or in the future.”

Along with Thompson and Anthony Hopkins, who co-starred in the back-to-back best-picture Oscar nominees “Howards End” and “The Remains of the Day,” their stable of actors included Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Christopher Reeve, Vanessa Redgrave, Helena Bonham Carter, Maggie Smith and Nick Nolte.

Usually teamed with screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Merchant and Ivory built an impressive body of work in their first two decades together with such films as the Henry James adaptations “The Europeans” and “The Bostonians.”

They had a small but loyal following of art-house fans who appreciated their sort of big-screen “Masterpiece Theatre”-type tales. Then they hit a creative and popular zenith with 1986’s Forster adaptation “A Room With a View,” which brought them their first best-picture Oscar nomination.

Merchant and Ivory were at their best in such literary realms of the past. Their forays into contemporary settings included the disastrous Tama Janowitz adaptation “Slaves of New York” in 1989.

Though he oversaw the business side of things on his collaborations with Ivory, Merchant also directed on occasion, his output including 1999’s “Cotton Mary” and 2001’s “The Mystic Masseur.”

But his forte was producing. “Without (Ismail), we couldn’t even get the things off the ground,” Prawer Jhabvala said in 1992. “Once he’s made up his mind to make a film, he makes it. Nothing can get in his way.”

Merchant first traveled to the United States in 1958 to study for a business degree at New York University.

He met Ivory in a New York City coffee shop in 1961. Their first film, “The Householder,” was based on a novel by Prawer Jhabvala, and its 1963 premiere was held at the residence of then-U.S. Ambassador to India John Kenneth Galbraith.

“When we first began, Ruth told us she had never written a screenplay,” Merchant told the AP last year. “That was not a problem since I had never produced a feature film and Jim had never directed one.”

Along with “The White Countess,” which stars Ralph Fiennes, Vanessa Redgrave and Natasha Richardson, they also were at work on “The Goddess,” starring Tina Turner in a musical about the Hindu deity Shakti. Merchant and Ivory also were among the producers on “Heights,” a contemporary film set in New York starring Glenn Close, which comes out June 17.

Merchant was unmarried and had no children.