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James Ivory - The Golden Bowl

     My New York critic friends are appalled that I much prefer the Ivory-Merchant The Golden Bowl to Terence Davies' The House of Mirth, but there you are. And there I was, encountering no difficulty at last year's Cannes Film Festival grabbing a press conference seat for The Golden Bowl. There were oodles of empty ones, despite the star presences of Nick Nolte and Uma Thurman. Most journalists, the Americans especially, were so unmoved by this adaptation of the Henry James novel that they went to lunch rather than stick about to hear how it got made.

     Also among the missing at the conference: anyone cheerleading from Miramax, the then distributor. Post-Cannes, Miramax boss Harvey Weinstein demanded that the film be recut, and the producer, Ishmael Merchant, and director, James Ivory, indignantly refused. Whereby the film went over to Lions Gate Films, a more risk-taking distributor.

     "It's a very tricky thing to do," Ivory conceded of trying to adapt what is probably James's densest novel. "Much of the story isn't revealed in the book itself. We had to construct scenes. We cut them up, put them here and there. A problem was there's not that much incident but a great deal of thought. We had to invent these scenes, and hope they revealed something of the interior life."

     Ivory's screenplay, as usual, was composed by Indian novelist Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who penned the great script for Ivory's masterpiece, Howard's End. She succeeded once before adapting Henry James (The Europeans) and flopped once (The Bostonians). 'We've worked together now for forty years," Ivory said. "The same producer, the same music, and the same writer. Ruth Jhabvala is the only writer who can adapt Forster and James, so let's clap!"

     sSeveral journalists did.

     "I read a lot of screenplays, but not many people make dramas any more," Thurman piped in. "Jim and Ishmael are unique in that they've stood by their own tastes." How did she play Charlotte Stant, the indigent socialite who is acquired in marriage by American capitalist, Adam Verver (Nolte)? "I had the book, I had the screenplay, I had Jim, I had my own history of tears and hysteria. I just threw myself at her. I sort of thought she was crazy, Jim
thought she was sane, so we found a good balance. Charlotte is the most passionate female I ever played, so I gave what I had."

     Nolte talked briefly about The Golden Bowl ("Henry James saw this mix of old Europe and young America becoming the richest country in the world. These fellows - Mellon, Carnegie - came over and raped Europe") but segued to a topic which interested him far more: the decadence of acting in Hollywood: "When a young actor has a little success, smiling men come at you pushing all this money. Most actors come from lower-income families, so it's irrestible, leading to a series of repetitious roles which kill a career.

     "Hollywood had been boiled down to four or five male leads and the same story over and again. The star system sucks!"

     Ivory respectfully disagreed. "I've never made a film without one or two people who are stars. They are stars for a reason, and I've been happy when I've had the right stars. I was led to understand very quickly that a star matters, for financing."

     "I'm working now on a film for zero money," Nolte said. "Investigating Sex, about Man Ray and the Surrealists. It's being done with the cooperation of the German government, and Tuesday Weld plays my wife. I convinced her to come out of retirement."

     A sudden non sequitur from Nolte, asked of Thurman: "What's your husband's name?"

     Thurman, taken aback, laughed. "Ethan."

     Nolte couldn't remember Ethan Hawke! "Forgive me," he shrugged, "I'm 61 years old."

(Boston Phoenix, May, 2001)


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