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Film Producer Ismail Merchant Dies


Ismail Merchant, the producer half of the filmmaking team known as Merchant-Ivory, died today after a long illness. He was 68 years old. Working with director James Ivory, he produced such films as "A Room with a View," "Howards End" and "The Remains of the Day." Their teamwork across 44 years is enshrined in the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest partnership in film history. Bob Mondello offers an appreciation.

BOB MONDELLO reporting:

They were an unusual team: producer Ismail Merchant, an Indian Muslim; director James Ivory, an American Catholic; and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, a Polish-German Jew. All three were cosmopolitan, just like the movies they made. Merchant was the irresistible salesman, the guy who raised the money and got their projects done, projects that might otherwise never have been produced: 1963's "Shakespeare Wallah," for instance, about a theater troupe traipsing across India, and the class-conscious romance that brought them international fame and a slew of Oscar nominations, "A Room with a View."

(Soundbite of "A Room with a View")

Ms. HELENA BONHAM CARTER: (As Lucy) It was wrong of me, very wrong, to sit here listening to you.

Unidentified Man: But you haven't been listening. If you had, you would know.

Ms. CARTER: (As Lucy) You'll leave at once now.

Unidentified Man: Lucy...

Ms. CARTER: (As Lucy) No! No! I will not listen to one more word!

Dame MAGGIE SMITH: My dears, do stop.

Ms. CARTER: (As Lucy) Haven't you done enough? Don't interfere again.

MONDELLO: "A Room with a View" was based on a novel by E.M. Forster and looked like it must have cost a fortune, but it didn't. Merchant was famous for being careful with cash. He borrowed props rather than buying them, cajoled people into loaning him their villas rather than building sets and kept costs low enough that, unlike most independent filmmakers, the Merchant-Ivory team wasn't subject to studio pressure, as he told WHYY's Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of WHYY interview)

Mr. ISMAIL MERCHANT: I really didn't want to become a part of the Hollywood scene as such, because, you know, meeting people and talking to them, some of the actors or some of the producers, their entire life was dependent on what the studio wanted them to do. And I really didn't want to do that. I wanted to be an independent producer and make my own films, have my own company.

MONDELLO: That company made movies that were as comfortable dealing with literary works and social issues as Hollywood films were dealing with comic books and car chases. "Maurice," based on another Forster novel, was one of the first films to depict gay relationships in an affirmative way. "Heat and Dust" dealt with cross-cultural love affairs. And their masterwork, "Howards End," dealt with class and mobility in a story about a wealthy widower who, having cheated a woman out of a house she was left as a legacy, belatedly offers her help.

(Soundbite of "Howards End")

Sir ANTHONY HOPKINS: I shall look around a bit for you.

Ms. EMMA THOMPSON: Would you?


Ms. THOMPSON: Would you really?


Ms. THOMPSON: Well, how kind. But I warn you, the house has not been built that would suit the Schlegel family. It's no fun trying to help us.

Sir ANTHONY: Fun? No, but it's a pleasure and a privilege to do whatever I can for Ms. Margaret Schlegel.

MONDELLO: "Howards End" won three Oscars, though not everyone admired the Merchant-Ivory lushness. Filmmaker Alan Parker dismissively dubbed their work `Laura Ashley films.'

Still, when Merchant produced pictures that took the team into edgier territory, audiences didn't follow, so he kept returning to the literary projects at which they were masters; films that were glamorous, erudite and beautifully wrought, films that wrap audiences in the high culture of a world gone by, bringing it, for a couple of hours, back to life. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello
Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.