The Love, Life, and Legacy of Filmmakers Ismail Merchant and James Ivory

With “Maurice,” the duo changed how films depicted gay romance. Their production company would go on to win six Oscars, but their own love story remained a secret for 45 years.

Poulomi Das

June 25, 2021

The Love, Life, and Legacy of Filmmakers Ismail Merchant and James Ivory
James Ivory and Ismail Merchant in Manhattan in 1975. They'd been together since the early 1960s. (Photograph by Mary Ellen Mark)

Filmmaker, screenwriter, and producer James Ivory — one half of the famed Merchant Ivory Productions, behind celebrated films like A Room with a View (1985), Howards End (1992), and The Remains of the Day (1993) — was a sight to behold at the 90th Academy Awards in 2018. At 89, Ivory became the oldest Oscar winner ever when he bagged the award for Best Adapted Screenplay for Call Me by Your Name (2017). The crowd gave his win a standing ovation. Armed with a cane, a smiling Ivory made his way to the stage as “Mystery of Love,” the film’s sensual ballad, played in the background. By then, Ivory’s script — based on André Aciman’s eponymous 2007 novel — had won several major awards, including ones from BAFTA, Critics Choice, and the Writers Guild of America.

“Whether straight or gay or somewhere in between, we’ve all gone through first love, I hope, and come out the other side mostly intact,” Ivory, a four-time Oscar nominee, said while accepting his long-overdue Oscar. As an openly gay man, working on Call Me by Your Name — a coming-of-age tale that charted an impassioned romance between two young men — held personal significance. The night’s most heartfelt moment arrived when Ivory tenderly paid tribute to his “life’s partner,” the late Indian producer Ismail Merchant. Working with Merchant for close to 50 years at their co-owned production company, Ivory said in his acceptance speech, had “led him to this award.”

Ivory delivered his speech wearing a custom white shirt emblazoned with Call Me by Your Name lead Timothée Chalamet’s face. In the film, the actor played Elio, a 17-year-old in the throes of his first heartbreak. As Ivory remembered Merchant that night, publicly acknowledging his lost love for the first time, it wasn’t difficult to think of Ivory in Elio’s shoes.