In 1974 Merchant Ivory made two new films, Autobiography of a Princess and The Wild Party. Although released after The Wild Party, Autobiography of a Princess was the first to be filmed. It has an intriguing history, which Ivory has related in his book Autobiography of a Princess, a miscellany of commentary and photos of Royal India, together with the text of Jhabvala's screenplay of the film. As Ivory explains, Merchant was in India in 1973 putting together material for a possible documentary that would include archival footage as well as interviews with descendants of the Maharajas. When he accepted an invitation from the former Maharaja of Jodhpur, Ivory and Jhabvala went along. While observing the crew shooting scenes in one of the rooms of the palace, Ivory began to reflect on "what Bai-ji, the Jodhpur princess, had told us in her interview about her life here, about going to school in Switzerland and coming back to Jodhpur, and how everybody had tried to force her into purdah. Suddenly I thought of the actress Madhur Jaffrey: what a princess she would make!"
An Indian princess (Madhur Jaffrey) long divorced and living in self-enforced exile in London, invites her father's ex-tutor, Cyril Sahib (James Mason), to an annual tea party, intended to celebrate a happier past, where the two watch old movie footage of Royal India.
In this perfect, tightly written film of memory and character exploration, James Mason gives one of the finest portrayals of his career, almost a kind of valedictory performance as the articulate and self-aware Cyril Sahib. Madhur Jaffrey, a favorite Merchant Ivory actress, is no less affecting as the imperious but befuddled, and finally tragically isolated Princess.The Princess reviews her memories selectively: she sees their long-vanished, fun-filled world, dominated by her dazzling father, through a haze of nostalgia, and she tries to wheedle her guest into writing a book about it. But Cyril Sahib has a different view both of their common past and of her father, the Maharaja. He recalls the ceremonial occasions, the weddings, and funerals, the pig-sticking expeditions, the pranks and practical jokes with distaste, even horror at the surfeit and brutality. And he remembers the dashing Maharaja – to his adoring daughter almost a surrogate lover – as manipulative and often cruel, his later years soiled by a sordid sex scandal in London.
Three Oscar -winning actresses illuminate the screen in Merchant Ivory's second adaptation of a Henry James novel, The Bostonians, set in New England in the period after the Civil War. Olive Chancellor (Vanessa Redgrave), a Back Bay Boston spinster and leader of the women's suffrage movement, becomes enamored of Verena Tarrant (Madeleine Potter), an inspirational young speaker, and adopts Verena as her protegée, her friend, and her companion. When Olive's distant relation, the chauvenist Southern lawyer Basil Ransom (Christopher Reeve) falls in love with Verena and wishes to marry her -- to relegate the young woman to the kitchen and the nursery -- Olive and Ransom find themselves competing for Verena's affections. The charismatic Miss Tarrant must then choose whether to get herself to the nunnery of Olive's social cause or submit to the sensual but subservient life promised by Ransom.
Jessica Tandy and Linda Hunt co-star as Miss Birdseye and Doctor Prance, two fiercely independent Bostonian women who become involved in both the relationship between Verena and her mentor and that between Verena and her suitor. The courtships and sapphic friendships are further complicated by Mrs. Burrage (Nancy Marchand), the New York society matron who tries to secure Verena for her son.
Henry James first conceived the novel through his fascination with the cause of suffrage, and the fierce devotion that the cause engendered in women he had observed in his younger years. The film re-creates that highly charged political atmosphere -- one which Emerson called "a little wild with numberless projects of social reform" -- in scenes of verbose Harvard men arguing at the dinner table, a dazzling Fourth of July celebration on Cape Cod, and standing-room-only lectures where the rhetoric is half politics, half divine inspiration.
Redgrave received an Oscar nomination for her depiction of Olive Chancellor; she shines, finding a depth and sympathy in Olive that often eluded even James himself (his Olive is less sympathetic than Redgrave and Jhabvala's character). Reeve, in a performance that was widely underrated because of his celebrity status as Superman, proves a worthy nemesis for Redgrave; and Jessica Tandy breathes life into Miss Birdseye (a character in whom James was accused of lampooning a prominent New England woman): in their portrait of a character almost as old as the nation itself, Tandy and Ivory imbue Miss Birdseye with the unassuming New England dignity that the director last explored in Mrs. Acton, the ailing matriarch in James's The Europeans.In The Bostonians,Ivory creates a broader, more fully realized follow-up to that earlier vision of a nation finding itself through its art, literature, religion, and politics.
The final episode in Merchant Ivory's encounter with Henry James will take his Americans abroad in The Golden Bowl
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