The Quad in New York screened the World Premiere 4K Restoration of The Bostonians on November 30th 2018. The film boasts many awards and nominations, and is one of the many proud pieces created by the collaborating partners Director James Ivory and Writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Jhabvala has won two Oscar awards and nominated for a third, all for the category of Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published.
The screening was followed by a Q & A with Director James Ivory (JI), conducted by Christopher Wells (CW), Director of Repertory Programming from Cohen Media Group’s (CMG) Quad Cinema.
JI: Every time I see a new movie I think THIS one is my favorite one. And now, tonight THIS [The Bostonians] one IS!
CW: So how long has it been since you saw The Bostonians, and what about this movie makes you love it so much?
JI: I saw it whilst it was being restored, but not at a theatre. I was just amazed at the dialogue in this film; it is a marvelous piece of work from Henry James. It was one of his rare novels set in America, as he did not set many pieces in this country. A lot of it is also Ruth, so between the two of them, it’s terrific. There’s an interesting thing about this book: when he came to publish all his works towards the end of his life, he did not include “The Bostonians”. He felt that he had made a caricature of Miss. Birdseye—some disservice. But I just think it’s a terrific novel. If you have not read his work, this is a good one to start.
CW: This is your second adaptation. Did you always plan to do a trilogy?
JI: It was meant to be 1 part of a 5 part series that Boston Television was doing. There was going to be a full biographical section, one of William James senior, his sister Alice, and this: The Bostonians. But then the funding was lost and the whole thing was dropped. However, we had the script that Ruth had written and we thought well, we’ll do it.
CW: Did you have to make any changes from the television version to the film version, and were you planning on making the other films?
JI: Not at all, and no I was not to be the director of those.
CW: In terms of the explicitness of what’s now clearly a lesbian relationship, would you have pushed it further if it were made now?
JI: No, no one at the time said anything about it being too much. The actresses did what they thought they could do. It’s obvious that it’s a strong relationship between two women. Today it may have gone further, but that type of relationship used to be quite common. It was what used to be called a “Boston Marriage”. The film is set in 1876—the year of the centennial. Boston Marriages came about because there were many young men who went to fight in the civil war and didn’t come back. There weren’t that many eligible young men. Henry James’ sister, Alice James, was in such a relationship herself. They knew about it and were not happy about it, but what could they do? She was a very strong-minded person.
CW: When working with Ruth on the screenplay, did historical research on the family inform the finished film in terms of adding real life parts into the narrative?
JI: No it’s all there in the novel.
CW: Can we talk about the casting of the 3 principal characters.
JI: Well, we always wanted Christopher Reeve to play the part. We couldn’t work with him when we wanted to do it first because he was still doing superman. He’d done 2 successfully, was getting tired, and didn’t want to do a third one. But he ended up doing even the fourth. Once he had finished that, he did this film.
CW: Did he audition for it?
JI: No, no. I just thought he was the guy. He prepared for it very carefully and met with someone to work with him on his accent. Vanessa Redgrave was not the first choice for the role, Glenn Close was. She seemed to want to play it, but at the same time she was offered a part in a movie by Robert Redford in Buffalo. The plan was for her to fly between places to film both, but we weren’t used to that. The agent went too far and said to our producer Ismail Merchant that she would come ‘when they let her come’. Meanwhile, Vanessa’s name had been circling. She had done a reading of the script before, but she said she would never be able to play a role like this. Then there were all sorts of scandals, and people weren’t hiring. Afterwards, she decided that she would perhaps play the role. So we then hired Vanessa. The clothes that Vanessa was wearing had to be adjusted.
Did you ever talk to Glenn Close?
Yes, sure. She didn’t hold it against us, and we were at one point hoping to do The Portrait of a Lady. [We couldn’t find a young girl we liked, and a friend gave me three names, one of which was Madeline Potter’s. So we cast her. At the same time, Julianne Moore who just got out of Yale Drama School kept trying to reach us, but couldn’t get past our Casting Director as we’d never heard of her. She told me the story later on during filming. I also had a meeting with Jodie Foster who was then at yale. She was a tough character to convince, and she did say she’d think about it. But things worked out for everyone.
Jan Lisa Huttner (Editor-in-Chief): As part of SWAN, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala is one of our sheroes—one of the only women in the history of the Academies to win two Oscars. We’d like to ask you: what was the selection criteria for the number of projects you worked on together. Did things come to you or did you bring things to each other. We would love to hear about her role too.
JI: We started out doing a novel of hers, The Householder, after that there were a number of original screenplays, and we just kept on working together. We loved working together. Then it led to The Europeans—our first adaptation together. Howards End was her idea and she thought we should tackle that—it was a marvelous book. The film Quartet set in Paris in 20s. Ruth was reading all of Jean Rhys’ novels. I hadn’t been reading any of her novels at the time, but she left it around and I started “Quartet” and thought Gosh, this is wonderful, I would love to make it into a movie. I was always interested in Paris in the 1920s—in college and after. I convinced her and we made that. With the Henry James stories, we started out wanting to do one of the big international novels “The Portrait of the Lady”. We tried, but we couldn’t because Jane Campion also wanted to do it at the same time. The odd thing is, we were all at the same agencies. The directors, actors, etc. all the creative artists were there. You’d think that sooner or later, it would have dawned on the agents, after months and months, and someone would’ve have realized that there were two versions of The Portrait of a Lady in the room…So, we gave up. Ruth said she really didn’t think we could have two versions of The Portrait of a Lady in one decade.
© Katusha Jin (12/09/18) FF2 Media