Filmmaker Ismail Merchant Dead
Ismail Merchant, the producer whose venerable partnership with director James Ivory led to such Oscar-winning costume dramas as A Room with a View, Howard’s End and The Remains of the Day, died in a London hospital Wednesday. He was 68.
A spokesman in his London office said Merchant passed away surrounded by family and close friends.
The filmmaker had reportedly been suffering from stomach problems over the past year, including undergoing an operation recently for abdominal ulcers.
The Merchant-Ivory machine, which also included German-born screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, produced a string of highly polished international hits, often derived from acclaimed literary sources and featuring all-star ensembles.
Merchant-Ivory’s films frequently plumbed the depths of upper-crust English society at the turn of the century, with the best examples being two adaptations of E.M. Forster novels–1986’s A Room with a View, which launched the career of a young Daniel Day-Lewis, and 1992’s Howard’s End, starring Anthony Hopkins, Vanessa Redgrave and Emma Thompson.
The Remains of the Day (1993), adapted from a book by Kazuo Ishiguro, reunited Hopkins and Thompson, and delved into the life of a repressed butler who devotion to his employer prior to World War II is challenged by a fellow housekeeper, with whom he falls in love.
The three dramas racked up a total of 25 Academy Award nominations, including three Best Picture nods, and winning a total of six Oscars, including two for Jhabvala for Best Screenplay. Merchant personally received four Oscar nominations during his career, but never won.
His producer credits included 1983’s charming Heat and Dust, based on Jhabvala’s own novel, and 1984’s The Bostonians, adapted from the novel by Henry James and starring Christopher Reeve and Jessica Tandy.
Born in Bombay (now Mumbai) in December 1936, Merchant came to New York University in 1958, and earned a business degree. While there, he developed an affinity for cinema and produced his first film, 1960’s The Creation of Woman, a 14-minute short that an official U.S. entry at the Cannes Film Festival that year and eventually earned Merchant his first Oscar nomination.
A year later he met Ivory at a screening of the latter’s documentary The Sword and the Flute, and the two struck up a friendship. They soon decided to go into business together making English-language costume dramas for the Indian market.
Their first film outing was The Householder, a comedy-drama about young Indian newlyweds based on a novel by Jhabvala.
In 1974, Merchant got behind the camera for with the Indian short Mahatma and the Mad Boy. It wasn’t until 1993 that he finally made his feature-helming debut with In Custody, but for the most part, he stuck to the business side.
Even after their heyday in the late ’80s through early ’90s, Merchant-Ivory continued to churn out well crafted period stories, most notably 1995’s Jefferson in Paris, starring Nick Nolte and Gwyneth Paltrow, 1996’s Surviving Picasso and 2001’s The Golden Bowl.
More recently, they teamed up for 2003’s Le Divorce, a comedy of manners featuring Kate Hudson and Naomi Watts.
Before his death, Merchant was working on several projects, including The Goddess, a Bollywood-style musical with Tina Turner, and The White Countess, a costume drama about an American diplomat in 1930s Shanghai starring Ralph Fiennes and Natasha Richardson. The latter is due out in November.
Aside from his producing duties, Merchant was also a chef and author of several cookbooks, among them, Ismail Merchants Indian Cuisine.
Merchant’s family is expected to announce funeral arrangements in the coming days.