- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 19, 2001

Ismail Merchant, producer of "The Golden Bowl," is a veritable gust of good cheer. The belated American release of his movie which opens in about 200 theaters
this weekend after successful debuts in New York and Los Angeles has lifted a burden from Mr. Merchants shoulders.
"Im grateful weve been able to do the work weve done," Mr. Merchant says, "but, my goodness, you have to be frustrated by a process that seems to start amicably last May and then deteriorates into misunderstanding and bitterness for eight or nine months before it can be resolved."
He had not anticipated a struggle to get the film into domestic circulation after it was acquired at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2000 by Harvey Weinstein of Miramax Pictures. ("The Golden Bowl" is an adaptation of the Henry James novel, directed by James Ivory from a screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.) Ultimately, Mr. Weinsteins second thoughts led to an estrangement that compelled Merchant Ivory Productions, the most venerable independent film-production company in the world at 40 years and counting, to buy out the Miramax interest and seek another distributor. That was Lions Gate.
"It was a real nightmare for me to pull everything together, separating the movie from Miramax and finding another distributor while also preparing my own film, which began shooting in Trinidad in December," Mr. Merchant says.
He alludes to a movie version of V.S. Naipauls early novel "The Mystic Masseur." Although known principally as the producer in the Merchant-Ivory team, Mr. Merchant also has directed a number of dramatic features in recent years. "The Mystic Masseur" is expected to open at Christmas. (Mr. Merchant, a native of Bombay who has maintained a New York residence and office for about 40 years, will turn 65 on Christmas Day.)
A slightly tardy 15th-anniversary reissue of "A Room With a View," which was done by the Merchant-Ivory team, is planned for the spring or summer of 2002.
The Merchant-Ivory collaboration began in 1961 with a film version of Mrs. Jhabvalas novel "The Householder" and has encompassed two dozen features directed by Mr. Ivory, many from screenplays by Mrs. Jhabvala.
Mr. Merchant isnt the first producer to find a somewhat capricious patron in Miramax. In recent weeks, the company seems to have lost faith in an exceptionally witty Irish romantic comedy titled "About Adam," which has dropped from the release calendar after several postponements. In all likelihood, its headed for the sort of limbo that threatened "The Golden Bowl."
An earlier association with Miramax on the 1991 film "Mr. & Mrs. Bridge" was quite agreeable, according to Mr. Merchant. "At Cannes there were two or three other distributors eager to acquire 'The Golden Bowl, but we went with Miramax because Harvey was very enthusiastic and insisted this was the kind of thing he was looking for. Also, he was paying more than the others," Mr. Merchant says.
Trouble evidently began with a test screening at a New Jersey mall. Mr. Merchant recalls that the consensus response was "very enthusiastic, but there were one or two comments that started Harvey to think."
Mrs. Jhabvalas distillation of the James plot concentrates on the domestic crises that confront two American patricians living in Europe in the first years of the 20th century. Nick Nolte plays the widowed American industrialist Adam Verver, who has retired from business to cultivate avocations as an art connoisseur and collector. His beloved daughter Maggie, played by Kate Beckinsale, has married an elegant but penniless Italian from a titled family, Prince Amerigo, played by the English actor Jeremy Northam.
Their contentment, apparently sealed by the birth of a son, nicknamed "the Principino," is threatened when Ververs marriage to Charlotte Stant, Maggies friend and contemporary, played by Uma Thurman, encourages a romantic liaison between the financially dependent spouses. Charlotte, a potential wrecker, and Amerigo were sweethearts before his engagement to Maggie. The alliance was kept a secret from Maggie, but she becomes aware of it. Prodigious reserves of affection and benevolence are demanded to keep the marriages intact. In doing so, the father and the daughter demonstrate restraint, wisdom and generosity.
The filmmakers may have created problems for themselves by adding an overdramatic prologue that evokes the Renaissance past of Amerigos family specifically, an episode in which an adulterous wife and son are punished with beheading by a wrathful duke. A few spectators at the New Jersey test screening evidently thought a similar fate was in store for Charlotte and that she deserved nothing less, perhaps in the spirit of Glenn Close being executed at the end of "Fatal Attraction."
"Harvey began to worry about accommodating this sort of prejudice against Umas character how to get some benefit from that sentiment. Crazily, it all began with the idea that some members of the audience would hunger for more melodrama. But the remedies all came down to eliminating more and more of the movie, including the melodrama it had. Anyway, they made a cut of their own, which was a contractual privilege, and showed it to us. We had all agreed to good-faith consultations on issues that affected the films content and promotion. But it was just appalling what they did. They wanted the film to end with the reconciliation of Maggie and the Prince, eliminating the resolution of the situation with Charlotte and Adam. The process of elimination didnt end there. Soon everything that showed the characters states of mind was becoming expendable. So if you remove all that, what is the film?"
Mr. Merchant found himself negotiating "with Harveys minions, because Harvey was no longer talking to Jim or me directly." Miramax drafted a memorandum with three options: release the movie directly to television, buy back the film for $4.5 million or agree to raise $4 million for promotional costs.
"There were a couple of conversations on the telephone before we chose Option 2," Mr. Merchant says. "I took the opportunity to say that there is a way to deal with artists and professionals who have established a track record of 40 years, and that the Miramax approach was an uncouth approach. So we bought back the film. We had to hock our film library in England, sell some stocks and borrow against other assets. But we scraped up the $4.5 million. Luckily, we could do that."
Rerouted to Lions Gate, "The Golden Bowl" opened about nine or 10 months later than originally envisioned. Curiously enough, Miramax also had purchased theatrical rights in the United Kingdom, where the movie enjoyed a successful first run from about November to April. The initial box-office returns in the United States a combined $60,000 in New York after a week at three theaters and a combined $65,000 in Los Angeles at another trio of theaters emboldened Mr. Merchant to declare "a major black eye for Miramax."
Mr. Merchant was born Ismail Noormohamed Abdul Rehman. He added the Merchant as an occupational surname while attending college, initially at a Jesuit institution in Bombay, St. Xaviers, and then at New York University, where he earned a masters degree in business administration. His family is Muslim. His father, a textile merchant and the president of the Muslim League in Bombay during the 1940s, decided to stay in India after the partition that followed independence from Great Britain, although some members of the family departed for Pakistan.
Mr. Merchant recalls being enchanted decisively by the movies at age 9. "We knew an actress, Nimmi, who had just started shooting films in Bombay, with the brother of Shashi Kapoor, who later played the leads in our first films, 'The Householder and 'Shakespeare Wallah. Anyway, we went to the premiere of one of her movies in about 1948 or 49 riding in a green Cadillac convertible. When we arrived, we were submerged in flowers. Marigolds. I thought, 'What a wonderful thing. You make a film and people bury you in flowers. It still happens at Indian premieres."
Mr. Merchant became Nimmis mascot while she pursued a movie career. Although his father would have preferred an Oxford or Cambridge degree in law or medicine for his only son (Mr. Merchant has three older and three younger sisters), he did not object to a business emphasis in New York City for him. The graduate had jobs as a messenger with the Indian delegation at the United Nations and was a trainee at McCann-Erickson advertising agency before he took a movie plunge.
He raised $9,000 for a 14-minute fable titled "The Creation of Woman," which he then carried to Los Angeles in hope of entering it in the Academy Awards competition of 1960 and he succeeded.
"Agnes Moorehead was the first one to see the merits of the film when I got to Los Angeles," Mr. Merchant says. "She was so taken with it that she agreed to host a public screening. A movie critic at the Los Angeles Times, Philip Scheurer, came to see it. And he reviewed it favorably when it played for a few days with Ingmar Bergmans 'The Devils Eye at the Fine Arts, the very theater where 'The Golden Bowl is playing now. One of the people at the Agnes Moorehead screening was from Fox Theatres, and I talked him into giving us a little qualifying run. I had been told by the Academy that it was too late to qualify, Id have to come back the next year. When I returned with the Times review and asked for my application, they didnt believe me at first. They went and got a copy of the paper to make sure I hadnt faked a review. It was so funny. But we got a nomination in the short category, and quite a few doors began to open."
Another Hollywood supporter, the late screenwriter Isobel Lennart, recommended "The Householder" to Mr. Merchant as a promising novel for a producer interested in doing an English-language subject in India, outside the Hollywood mainstream. She declined to write the screenplay. A meeting in New York with James Ivory led to a partnership. Mr. Ivory had made two art-history shorts that attracted favorable attention, "Venice: Themes and Variations" and "The Sword and the Flute," an appreciation of Indian miniatures. The fledgling duo became a trio after a pilgrimage to Delhi, where Mrs. Jhabvala was raising three daughters while writing novels and short stories.
"Its such an amazing destiny," Mr. Merchant says. "Ruth is a European Jew whose family fled to England. She marries an Indian, and we encounter her in Delhi. Jim is a Californian of Christian parentage who graduates from the film school at the University of Southern California and follows his artistic aspirations to India. Here I am, a Muslim born in Bombay who goes to school in New York, where I see movies that change my whole idea of the cinema, including the movies of Satyajit Ray for the very first time, at the Fifth Avenue Cinema. Then to Los Angeles to get a foot in the door and back to New York, where I meet Jim and we decide to travel back to India to recruit Ruth. Such different backgrounds and yet a common vision about movies. We got along so well, and the rest is history."


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