Today, there are reports that legendary film producer Ismail Merchant has died, at the fairly youthful age of 68. This feels significant for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that Merchant’s name has been wound tightly with what we consider the “period piece.”
From A Room with a View to Mr. and Mrs. Bridge to Howard’s End and beyond, Merchant Ivory Productions has been a strong presence in the world of filmmaking. Hell, “Merchant Ivory” as a moniker has become a brand. And, as hard as the movie industry tries, brand names are a rare thing to come by especially in the arthouse scene. In his partnership with director James Ivory, Ismail Merchant restored a small sense of the power of the producer, something scarce in today’s market of auteurs.
While he may not have been a celebrity producer like Joel Silver or Jerry Bruckheimer, it’s because Merchant made films about quiet and class. And it shows with his numerous awards and winning streak, through the late ’80s and early ’90s, that afforded he and Ivory the brand name. Maybe their films of the last 10 years have not been as widely successful or acclaimed, but it feels as though the Merchant Ivory film that just wrapped production (The White Countess) will be a return to form after a few odd detours (Le Divorce, A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries).
I wonder what this will mean for James Ivory, who has lost his important creative partner. Maybe Merchant’s absence will testify to just how important he was. On a more personal note… during my first year on staff at SXSW I was assigned to brainstorm several filmmakers with which we should host career retrospectives. Very near the top of that list was Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, which I thought would be a fun choice considering that it was a real partnership we were honoring and not just a single artist. I shelved the idea for others, thinking we had time to come back to it later. I was wrong, and I’ll do my best not to make that same mistake again.