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Why ‘The Bostonians’ Is James Ivory’s Forgotten Queer Classic

A new 4K restoration of ‘The Bostonians’ is a must-see glimpse into the past.
Bostonians Ivory Redgrave
By  · Published on December 1st, 2018

The release and wide acclaim that greeted Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name last year felt like a milestone in queer storytelling. Two years after the legalization of gay marriage in the United States, we had finally an Oscar-winning film that was frank and optimistic about queer sexuality and whose characters were free of shame and unburdened by history.

The subject itself was not out of the toolbox of the film’s writer, producer and, initially, co-director, James Ivory, director of an extraordinary number of films in partner with producer Ismail Merchant and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Locating a gay story inside those movies is not very hard: in 1987, they had made Maurice, an adaptation of the E.M. Foster novel whose gay romance had compelled its writer to withhold publication until after his death. “This is how the world is – lonely and hollow,” wrote Annie Jo Baker for Little White Lies about the straight world that the film’s hero, played by James Wilby, suffers before discovering a love interest played by Rupert Graves. Less lonely and less hollow was the queer world Ivory built a little earlier that decade, an adaptation of Henry James’ The Bostonians that is seeing a 4K restoration this week.

In Ivory’s 1984 film, queer desire exists on the margins and right in front of us. Verena Tannant, played by Madeleine Potter in her debut, though she would later star in three more of Ivory’s films, sits objectively at its center. She is a first-generation feminist, James’ riff on the Susan B. Anthony crowd, and small triangle develops for her affection. There is the man who the story will marry her off to, a conservative agitator with the fittingly dull name of Basil, played by Christopher Reeve. His counterpart is a more arresting. Olive Chancellor, a wealthy patron played by Vanessa Redgrave, is a role that would earn her a fourth Best Actress nomination. She urges Verena not to marry; Verena does.

This is a certain kind of movie, a bizarre battle-of-the-sexes competition where a heroine must make this kind of decision. The most notorious example is Mark Rydell’s The Fox, where two women (Sandy Dennis and Anne Heywood) live together and begin leaning romantically toward each other when a random man shows up (Keir Dullea fresh from 2001). He kills (!) one of them and marries the other (!!), seemingly for kicks. Ivory’s version of The Bostonians is better than this and, in some way, argues with it.

In the original novel, James is very slight, dispassionate and ultimately not very moved about these people. They are caricatures of a certain moment. The aftermath of the Civil War, the social drift of the coming fin de siècle. Basil, a resentful Mississippi Confederate, represents the regressive style of American politics and how unsurprising is it that he arrives to take the characters away back into the fold of history. But it is curious how far James takes Verena before she can be ‘saved.’ In a contemporaneous review of the novel, the critic Horace Scudder writes: “The details of the first interview between Olive and Verena… carry these young women to dangerous lengths, and we hesitate about accepting the relation between them as either natural or reasonable.” Depictions of same-sex love in the 19th century were not uncommon, both in fiction and real life, but semantic chastity prevented these relationships from feeling at odds with social norms. That James would arrange a novel around this tension gives it the kind of ambiguity around which Redgrave and Potter can craft an unspoken and quiet intimacy.

The sincerity between them was something of Redgrave’s own doing — Ivory recalled in a post for TCM that she would “bear down ideologically” on the script, determined to turn the politics that James used as satirical fodder into something personal and serious. Some of this is on the nose: with too much dramatic effect does Verena make about rejecting less well-remembered movements of the time like spiritualism and the traveling tent of religious healing, which James cynically saw as cut from the same cloth. Yet it is Reeve’s heavy-drawling southerner who brings the film most into the present. “I would like to interrupt you,” he says by way of introduction to Verena. A recognizable villain.

Reeve is dark and menacing in other ways too. He was still, then, Superman (“Don’t thank me, we’re all part of the same team!”), the alien who falls to earth and whose assistance hangs over Reagan’s America like a mysterious cloud. Dressed up in an even more archaic Americana outfit — the philosophical plantation owner — Reeve comes across as the consummate poser, a loudmouthed failson constantly nursing the wound of privilege, slightly lost. Darker details gather on the edges too. Another character around the periphery (played by Nancy Marchand!) urges Olive to let Verena marry her son, a total goof, who she says will be the “safer” option. She alludes saucily to the Olive’s “feelings,” with that kind of grim knowledge that Marchand can pull off so well. 

It helps that Reeve and Potter have almost no chemistry at all, spending the film awkwardly battering at each other. Watching their relationship transpire is like watching the cruel specter of history itself march grimly forward. Olive and Verena cannot have each other, they hug sternly and brace for what will break them apart. Depending on who you are you could read this a number of ways. Variety, at the time of the movie’s release, called Olive “a mature spinster” while the New York Times’s Vincent Canby made an even stranger assessment: “Olive has no inkling of the possible sexual aspects of her love…The idea of sex – any kind of sex – would be appalling to her.”

Queer desire can relish and live in the corners of these unsaid moments of history and of storytelling. Ivory’s rich tapestry provides such pleasures in spades. That The Bostonians immediately precedes his more mainstream breakout, A Room With a View, is telling. E.M. Foster was novelist not unlike James — rich sentences, characters floating about — and his third novel was another triangle, a woman choosing between twin affections. In both Ivory films, the choice she makes carries an unspoken wrongness. Julian Sands, playing Reeve’s counterpart, is similarly vicious, meant here to be indicative of his lower-class masculinity. (In Foster’s novel, he comes across as a parody of the novelist D.H. Lawrence, author incidentally of the novella that The Fox was adapted from). Helena Bonham Carter is tasked with making the decision and it is a testament to her acting skill that she can make the choice look less painful. Daniel Day-Lewis, similarly, is easier to reject. A bookish snob, he retreats into culture, antiquity and awkwardness and it can be argued doesn’t really want her at all.

We can’t really know what Olive really wants and it might be fair to say that James didn’t either. His writing is so observationally rich that it eludes the need to know the hearts of its heroes. The neat power of Ivory’s film is that he resists filling in those spaces. He sticks easily to their novelish ambiguities, the way they flood pages with details. It is hard to stop your eyes from wandering away to Wallace Shawn’s dogged circus barker performance or the intricate lives of Boston’s activist class, persisting in society’s periphery and confident they will get the vote in 1875, to the speeches themselves, which are delivered with a kind of naturalistic seriousness rarely found in the satires or biopics where political speeches generally appear.

In these busy moments, they are happy and a warm radiant balm spreads over the film. The tragic hour of departure, the nature of the historical moment, feels like an absurd interruption, our interruption reminding them that the 20th century hasn’t happened yet and they have no right to enjoy themselves. But they do, nonetheless.

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