Ismail Merchant, acclaimed producer and director, died today. Merchant and his life partner James Ivory made movies for over four decades, reaching their peak of critical and commercial success with adaptations of "Howard's End", "Remains of the Day", and "Room With a View".
A personal note on Merchant Ivory films. Not quite ten years ago, in my repressed, red state existence, I managed to find a tattered copy of "Maurice" at my local video store. I'd seen the usual "very special" sitcom episodes, the pride parade drag queens and dykes on bikes splashed on the local news, any number of one-dimensional images compressed for ignorant straight consumptions. "Maurice" was the first time I had ever seen three-dimensional, complex, poignant gay characters. For the first time I saw the struggles of a gay man through his own eyes. As Maurice tried so desperately to cure his "illness", to repress his desires, and finally realized that true, total love was worth sacrificing the fragile sham he had called an existence, I realized his eyes were mine. Deep-down, I knew I was gay, but not until I saw stolid James Wilby pull dreamy, rebellious Rupert Graves into his arms and kiss him with the passion of his full life force, when I saw that lush, romantic embrace of true love, did I finally accept who I truly am, that I was not cursed, or sick. I was what God made me and I deserved everything that any straight person had. I've seen plenty of movies about hook-ups between men, but to this day Maurice is the only true gay romance I have ever seen.
Ismail Merchant presented unabashed admiration of the male form. Not simply homosexuality, but in the camraderie of men, men who never fully let go of their childhood abandon. There is a classic scene in Room With a View where Julian Sands and Rupert Graves chase each other around a bathing hole. In the midst of their splashing and jostling, the moralistic, priggish Rev. Beebe (Simon Callow) stumbles onto the scene. He's appalled, of course, but when they dare him to chuck all that shame and formality he had accepted as being the only way an "adult" or a "grown man" should behave, when they invite him to just say "the hell with it", even Rev. Beebe could not resist becoming the man of the uncloth. This condescening man lost all his inhibitions and enjoyed life again, freed of the restrictions placed on him by "civilized" people. It's a wondrous moment that you have to see for yourself.
As you can see, although Ismail was not pigeonholed as a "gay" director, he filmed through the unique prism only a gay man can experience. He never hid who he was. Sadly, we can't say as much for our "liberal" media. Take a look at the final, tacked-on sentence in his AP obituary:
Merchant was unmarried and had no children.
Isn't that nice? Merchant had a longterm relationship that lasted far past the duration of many marriages. Yet, because this relationsip was with another man, without that precious slip of paper, a summation of his life ends with a dismissive "unmarried and had no children". In other words, anyone who does not bother to read between the lines would assume he died all alone and unhappy.
Even to this day, there is a peculiar re-closeting when a famed gay personality dies. First Susan Sontag, now this. No, they did not claim Merchant was straight, but that "unmarried" has quite the heavy undertone. Instead of talking about his long and happy relationship with another man, the piece ends with an unspoken question - Why didn't he get married? Why wasn't he able to find a wife?
If anyone ever wonders why some gays want the right to equal marriage, it is because of moments like this. The little perks that straight people take for granted. The right to have our love recognized as a letter of the law, not something forbidden, or able to be quashed out at any given moment.
All I can think about is that last scene in Maurice when he runs to the boathouse and tells his lover that he's willing to give up everything to be with him. They know that their lives will never be the same, they will always be in the shadows, in secret. Have things changed that little in a hundred years? Apparently they haven't.