For some, seeing two men kiss on-screen may still be startling. But 30 years ago, before male lips began locking in movies and TV shows on an increasingly frequent — and decreasingly controversial — basis, the film adaptation of “Maurice,” E.M. Forster’s novel about gay love in Edwardian England, was considered an especially bold, often groundbreaking entry.
“Maurice” is one of 30 works from the iconic filmmaking team of director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant — longtime partners in business and in life — acquired by Cohen Media Group for restoration and re-release, under the creative direction of Ivory. (Merchant died in 2005).
The film opens June 2 in a new 4K scan with a new 5.1 audio mix, at Landmark’s Nuart Theatre in West Los Angeles.
“Maurice” was directed by Ivory, who co-scripted with Kit Hesketh-Harvey, previously a staff producer for BBC-TV’s music and arts department. (Ivory’s frequent collaborator, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, was busy writing a novel.) The film followed one Maurice Hall (James Wilby) from his Cambridge University days and platonic love affair with dashing best friend Clive Durham (Hugh Grant) to their break-up, the socially conscious Clive’s marriage to the wealthy Anne (Phoebe Nicholls) and Maurice’s consummated, if unlikely, romance with an earthy gamekeeper, Alec Scudder (Rupert Graves).
It’s not as if the 1980s hadn’t already produced a string of features involving meaningful gay male characters: “Making Love,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” “My Beautiful Laundrette” and others. But the lush, dignified “Maurice,” with its share of man-on-man smooches, full-frontal male nudity, gay lovemaking and unabashed declarations of same-sex desire, as well as a main character who was ultimately affirmative and unwavering about his homosexuality (during a time when it was a criminal offense, no less), landed a unique place in then-contemporary gay culture.
That a movie which celebrated romance between men — with a rare happy ending — was released at the height of the AIDS epidemic only added to the acclaimed picture’s provocative profile.
Despite the nature of the material, Merchant and Ivory encountered no real resistance to making or showing the film. It didn’t hurt that they were coming off their biggest commercial hit to date, 1986’s Oscar-winning “A Room With a View,” also based on a Forster novel. (“Howards End,” the filmmakers’ third adaptation of the novelist’s work, was released in 1992.)
According to Ivory, now 88, speaking in a recent phone interview from his Manhattan apartment, the only initial concern came from Forster’s literary executors, the Fellows of King’s College, Cambridge.
“They felt that of all of Forster’s novels — and there weren’t that many — that ‘Maurice’ was a minor work, the least good,” Ivory said. “And that, in some kind of way, Forster’s literary reputation might be harmed by a film of it. But it had nothing to do with the subject matter.”
The novel, although written in 1914, wasn’t published until 1971, shortly after Forster’s death. The author, who was gay, reportedly felt that prevailing legal and social mores would render the book unprintable during his lifetime. “It would have been seen as obscenity,” noted Ivory, who most recently wrote the buzzy new gay-themed film “Call Me by Your Name” for director Luca Guadagnino.
Ivory was drawn to filming the Forster novel after re-reading it after the making of “A Room With a View.” He found the story of “Maurice,” set circa 1910, timely and universal. “Having to honestly face up to yourself, not just in a sexual sense but in every sense, is an eternal problem,” Ivory said.
Still, it’s Maurice’s sexuality that drives the story, and Ivory had to find the way into depicting its gay content.
“I think I was really following what Forster intended and the way he presented Maurice,” the filmmaker said. “It’s quite evident at the beginning [of the novel] that Maurice loves Clive and wants to go to bed with him. And that’s paramount. It’s a matter of thwarted desire and, for me, that underlaid everything.”
Wilby also relied on the novel to inform his work as the struggling, smitten Maurice. “The book was the bible,” Wilby, 59, said via phone from England, where he was shooting an episode of the TV series “Poldark.” “The film was a very faithful adaptation, and why not? It’s a brilliant piece of writing.”
Wilby was particularly guided by Forster’s description of Maurice as someone who’s “mentally torpid” until love “wakes him up, torments him and finally saves him.” The actor noted, “I loved that, because it immediately gave me a beginning and somewhere to go towards.
“I kept it quite simple, I didn’t overcomplicate it. The naked emotion is simply love, isn’t it?”
Although Wilby was a relatively new actor with a budding career, he had no qualms about playing a gay character, hardly the go-to stance at the time.
“I didn’t even blink,” he said. “It was a massive break for me as an actor. These guys [Merchant and Ivory] were making great films and then suddenly I’m the lead in their next movie. It was a dream come true.” (Wilby won the role after Julian Sands, the original choice to play Maurice, dropped out.)
As for how Wilby and Graves approached the film’s most intimate moments, Ivory recalled, “They had to kiss lustily … convincingly, and that’s hard for actors to do, even in a male-female situation. Those guys just threw themselves into it and did it. ‘Bravo,’ I thought. I didn’t have to give them much particular instruction on what to do.”
Although they barely knew each other, Wilby and Graves had to perform the movie’s steamy, climactic boathouse love scene just a few days into shooting.
“[The night before], Rupert and I went out for a meal and didn’t even mention the film, just talked to each other,” Wilby said. “Then after, on the walk back to the hotel, I said, ‘Well, I just think we should go for it.’ And he went, ‘Yes, so do I.’ And that was all we said. The next day, on the set, when it came to the moment where they [Maurice and Alec] kiss, Rupert stuck his tongue down my throat and that was the end of that.”
The dynamic between Wilby and Grant, who had both made their screen debuts in Michael Hoffman’s 1982 Oxford-set comedy “Privileged,” was different, largely because of the more chaste nature of their characters’ romantic relationship.
“What’s interesting in those scenes is that Maurice is ‘game on,’ but Clive is very reluctant. And that’s the character, which I think sort of plays itself. We didn’t need to talk about that.”
Unlike Merchant-Ivory’s “A Room With a View,” “Maurice” was not considered a box office hit. This, despite a high profile release and mostly strong critical support, save the New Yorker’s Pauline Kael and, strangely, much of the English press, which, Wilby noted, was “very mealy-mouthed about it.” The film went on to receive an Oscar nomination for costume design.
“Perhaps success was limited because of the gay content,” Ivory said, though he still believes the movie “came along at a good time, at the right time.” He added, “I found over the years that women like the film a lot and young girls too. It’s not entirely a gay film, it’s a genuine romance — a sexually charged romance — and that appeals to most everybody.”
8:14 a.m.: Updated to reflect James Ivory receiving sole writing credit from WGA on “Call Me by Your Name.”