A Fall From Grace
In short, it’s nuts.
In anticipation of the Academy Awards, we polled our contributors to see what they thought should win the Oscar. Once we had our winners, we asked various writers to make the case for our selection in each category. Here, Susan Wloszczyna makes the case for the Best Adapted Screenplay of 2017: "Call Me By Your Name" by James Ivory. Two winners will be announced Monday through Thursday, ending in our choices for Best Director and Best Picture on Friday.
How is it that James Ivory at age 89, who is in the running to be the oldest Oscar winner ever on Sunday, doesn’t already have a statuette to call his own? In the ‘80s and ‘90s, the American director and his Indian-born partner in both work and life, Ismail Merchant, merged their surnames into a potent cinematic brand name that continues to resonate today. If all they produced, along with their preferred screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, were the literary period pieces “A Room With a View” (1985) “Howards End” (1992) and “The Remains of the Day” (1993)—all contenders for Best Picture as well as director—their reputation would still be nearly as legendary as it is now.
But months before their final film together, 2005’s “The White Countess,” was released, Merchant suddenly died after having surgery and Ivory has barely worked since. Until now. Actually, he has spent at least 10 years trying to shepherd an adaptation of Andre Aciman’s 2007 novel “Call Me by Your Name” to the big screen. There is some serendipity to Ivory’s involvement considering one of his earlier films, 1987’s “Maurice,” was based on an E.M. Forster tome about a Edwardian-era gay love triangle and the sexual awakening of the Cambridge student in the title.
But “Call Me by Your Name,” the source of Ivory’s first screenplay nomination, is elevated by the fruitful partnership between him and 46-year-old Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino (“I Am Love,” “A Bigger Splash”). While both producers initially considered co-directing, Ivory instead decided to concentrate on his script while Guadagnino went behind the camera. Their 1983 summer romance is shared by Elio (Timothee Chalamet), a 17-year-old prodigy on the cusp of manhood, and Oliver (Armie Hammer), an Adonis-like 24-year-old grad student recruited by Elio’s professor dad (Michael Stuhlbarg) to help with his art history/anthropology projects. Like a moth to a flame or a fly to an overripe apricot, the two dance around each other until they can no longer stay apart.
Guadagnino is a master at capturing heady pleasures of initial attraction, unadulterated lust and unrestrained sex while allowing audiences to swoon along with the participants before them. Meanwhile, Ivory has known his share of repressed English folk who too often follow their heads instead of their hearts. The push and pull of these contradictory feelings are found in Ivory’s dialogue, with Elio sounding almost resentful of Oliver’s effect on him. Meanwhile, Guadagnino chooses to shoot amid the lush rural environs of the Lombardy region of Northern Italy with its thickly verdant forests, searing heat and steamy pools of water that cry out for skinny dipping.
Ivory deserves an Academy Award just for making sure that two key moments from the novel remain virtually intact. One is the so-called peach scene, where Elio decides to masturbate into a succulent piece of fruit and Oliver comes along and decides to taste it. Somehow Guadagnino avoids the interaction from becoming an ”American Pie” parody and turns it into a supremely sensual moment.
Then there is Stuhlbarg’s beautiful speech to Elio once Oliver takes his leave, nearly the same as what is in the book. Unlike many parents who, back in 1983, might be less than pleased that their teen son had been engaging in a relationship their older male house guest, Elio’s father instead tells him, “You’re too smart not to know how rare, how special, what you two had was” and regrets letting such an opportunity slip by him.
But Ivory’s best decision was ditching the book’s leap to 20 years later as the twosome reunite and instead concentrate on Elio’s reaction to a Hanukkah-timed phone call six months later from Oliver in New York. It turns out his summer love has news: “I might be getting married this spring.” Elio, thunderstruck by this statement, wishes him the best but can’t resist, as they did before, calling him by his name: “Elio, Elio.” Oliver responds in kind with his before hanging up.
That leads to a four-minute final scene with Elio crouching before a roaring fire while lost in thought. The flames flicker across his face as tears start to fall and the strains of Sufjan Stevens’ delicate love song “Visions of Gideon” are faintly heard. The credits begin to roll while the camera remains steadfastly focused on Elio before eventually fading to black. It is a hypnotic moment that allows the audience to grieve over what has been lost while celebrating the intense relationship that they witnessed.
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