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The Merchant Ivory team's second of three adaptations of Henry James novels, The Bostonians (1984), was written in the 1880s, soon after the heyday of the first women's suffrage movement. The film depicts the struggle between women's rights advocate Olive Chancellor (Vanessa Redgrave) and her cousin, conservative Southerner Basil Ransome (Christopher Reeve), for the heart and mind of Verena Tarrant (Madeleine Potter), a brilliant public speaker and Olive's protg. The film also touches on Olive's unacknowledged romantic passion for the younger woman.
The Bostonians boasts a stellar cast and themes that resonated as much during the era in which it was made as it had during the era in which the novel was written. In 1982, the Equal Rights Amendment, which ensured equal rights regardless of sex and had been passed by Congress, failed to be ratified by the necessary number of states and did not become the law of the land. Gay people had become increasingly visible and activist in the U.S. At the same time, President Ronald Reagan was overwhelmingly re-elected, and a new conservatism swept the nation.
Director James Ivory was a fan of Henry James and had read all his books, but Merchant Ivory did not originate the idea of making the film. The Boston PBS station planned to make a five-part series on the James family. Four would be documentaries about family members; the fifth would be a dramatization of a James novel, and station executives approached Merchant Ivory for that project, since they had made a film of James's The Europeans in 1979. Ivory chose The Bostonians, but funding for the James project dried up, so Merchant and Ivory decided to produce the film themselves.
Vanessa Redgrave had been Ivory's first choice to play the leading role in The Europeans, but she had previous commitments, and Lee Remick got the part. Redgrave was again his first choice for Olive in The Bostonians, but she declined, so the role went to Glenn Close, who had been recommended by co-star Christopher Reeve. Then Close was cast in the big-budget Hollywood production, The Natural (1984). There was a scheduling conflict, and Close chose to go with The Natural. By then, Redgrave had changed her mind and was eager to play Olive, so she replaced Close. At the time, Redgrave was something of a pariah because of her leftist political views. She was involved in a lawsuit against the Boston Symphony, which had hired her to narrate a program, then fired her after some subscribers complained. She had also lost a role in a Broadway play as a result of the Symphony controversy.
Christopher Reeve, who was then at his peak of fame thanks to the Superman films, may have seemed an unlikely choice for Ransome, but before he was The Man of Steel, he had been a respected theater actor, and he continued to act on stage between films. (The same year that The Bostonians was released, he appeared opposite Redgrave in a British stage production of Henry James's The Aspern Papers, adapted by Redgrave's father Michael Redgrave.) Reeve usually earned more than a million dollars per film, but he was glad to take a salary of one-tenth that to appear in The Bostonians.
To play Verena, Ivory at first wanted Jodie Foster, then a student at Yale. He sent her the script and went to meet her at Yale, but she seemed distracted and did not appear particularly interested in doing the film. A friend suggested Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Madeleine Potter, both stage actresses, and Ivory liked Potter's look. Years later, Ivory worked with Julianne Moore, who was just starting out when he was casting The Bostonians. She told him she had been desperate to audition for the role, but was never able to get in to see Ivory's casting director. "She would have made a wonderful Verena," Ivory mused. Potter, who made her film debut in The Bostonians, was not quite up to the challenge of the role, and was perhaps a bit overwhelmed by her co-stars.
Ivory recalled that Redgrave "began to bear down ideologically" on screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's conception of the characters in The Bostonians, and that Redgrave felt Basil should be portrayed as evil, so that Olive could be seen as righteous rather than hysterical. According to Ivory, Redgrave coached Potter to be more conflicted and less romantic towards Reeve. Redgrave's intense portrayal was the most highly-praised performance in the film, with Reeve also garnering admiring (if somewhat surprised) reviews for his nuanced characterization. Janet Maslin wrote in the New York Times that Olive "is a character Vanessa Redgrave was born to play. The casting of Miss Redgrave in this role has an aptness bordering on uncanny, because even Mr. James's descriptions of his heroine suggest a figure very like the actress....it's a major and especially happy surprise to see how convincingly Basil has been embodied by Christopher Reeve, whose other non-Superman performances have displayed little of the ease and versatility he reveals here." Vincent Canby, also of the New York Times, called the film "one of the best adaptations of a major literary work ever to come on to the screen," and placed it on his ten best films of the year list. Redgrave was nominated for both an Oscar® and a Golden Globe for her performance, losing both to Sally Field for Places in the Heart (1984).
While the reviews of The Bostonians were mostly positive, there was some criticism by James devotees of the finale, which provides a more upbeat ending than the novel, and of the more overt (yet still discreet) hints of Olive's suppressed lesbianism in the film. Interestingly, the origin of the term "Boston Marriage," which in the late 19th century came to describe a marriage-like relationship between two women who live independently together without a man's support, is attributed to James and his novel. James is believed to have drawn the inspiration for Olive and her fellow suffragettes from his sister Alice, who lived with another woman in a Boston marriage.
Director: James Ivory
Producer: Ismail Merchant
Screenplay: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, based on the novel by Henry James
Cinematography: Walter Lassally
Editor: Katherine Wenning, Mark Potter, Jr.
Costume Design: Jenny Beavan, John Bright
Production Design: Leo Austin
Music: Richard Robbins
Cast: Christopher Reeve (Basil Ransome),Vanessa Redgrave (Olive Chancellor), Madeleine Potter (Verena Tarrant), Jessica Tandy (Miss Birdseye), Nancy Marchand (Mrs. Burrage), Wesley Addy (Dr. Tarrant), Barbara Bryne (Mrs. Tarrant), Linda Hunt (Dr. Prance), Nancy New (Adeline Luna), Wallace Shawn (Mr. Pardon).
by Margarita Landazuri