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Merchant-Ivory Productions reached new literary heights with Jane Austen in Manhattan, the 1980 comedy of manners influenced by the recent discovery of an early play by Jane Austen. Set in New York City, the film follows two producers -- Pierre (Robert Powell), who wants to create an avant-garde production for his off-Broadway company, and his former mistress and mentor, Lilianna (Anne Baxter), who hopes to use it as the basis for a period operetta. Their duel to the artistic death sets up a series of riffs on the nature of life, art and the theatre, poking fun at some of the art form's more outrageous practitioners. Though not particularly well received on its initial release, the film provides a fascinating glimpse of the Merchant-Ivory team tackling a mostly original comedy (with overtones of Austen's play) and a look at Sean Young in her screen debut.
Jane Austen in Manhattan was inspired by a real event in the producing-directing team's lives. At a screening of Hullabaloo Over Georgie and Bonnie's Pictures (1978), they learned that London Weekend Television (LWT) had just acquired the rights to broadcast an adaptation of a recently discovered Jane Austen play adapted from Samuel Richardson's novel Sir Charles Grandison. They signed on to create the film without reading the original, only to discover it was an unfinished fragment written by Austen at the age of 14. Before they could drop out, however, their frequent screenwriter, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, convinced them that there was a story to be told about the manuscript's sale. She created a plot about two directors vying for the stage rights, and they got LWT and Polytel, which had backed Hullabaloo, to invest $450,000 in it, even though it would require shooting in New York with an emphasis on Greenwich Village and the Soho district.
Jhabvala mirrored the play and novel's plot, in which a young heiress is kidnapped by a less than perfect suitor who hopes to force her into marriage. The screenplay focuses on a young actress (Young) Powell seduces into leaving her husband (Kurt Johnson) so she can star in his production and his bed. Johnson enlists Baxter to win his wife back, becoming in many ways the novel's title character, who rescues the heroine and wins her heart. Some of Pierre's business was inspired by tales Jhabvala and Ivory heard from their friend actor-writer Wallace Shawn about avant-garde director Andre Gregory, who would later play a fictionalized version of himself in Louis Malle's My Dinner with Andre (1981), written by Shawn.
To stage the avant-garde version of Austen's play, complete with actors playing living furniture, Ivory turned to stage director Andrei Serban, who had recently staged the New York Shakespeare Festival's absurdist production of Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, starring Irene Worth and a young Meryl Streep. Ivory also hired Broadway dancer-choreographer Michael Shawn to stage "Here We Are Again," the song Johnson performs in a Broadway musical.
To play the dueling directors, Merchant was wise enough to cast two accomplished actors, Powell and Baxter. The former was best known at the time for playing the title role in Franco Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth (1977), but was happy to take on the more Mephistophelian role of avant-garde theatre guru (one of many gurus in the works of both Ivory and Jhabvala). Baxter, still looking fabulous in her fifties, had learned how to play comedy of manners at the hands of a master, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, as the title character in All About Eve (1950). She got the role in Jane Austen in Manhattan when stage legend Worth could not free up time for the production, but turned out to be a brilliant casting choice. Notable supporting performances were turned in by Michael Wager as the mother-obsessed foundation head who buys the manuscript at auction and Young as the actress eventually torn between Powell and Baxter. Ivory chose her over much more experienced actors because of her beauty and personality, even though he would later say she had trouble delivering her lines at the audition.
Merchant and Ivory had union problems throughout the production of Jane Austen in Manhattan. The British unions objected to LWT making a film in New York with no British crew members involved, while the U.S. unions complained about every short lunch hour or long day Ivory demanded. The Director's Guild was upset that Serban, who was not a Guild member, was directing actors and tried to stop Ivory from giving him a credit on the final film.
Greatly aiding with the production's look was Hungarian cinematographer Ernest Vincze (now one of the principal cinematographers on the revived Doctor Who TV series), who made the movie look more lavish than its tiny budget. He had brought the same magic to the Merchant-Ivory Roseland (1977). Richard Robbins, the company's usual composer, not only provided a sprightly background score, but also created the music for Baxter's opera, written as an homage to Mozart.
Producer: Ismail Merchant
Director: James Ivory
Screenplay: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
Based on the libretto of Sir Charles Grandison by Jane Austen and Samuel Richardson
Cinematography: Ernest Vincze
Art Direction: Michael Yeargan
Score: Richard Robbins
Cast: Anne Baxter (Lilianna), Robert Powell (Pierre), Michael Wager (George Midash), Tim Choate (Jamie), John Guerrasio (Gregory), Katrina Hodiak (Katya), Kurt Johnson (Victor Charlton), Sean Young (Ariadne), Bernard Barrow (Polson).
by Frank Miller