Zoom Salon - March 12 - The Bostonians (1984) – 123 minutes | Mechanics' Institute

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Zoom Salon - March 12 - The Bostonians (1984) – 123 minutes
March 2021 CinemaLit: Merchant Ivory from Page to Screen

Friday, March 12, 2021 - 6:00pm

CinemaLit Film Series

March 2021 – Merchant Ivory from Page to Screen

To cineastes worldwide, the filmmaking brand "Merchant Ivory" may conjure images of British period dramas with stiff collars, chintz teacups, and slow pulse acting. Scratch below the surface and there's a lot more going on.

Producer Ismail Merchant (1936-2005) and director James Ivory (born 1928) delivered over forty films in their four-decade partnership. Despite their established reputation for British settings, their films are multinational in scope. Neither men were British by birth. Merchant was Muslim born and raised in Bombay, while Ivory is from the San Francisco Bay Area, schooled at the University of Oregon and USC. Their frequent screenwriting collaborator, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (1927-2013), was born Jewish in Cologne. Two films in this month's series, Heat and Dust (1983) and The Bostonians (1984), barely set foot in England. The other two, Maurice (1987) and Howards End (1992), are closer to the image many hold of Merchant Ivory films as stylistic precursors to contemporary television fare such as Downton Abbey and The Crown.

In looking at these four films, certain themes emerge. All concern themselves with the politics of sex, wealth, and class. All illuminate loners and outsiders whose passions run against the oppressive expectations of society, with some finding a measure of happiness in open rebellion. All look exceedingly posh on limited budgets, and are cast with big-name movie stars who took salary cuts so as to attach their names to literate and worthwhile projects. And all are based on novels, one by Jhabvala and Henry James, and two by E. M. Forster. You are invited to read the novels to enrich your experience. Or not – these exquisite films very much stand on their own.

CinemaLit welcomes Dan Callahan to guest host for the March 12 discussion of The Bostonians. Acclaimed New York based film historian and critic Dan Callahan is the author of Vanessa: The Life of Vanessa Redgrave, as well as Barbara Stanwyck: Miracle Woman, The Art of American Screen Acting, 1912-1960, The Art of American Screen Acting, 1960 to Today, the novel That Was Something, and most recently The Camera Lies: Acting for Hitchcock. He has written about film for Sight & Sound, Film Comment, Nylon, The Village Voice, and many other publications.

March 12 - The Bostonians (1984) – 123 minutes

The Bostonians is fascinating as literature, as cinema, and as a telling fictional document of a time and place that resonates today. In 1880s Boston, women's rights champion Olive Chancellor (Vanessa Redgrave) and her cousin Basil Ransome (Christopher Reeve) vie for the heart and mind of young public speaker Verena Tarrant (Madeleine Potter), Olive's protégé.

In theme and content, The Bostonians is ever relevant. Henry James wrote the novel soon after America's first wave of women's suffrage. Nearly a century later, and a mere two years before the film's release, Congress failed to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. The film also does not shy away from Olive's erotic longings for Verena, thereby making comment on the complex history of women's suffrage, gender equality, and sexual orientation.

Redgrave asserted her well-established leftist politics throughout the production, confronting Ivory and Jhabvala on their direction and screenwriting. She wanted the conservative Basil to be evil so as to render Olive and her cause fully sympathetic. She also felt Verena should be romantically ambivalent to Basil so as to emphasize the woman's impressionable youth. Whether or not the completed film rose to Redgrave's satisfaction, her resulting performance remains one of the finest and best realized of her long career. Despite the love triangle structure, and the solid support of Jessica Tandy, Nancy Marchand, Linda Hunt, and Wallace Shawn, it is Redgrave's portrait of early modern female emancipation that lingers in the memory after the film is over.


Matthew Kennedy, CinemaLit’s curator, has written biographies of Marie Dressler, Joan Blondell, and Edmund Goulding. His book Roadshow! The Fall of Film Musicals in the 1960s, was the basis of a film series on Turner Classic Movies. 

I don't have a favorite film,” Matthew says. "I find that my relationships to films, actors, genres, and directors change as I change over the years. Some don't hold up. Some look more profound, as though I've caught up with their artistry. I feel that way about Garbo, Cary Grant, director John Cassavetes, and others."

Classic films have historical context, something only time can provide,” Matt observes. “They become these great cultural artifacts, so revealing of tastes, attitudes, and assumptions.”



First watch the selected film on Kanopy. All you will need is either a Mechanics' Institute library card, or a San Francisco Public Library card, which will give you access to Kanopy and its treasure trove of movies. Make a reservation for our CinemaLit Salon as usual via Eventbrite and watch the film on Kanopy at your leisure. You will receive a link to the Friday night CinemaLit salon on Zoom one day in advance, and then an additional reminder roughly two hours in advance. On the night of the salon click the Zoom link and join us.

If you do not receive a Zoom Link by 4:00 PM on the day of the event, contact Pam Troy at [email protected]


Mechanics’ Institute members can now sign up for FREE access to Kanopy, a wonderful film streaming service. To sign up:

1. Click on  THIS LINK.

2. Click on the large orange login button that reads, “Log in to milibrary.”

3. Enter the 14-digit bar code from your MI Library card

4. Set up your account following Kanopy’s instructions, including your email and a password.

5. Kanopy will send verification to your email address.

You’ll be able to choose from a wonderful selection of films, including classics, pre-code, foreign films, and documentaries, including the films we’ve scheduled this month for CinemaLit.

If you are not a Mechanics’ Institute member, consider membership and click  HERE  to join online:

Or, you can check with your public library to see if they are Kanopy members. If so, you may use your public library card to set up a Kanopy account.


Register with Eventbrite below.

If the green TICKET button is not immediately visible, scroll down on the right in the Eventbrite window until it appears.


CinemaLit Films

Members Free
Public Sliding Scale Free to $10
Register now ›
Pam Troy - 415-393-0116
Register now by using the form below or calling .

Future CinemaLit Films

Mar 5 - 6:00pm

Zoom Salon - Heat and Dust (1983) – 130 minutes
March 2021 CinemaLit: Merchant Ivory from Page to Screen

Mar 19 - 6:00pm

Zoom Salon - March 19 - Maurice (1987) – 141 minutes
March 2021 CinemaLit: Merchant Ivory from Page to Screen

Mar 26 - 6:00pm

Zoom Salon - Howards End (1992) – 143 minutes
March 2021 CinemaLit: Merchant Ivory from Page to Screen

Apr 2 - 6:00pm

Zoom Salon - The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) – 171 minutes
April 2021 CinemaLit: Wonderful William Wyler

Apr 9 - 6:00pm

Zoom Salon - Dodsworth (1935) – 101 minutes
April 2021 CinemaLit: Wonderful William Wyler