Merchant Ivory's special take on Thomas Jefferson | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian
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Merchant Ivory's special take on Thomas Jefferson

In their first feature based on a historic figure, the legendary filmmakers focus on the life and loves of an American in Paris

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Director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant, the renowned team that brought A Room With a View, Howard's End and The Remains of the Day to the screen, focus their artful attention on an American President for their most recent production, Jefferson in Paris. An account of Jefferson's life and loves during his stay in Paris as Minister to France, the film concentrates on the years 1784-89. According to author Helen Dudar, Ivory got interested in the project 11 years ago while reading Olivier Bernier's Pleasure and Privilege: Life in France, Naples and America, 1770-1790. When Ivory came across a contemporary nobleman's report of an encounter with Jefferson, something just clicked.

The script, by novelist Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, a Merchant Ivory veteran, draws heavily from Jefferson's writings and also from author and scholar Fawn Brodie's 1974 best-seller, Thomas Jefferson, An Intimate History. In addition to exposing Jefferson to the joys of music, art and theater, Brodie contended, the stay abroad plunged the widower into two affairs of the heart — one with Maria Cosway, "a woman of beauty, talent and wit," according to Dudar, and the other, it was said, with Sally Hemings, one of several slave children sired by Jefferson's father-in-law and part of his wife's dowry.

Filmed on location in France with Merchant Ivory Productions' hallmark dedication to re-creation of time and place, Jefferson in Paris stars Nick Nolte in the role of Jefferson and Greta Scacchi as Maria Cosway.

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