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The Golden Bowl

Todd English/MIP

Photo: Todd English/MIP

"Practically speaking, it was a convenient staircase for filming," Ivory says. "Because of the way it branches out into two sides, we could put lamps on one side to light the other. Those stone steps are so wide and strong, the crew could move up and down without endangering the house."

Lady Victoria Leatham, a descendant of William Cecil and the current chatelaine of Burghley, was astonished by the size of the 100-plus crew. "You hear terrible stories about boom mikes crashing into chandeliers," she says. "But everyone was very careful, and we were thrilled with how it all turned out." She does admit to being peeved at not landing a cameo. "All the extras had been chosen before they got to us," Leatham says wistfully. "But by the time you had been squashed into one of those corsets, you probably wouldn't have been able to breathe."

IVORY CHOSE HELMINGHAM HALL TO STAND IN AS Matcham, the moated country house where the clandestine lovers attend a weekend party. He remembered Helmingham from when he scouted locations for The Remains of the Day. Its current inhabitant is the genial and unflappable Lord Tollemache, whose family has lived there for some 600 years.

"If it had been my house and they'd said, 'You're going to have people sliding down the stairs on silver trays,' I'd have been a little nervous," Ivory recalls, referring to a scene of country-house high jinks. "But Tollemache said, 'It's happened so many times, I'm not worried at all.' "

During the first few weeks of shooting, the stars of The Golden Bowl stayed at Hintlesham Hall, a country hotel near Ipswich, in Suffolk. Hintlesham has both superb cuisine and a strict dress code. "The hotel didn't allow the actors in the dining room, because we couldn't be depended on to dress properly for dinner," Huston recalls wryly. (Much to Ivory's surprise, even he was turned away for failing to wear a jacket.) Instead, the cast was assigned a separate "show folks" room, which always filled up quickly. "So one was told that one couldn't have dinner at all," Huston says. "That was very bad news after a fourteen-hour workday, grand homes or no grand homes."

To everyone's amusement, the hotel also seemed incapable of distinguishing among the film's famous names. Huston was tickled to receive a phone message from Ethan Hawke in which the young actor declared his love. (The note was actually intended for Thurman, Hawke's wife.)

After the comedy of errors at Hintlesham Hall, the traveling players moved on to Stapleford Park hotel, a luxurious country house near Belvoir Castle (pronounced "beaver"). Its legendary picture gallery, with its Holbein portrait of Henry VIII, was used as an interior for Fawns. When they arrived, the Bombay-born Merchant, 64, appeared to exert his famously persuasive charm to ensure that feathers would remain unruffled. And in a traditional act of Merchant Ivory diplomacy, he also cooked up one of his celebrated curries for the troupe. "Ismail's curries are always part of his pitches to the actors, to help persuade us to do the movie," says Nick Nolte, who previously starred in the team's Jefferson in Paris. "We all buy into it," he says with a chuckle, "because James and Ismail are tremendous to work with."

Like Hitchcock, Merchant enjoys making occasional cameo appearances in his own films. Huston recalls being startled when the beatific producer showed up as an extra at a fancy ball, dressed as an Indian potentate in "full maharajah jewels. We're not talking paste." She was clearly impressed by the dazzling array of vintage rubies and emeralds, on loan from Spinks in London. "Ismail basically had the Taj Mahal around his neck!"

Merchant is amused by Huston's astonishment at his rented finery. "Ah, you see," he says, laughing, "Merchant Ivory goes to great lengths for authenticity."

SEEING THE SITES
Burghley House Near Stamford, Lincolnshire; 44-1780/752-451; www.burghley.co.uk. Open for guided tours weekdays 11 a.m.—4:30 p.m. through October 7.

Belvoir Castle Near Grantham, Lincolnshire; 44-1476/870-262, fax 44-1476/870-443; www.belvoircastle.com. Open to the public through October.

Helmingham Hall Near Stowmarket, Suffolk; 44-1473/890-597, fax 44-1473/890-776; www.members.aol.com/helmingest. Gardens and deer park (but not the 1510 Tudor house) open to the public every Sunday 2 p.m.—6 p.m. through September.

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