From Metro Goldwyn Mayer
Directed by John Huston
James (Skip) Ward
It was a super hit to me. I had been keeping up on the publicity surrounding its making... it seemed the world had. The lead roles were inhabited by some acting greats... Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr and Richard Burton. It was based on a Tennessee Williams play and was being directed by none other than John Huston. What's to not like about this?
I wonder how those three were thought of for the roles they played. Let's see... T. Shannon Lawrence was a loud-mouthed, pontificating, angry alcoholic; Hannah Jelkes was soft-spoken, caring, a bit innocent, a real lady; Maxine Foulkes was profane, earthy, a bit dangerous, anything-goes kinda girl. Hmmm, who would be just right for these parts? Wonder is Burton, Kerr and Gardner are available.
The film opens with Burton at the pulpit, an Episcopal clergyman, who suddenly has a loud, wild, nervous breakdown in front of his congregation, screaming about some appetite of his that can't be satisfied. He is locked out of his church and told to hit the road.
Shannon does that by conducting cut-rate bus tours along the Mexican coast. It is quite a comedown for the reverend who has taken to the bottle and given to saying things to people which demeans them. This group is a bunch of old, fussy Baptist women, their excoriating lesbian leader, Miss Fellowes (Hall), and her frothy little nymphet charge, Charlotte (Lyon).
Miss Fellowes, clearly someone you'd rather not be on a vacation with, is demonic in her quest to keep Charlotte out of Shannon's bed. When it doesn't work, Miss Fellowes threatens to derail Shannon's illustrious career and have him blackballed all across America. He does her one better when he stops in front of his best friend's rundown, hillside hotel, takes the distributor cap from the tired bus and runs inside to see his friend. The ladies all flutter, Charlotte is dripping (it's so hot in Mexico) and Miss Fellowes goes into FBM (full bitch mode). Whatever. Tour is resting.
Shannon is surprised to learn his friend has died but the man's widow, Maxine (Gardner), in serape, toreador pants, her hair swept up and a highball glass nearby, welcomes Shannon with open arms. She announces the joint is closed for the face-melting summer but Shannon pays no mind. Soon he, all the ladies and the hunky bus driver (Ward) are all sweatily ensconced in their rooms.
Enter Hannah (Kerr) and her 90-year old grandfather (Delevanti). He is the world's oldest living and practicing poet and she is an itinerant artist. They travel along with no funds, making money only from her sketching other tourists and what he makes reciting poetry. Worldly Maxine quickly assesses they are losers but Shannon talks her into putting them up.
Maxine employs two hunky, shirtless beach boys who play their maracas while they dance about the place. Their main duties are to take care of Maxine's needs, whatever they may be. Her mood of the moment is for the boys to catch a large iguana, tie it up and leave it there where it will later be the main course at dinner. Watching it lunging at the end of its tether is a metaphor for the good reverend, who is also at the end of his own rope. He is a man who has lost his way, is very embittered and sinking rapidly.
The bus driver gets the distributor cap away from Shannon and off they all fly, except for Shannon. There is a delicious parting scene as Miss Fellowes rips Shannon a new one and both Hannah and Maxine, in their own ways, take on Miss Fellowes.
The film's most tender moment comes when Shannon and Hannah have a meaningful talk about life and all its wonders. (This has to be the most positive outlook and passage Tennessee Williams ever put to paper.) Hannah has an inner calm that Shannon reluctantly responds to. He at least has to listen because he has been tied up quite securely in a hammock on the veranda. But with Hannah's inner calm, spirited optimism and the secret love she has for him, he responds. It takes his character in a new direction while we've come to the end of our film.
Before the end comes, a decision must be made as to which woman Shannon will end up with. We do not consider he would go off on his own... he's not the type. Maxine turns a little darker, more bitchy, as she packs her bags. We know she loves Shannon, too, but she decides to leave him to Hannah. She probably thinks they'll be good for one another especially since she knows Hannah's kind words obviously moved Shannon out of his funk. Maxine will also leave them the hotel since she's tired of it and Mexico, too.
But Hannah makes the decision (we assume a difficult one) to go on her way which will leave Maxine, Shannon and the hotel together. Hannah may know that she could not sit out on the veranda getting sloshed night after night with Shannon but Maxine could.
Williams liked to say that his ending was about showing that animalism and brutality will win out over sensitivity and breeding.
When they realize it's just the two of them, Maxine chirps to Shannon that they should go down the hill for a swim. He responds by saying that he doesn't think he could make it back up the hill. I'll get you up, Honey. I'll always get you back up, she says.
No one ever had that iguana for dinner either.
|Director Huston and his wonderful cast|
Huston was in his element here because he got to film in his beloved Mexico. He didn't write the screenplay for this one, as he often did, so it boiled down to only directing... an easy task for him. He loved the location and its ruggedness, he had his team with him. He had worked with Kerr before and would work with Gardner, an old pal, more in the future. He also filmed it in sequential order, a rarity in movie-making.
Burton gave one of his better performances as the tortured minister. I thought he wonderfully underplayed and also worked quite well in an ensemble production. None of his usual histrionics were evidenced here nor did he try to hog the entire affair.
Gardner was truly perfectly cast... earthy, bordering on roughneck, with a wonderful self-mocking quality. This was a role meant for her to play. Bette Davis had played Maxine on the stage and of course was more strident, tough-as-nails, harsher. While Gardner can play that, too, she is infinitely warmer while doing it and one knows Maxine would be hot in the sack. I believe this is her best work.
The Night of the Iguana was the last of Kerr's great films and she was brilliant as Hannah, the very heart of the film. The character is one who believes in the good of human beings and is ok with anything so long as it isn't unkind or violent. One expects this would be the same for the actress. I always found her to have such grace.
One of my joys in watching this film is to see Kerr and Gardner act together in the same scenes. Could there be actresses more different, each a magnificent specimen of her own calling? They had worked together in the late 40s alongside Clark Gable in The Hucksters, Kerr's first American film. In real-life they liked and respected one another. Here's one scene:
The location was an interesting one. Kerr has said Huston would never pick a location that wasn't difficult but this was the worst. Mismaloya was a little peninsula about 10 miles from Puerto Vallarta. It had no roads, no plumbing, no electricity, no phones. The set people hacked away at some jungle and built Maxine's hotel. They also built what amounted to little more than huts for the crew. The four leads stayed in Puerto Vallarta and got to Mismaloya (which everyone called Abismaloya) by boat. Gardner has said that most mornings she water-skied to the set.
Puerto Vallarta wasn't much to speak of in those days and certainly not the tourist mecca it is today. Much of that change, it's been said, is due to Elizabeth Taylor and Burton who not only rented an estate there but bought it once filming was over.
The tabloid press is what called such attention to the making of this film. In 1963 all we heard about was the folks down in Puerto Vallarta. I worked at a newspaper at the time and was always pulling stories off the wire services teletypes of the exploits in Puerto Vallarta and we breathlessly published them.
Threatening to sink little Mismaloya into the sea were the cast and crew, of course, but there were others. Taylor brought her entourage which included, oddly, her second ex-husband, Michael Wilding, who was actually working for Burton. Kerr's husband, writer Peter Viertel was in attendance and he was a former lover of Gardner's. Lyon was there with her scrappy boyfriend and her protective mother. Tennessee Williams hung out with his much younger boyfriend. And of course Huston was ramrodding the whole boozy affair... and we do mean boozy. There were some champion boozers in this crowd. Gardner brought only her maid but she gave extra coaching to those beach boys. The press was in abundance because they expected fireworks with this high-powered crowd but they wound up disappointed.
I was awfully fond of Tennessee Williams' work... such beautiful words, so bold, so impossible to watch his work and hide. This is the third and final film based on his work from the 60s... Summer and Smoke and This Property Is Condemned being the other two.