By Alan Hurst
Tennessee Williams had a spectacular run on Broadway from the mid-forties to the late fifties and the inevitable film versions of his plays also enjoyed varying degrees of critical and box office success. Key film successes from Williams work included A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), The Rose Tattoo (1955), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), Suddenly Last Summer (1959) and Sweet Bird of Youth (1962).
But things started to change for him with The Night of the Iguana. It opened on Broadway in 1961, had a decent run of 360 performances and lead actress Margaret Leighton won a Tony, but reviews were mixed at best. The run of 360 performances was primarily due to Bette Davis playing the second female lead (until Shelley Winters took over). Davis got the lion’s share of press, but she wasn’t happy playing second fiddle to anyone. Adding to her misery was the fact that her reviews were poor, and she was completely miscast as the lusty, very sexual owner of a hotel in Puerto Vallarta. The impression that this was a second-rate Williams play was soon prevalent.
Thankfully director John Huston did some rethinking when it came time to film the play for MGM and producer Ray Start in 1964. He and co-screenwriter Anthony Veiller opened up the action with tweaks to the play that improved it and by filming on location in both Puerto Vallarta and the nearby town of Mismaloya. In fact, it was the filming of The Night of the Iguana that put this area of Mexico on the map as a tourist destination, thanks to the onslaught of media that followed Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, as the post-Cleopatra (1963) scandal continued.
The Night of the Iguana is about Lawrence Shannon (Richard Burton), a defrocked minister who is now working as a tour guide in Mexico. The film opens with him leading a group of Baptist women on a dilapidated tour bus through the heat, humidity and rough geography of the area. One of the younger members of the tour (Sue Lyon) comes on to Shannon, much to the anger of her aunt (Grayson Hall) who blames Shannon and is determined to ruin him. Shannon then takes over the tour bus from the driver and heads straight to the hotel of an old friend with the all the ladies in tow. But his friend has passed away, and the hotel is now run by his widow (Ava Gardner). It’s there Shannon meets a painter (Deborah Kerr) traveling through Mexico, who helps him through a night of alcohol-induced self-discovery.
I think this was one of the best pictures of 1964 and thanks to the intense media attention focused on anything Burton and Taylor did at the time, it was a major box-office hit. But it didn’t get the critical attention it deserved.
Williams’ touches on some of the themes that he has explored before – alcoholism, love, homosexuality, loneliness – but here they take on an even more melancholy feel because the remote location literally feels like there’s no other place for these people to run. This seems to be literally the last stop, so they need to connect and figure out how to make life work for them.
Huston and his cameraman Gabriel Figueroa give the first part of the film a very claustrophobic, uncomfortable and grimy feel. No one on that bus is comfortable and their low-grade accommodations are even worse. When they finally arrive at the hotel in Mismaloya you can feel that this is a place where you can regroup, refresh and regenerate. The hotel is by no means five star but the lush jungle, the ocean and casual comfort it provides feel perfect.
Huston also does very well with his cast, particularly Ava Gardner in a career-best performance. Still beautiful and sensual, Gardner here feels more accessible than she ever did. Her Maxine is practical, comforting but still volatile when pushed and you can feel the yearning she has for Shannon – knowing that she can help him find his footing again. This should have garnered Gardner a Best Actress Oscar nomination that year – for me, this is one of the great Oscar oversights.
Deborah Kerr is also excellent as the painter Hannah. Very prim and proper, but with a touch of a vagabond who’s using her talents to work and get her and her grandfather back home. She’s the voice of reason for Shannon – and Kerr is perfect in calling out his behavior in that oh-so-certain way that she had. Kerr always exuded common sense and confidence – and here those qualities are essential to this character.
In a supporting role, Grayson Hall is fascinating. As the Aunt determined to get revenge on Shannon for his perceived dalliance with her niece, she is so single-minded in her focus that the audience immediately questions what’s behind it. Williams’ dialogue and Hall’s pinched, uptight delivery soon reveal her to be a repressed lesbian, something Gardner’s character recognizes right away and goes on the attack for the hypocrisy of what Hall is doing to Shannon. Hall got the film’s only acting Oscar nomination, as Best Supporting Actress.
Ultimately this is Burton’s movie and he’s very good – you can feel the character’s desperation and he’s excellent delivering Williams’ dreamlike soliloquies that feel like a slow nervous breakdown. You want him to get a grip and get better, but you also want to slap him for the self-destructive behavior. I think this is one of Burton’s strongest performances.
This was the last good movie (aside from some TV production) made from a Tennessee Williams’ play and one of Huston’s best – you can feel the love he had for both the themes that Williams explores and for the location. It’s a beautifully made film.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.