Don’t you love it when everything falls together unexpectedly? I just finished reading Kendra Bean’s book Ava Gardner: A Life in Movies as well as Elizabeth Taylor: My Love Affair with Jewelry. (Both of which I recommend by the way.) Taylor’s book includes the memories attached to each piece of her jewelry and it should be no surprise that Richard Burton is often a part of those memories. These books piqued my interest in seeing further films of these actors. Shortly after, I saw the announcement for the Deborah Kerr Blogathon hosted by Maddy Loves Her Classic Films.
As I searched for my film choice, I found The Night of the Iguana which just happens to star not only Kerr, but also Gardner, and Burton. Both books also referenced this film as it was an important one for both Gardner and Burton though for different reasons. The Burton-Taylor affair had taken the world by storm and the notoriety followed them to the set of this film. As for Gardner, this picture is often ranked as one of her best performances.
Burton is disgraced Episcopal priest, the Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon. A sex scandal saw him driven out of his career. He is now acting as a third rate tour guide down in Mexico. His current tour is a Baptist women’s group which also happens to include the very young and precocious Charlotte Goodall (Sue Lyon). Charlotte is infatuated with Shannon and chases him despite his many rejections. Charlotte has a bulldog of a chaperone who believes that Shannon is encouraging Charlotte’s obsession. When the strict Ms. Fellowes finds the two in a compromising situation, she vows to see Shannon fired.
Panicking, Shannon all but kidnaps the women and takes them to the remote hotel of his good friend Maxine Faulk (Ava Gardner). Maxine promises to help but also derives a strange pleasure in watching Shannon’s life fall apart again. No sooner do they get the ladies settled, then two more guests arrive seeking shelter. Hannah Jelkes (Deborah Kerr) is a quiet, well-mannered spinster who travels with her elderly grandfather. The two work their way around the world by hawking their talents as an artist (her) and a poet (him).
With this disparate group of people trapped at the hotel, it becomes a powder keg of emotions. Each individual is forced to face the truth of themselves and no one fights that challenge more than Shannon.
I’ve seen several of Tennessee Williams film adaptations and I can’t say I’m a fan. The southern playwright wrote emotionally volatile stories with morally challenged characters. Often, the endings to these stories feel sad and wasteful of the gift of life. I just tend to look at life through a different lens. That doesn’t mean I cannot appreciate a good tragedy. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is one of my favorite films. But I have to say, I didn’t really enjoy The Night of the Iguana.
Richard Burton played a similar character in The Sandpiper as a minister whose behavior doesn’t meet the moral requirements of his job and then has a crisis of conscience. InThe Night of the Iguana the role and his portrayal is even grittier and more dramatic. In fact, I felt he over-dramatized it. In some scenes he is almost manic and he remains almost entirely unlikeable throughout the film. I had a hard time feeling sorry for a man who seemed to willingly ruin his chosen career and then continue on with the same self-destructive behavior.
However, all is not as it seems with the Reverend Shannon as is eventually revealed. Even as he continues to pursue his wish to return to the church, we learn that he is not entirely morally bankrupt. But overall I found myself disgusted by Shannon and his many weaknesses. Instead of acting like a mature adult, he forced everyone around him to suffer as they tried to deal with his unreasonable behavior.
Bette Davis originally played Maxine Faulk in the Broadway production. But for the film’s director John Huston, Ava Gardner was the only choice to portray the “tough but vulnerable, sexy and funny, hardened by life but essentially golden-hearted romantic.” Maxine is a lonely woman who seeks fulfillment, if not love, in many one night stands. But she is also generous and non-judgmental, especially when it comes to Shannon, a man she hides a real tendre for. Her character is not one I easily relate to, but one with which I was able to empathize.
Gardner doubted her ability to play such a serious dramatic role. But with the faith and encouragement of her director she gave a raw and vulnerable performance. Kerr stated in her diary, ” John and I were discussing Ava today. How completely different she will appear to the public in this part: they have never seen Ava likes this -funny, rich, warm and human, as well as beautiful. The part is marvelous for her and she’s making it even better.” Huston considered it “the greatest thing she has done so far on the screen.”
Of all the characters in this chaotic story Hannah Jelkes is the calm center. Kerr is perfectly cast in her role as the woman who acts as the voice of reason to a group full of emotionally dysfunctional people. Her graceful carriage and smooth ladylike voice belie Hannah’s past history. Hannah is the one person in the film whose circumstances are not of her own making. She has gracefully accepted less than she deserves in order to serve a grandfather she loves. Of all those staying at Mismaloya, she is the only one with the right to complain and yet instead she encourages others, all while facing an unknown future.
Hannah Jelkes is an admirable character, perhaps one of the most admirable in all of Tennessee Williams plays. Kerr had previously worked with Gardner on the set of The Hucksters and the two women became very good friends on The Night of the Iguana.
BEHIND THE SCENES
As a way to defuse the tension surrounding the set resulting from the public attention of the Burton-Taylor affair, Gardner’s tumultuous private life as well as the difficulties of working in a remote location, Huston presented his stars with golden revolvers. Each gun also came with five bullets inscribed with each star’s name.
Despite the tension it was overall a happy set. All of the stars got along well. Gardner and Elizabeth Taylor were old friends from their MGM years and Burton and Gardner led the crew in drinking when off-set. Gardner, who was originally intimidated by Burton’s talent, confessed to Kerr that he put her at ease and elevated everyone else’s acting. Gardner also came away with close friendships with John Huston and Tennessee Williams. As the non-casted member of the set, Taylor served as a marvelous example for all in how to deal with the press.
Another by-product of The Night of the Iguana may have been less expected. Huston chose an undiscovered and little populated location in Mexico just south of Puerto Vallarta. There his set was built from scratch, including Maxine Faulk’s small hotel which overlooks the ocean. The film helped introduce and popularize this area of Mexico and today Puerto Vallarta is a major tourist destination. It is just too bad that the movie wasn’t filmed in color as it detracts from the gorgeous setting in which it is filmed.
Though I can’t say I enjoyed The Night of the Iguana, no one can deny the talent both in front of and behind the camera make it an extremely memorable film. One which lives on even after its’ stars are long gone.