Monday, May 21, 2012

Over the Rain-Forest and the Still Water Beach

Mismaloya Photos
Abandoned movie set, Mismaloya, Mexico: photo courtesy of TripAdvisor

The programmers at Turner Classic Movies may not have planned the schedule with me in mind, but they’ve lined up a fine mix of films for me on my birthday this year.

Bruno Ganz in Wings of Desire
I share my day with Sir Laurence Olivier (born May 22, 1907), and TCM has programmed some films of his that I haven’t seen, including Term of Trial (1962), co-starring the great French actress, Simone Signoret. Later on in the day my beloved San Francisco provides the setting for the 1955 sci-fi classic, It Came from Beneath the Sea, in which the city is attacked by a radiation-enlarged octopus. In the evening, this month's TCM guest programmer, Deborah Winger, is set to appear. Among her choices is one film I haven’t seen but have had on my to-watch list for a long time: Wim Wenders' 1987 classic, Wings of Desire, brought its director the Best Director prize at Cannes in 1987 and won or was nominated for a raft of other awards.

Winger has also chosen to spotlight John Huston’s masterful production of Tennessee Williams' The Night of the Iguana (1964), one of the great film adaptations of Williams' work.

Tennessee Williams had vacationed in Mexico during 1940, and his experiences at the Hotel Costa Verde outside Acapulco later formed the basis for his 1948 short story entitled The Night of the Iguana. Over time the story evolved into a stage play that debuted on Broadway in 1961 starring Bette Davis in the role of Maxine Faulk, Margaret Leighton as Hannah Jelks and Patrick O’Neal as The Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon. It is Tennessee Williams' final masterpiece.

Margaret Leighton, Tennessee Williams and Patrick O'Neal
Reverend Shannon is an alcoholic Episcopal priest locked out of his church for stirring up scandal and reduced to working as a guide on a bus tour south of the border. A new scandal involving a nubile young woman in his group of mostly biddies has consumed him. As the play begins, Shannon brings his party to the broken down hotel of his friend Maxine and her late husband Fred on the Mexican seacoast. Also staying at the hotel are Hannah Jelks, an itinerant artist, and her elderly grandfather, a 'practicing' poet.  As Shannon wrestles with his demons he forms a bond with Hannah who is also in spiritual crisis.

The stage production was rocky from the beginning, but it was also acclaimed and successful, running for 316 performances. The Night of the Iguana received Tony nominations for Best Play, Best Producer and Best Actress - for which Margaret Leighton won the award - and was also chosen the best new play of the year by the New York Drama Critics' Circle.

Bette Davis as Maxine Faulk on Broadway
Legendary writer/director/producer Joshua Logan’s reaction to Bette Davis’ performance was enthusiastic: “She was svelte, handsome, voluptuous, wicked, wise, raffish, slightly vulgar – in fact, she was ideal for the part and gave the play added dimension.” But Davis was deeply unhappy in the production and began regularly missing performances. She left the show in April 1962 and Shelley Winters, who replaced her, quickly understood why Davis and her understudy, Madeleine Sherwood, had both been miserable in the part. It seems co-stars Patrick O’Neal and Margaret Leighton routinely undermined the actresses who played Maxine by using an age-old stage trick of moving slightly for a few seconds to divert the attention of the audience whenever they set up her lines. 

Richard Burton and Ava Gardner
The journey of The Night of the Iguana from stage to screen began with a call from producer Ray Stark to writer/director John Huston during the play's Broadway run. Huston, no stranger to adapting great works (The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Moby Dick, etc.), was interested and the two quickly began working out the details of their collaboration. They agreed on casting: Richard Burton as Shannon, Deborah Kerr as Hannah and Ava Gardner as Maxine. Burton and Kerr signed on immediately but Miss Gardner required some courting. Both Stark and Huston flew to Madrid, where Gardner was then living, and spent days wining and dining her until she agreed to take the part. 

Huston and Stark disagreed on one major point, Stark wanted to film in color but Huston preferred black and white for fear that the vibrant colors to be found everywhere on location in Mismaloya, Mexico (azure skies and seas, multi-hued flora and fauna) would distract from the story. Years later, in his memoir, Huston wrote, “Looking back now, I think I was probably wrong.” He was. Color could only have underscored the power of Williams' evocative meditation on the tangle of spiritual and physical yearnings that drive human life.

John Huston and Richard Burton
At the time location work began on The Night of the Iguana, Richard Burton had not yet sacrificed his talent for fame and riches. One of the great, classically trained actors to emerge from Britain in the post-war era, Burton’s finest performances were defined by depth and soul and enriched by his majestic voice, piercing blue-green eyes and potent physical presence. As Deborah Kerr observed in a diary she kept during the shoot, Burton was at his peak as an actor at this point and she agreed with Ava Gardner that "he makes everyone else act well, he is so good himself." Burton’s agonized rendering of the Reverend Shannon's dark night of the soul seems, at times, a glimpse into his own conflicted nature. Though he was not Oscar-nominated for this role (it was for his performance in Becket that earned his Best Actor nod in 1964), Burton would be nominated a total of seven times for an Academy Award, winning none, though he was otherwise acknowledged with BAFTA, Golden Globe and Tony awards. When the filming of The Night of the Iguana got under way in October 1963, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were living together but not yet married; their life of paparazzi-infested, glittering excess had just begun. Even so, Huston later wrote, "There were more reporters on the site than iguanas..."

John Huston
A very young Ava Gardner

Ava Gardner’s Maxine Faulk was a departure from the character as written by Williams and portrayed on the stage. Warmer and softer, Ava’s Maxine personified the “openness and freedom of the sea” Williams had envisioned, but lacked the man-eating qualities of the original. Huston, who felt Williams’ Maxine became far too devouring by the play's end, was responsible for these changes. Ava Gardner later recalled that Tennessee was never entirely happy about Huston’s tinkering with the character but she also noted, “…anyone seeing the film knows that John’s choice was the only one that fit.” And Gardner committed herself fully to her role. In an earthy, raucous performance, she allowed herself to appear casual to the point of dishevelment. Clad in a loose serape and toreador pants through much of the film, she had lines penciled in under her eyes and her hair tied back into a loose ponytail to de-emphasize her glorious good looks. During filming, Kerr recorded an observation of Huston's that for Ava it may have been a real disadvantage to be so beautiful, " has made her appear publicly as someone she is not, and in her work has made her appear the kind of actress she is not." For this performance Ava Gardner received the best reviews of her film career. Reflecting in her memoirs she wrote, “I have only one rule in acting – trust the director and give him heart and soul. And the director I trusted most of all was John Huston. Working with him gave me the only real joy I’ve ever had in movies.”

Ava Gardner and Deborah Kerr
Hannah Jelks is an intriguing entry in Deborah Kerr's filmography. Kerr portrayed sensitive ladies of delicacy and reserve to perfection, but Hannah was slightly different, a "Thin-Standing-up-Female-Buddha," in Tennessee Williams' words. Down-on-her-luck, adrift in Mexico and living by her wits and intuition, the spinster has only her remaining dignity, the care of her 97-year-old grandfather and her paintbox to keep her going.

As the international press descended on the set, Kerr admitted that she was beginning to "feel more and more like Hannah in this movie." Reporters insisted on quizzing her for 'dirt' on Burton, Taylor and others, and, in her diary, she quoted Hannah's sentiments, "Nothing human disgusts me unless it is unkind or violent." Kerr added, "I do loathe and detest unkindness and violence and gossip and troublemaking and envy and malice."

On the day filming of The Night of the Iguana ended in late 1963, Deborah Kerr put down her thoughts in her journal, "It's funny how you get so close to a bunch of people on a movie. It is constant making and breaking of emotional relationships - some of the people you work with and get to know so closely, you may never see again." An interesting reflection, coming on the heels, as it did, of completing a film about the redemptive power of human connection.

It was on an evening in 1940 while in Mexico that Tennessee Williams watched the sun set on a tree of golden lemons. He would later write a poem about it that provided inspiration for the story that became a play and then a film.  The poem was revised slightly and incorporated into The Night of the Iguana.  Here, Cyril Delevanti, who portrayed Nonno in the film, recites the verse popularly known as "Nonno's Poem" (click title to view).

Cyril Delevanti and Deborah Kerr

John Huston spent many, many years of his life in Mexico, and was living not far from Mismaloya, in Las Caletas, while working on his autobiography in the late 1970s. Sixteen years had passed since the making of The Night of the Iguana and the location site was now deserted. All that remained were the ruins of the buildings constructed for his film. Huston wrote, "No one - other than an old man who passes there on an occasional trip between Las Caletas and Vallarta - seems to give a damn what happens to the place. He would like to see it torn down and given back to the iguanas. The old man is me of course."

John Huston in Las Caletas, 1979
...I was at the Hotel Costa Verde over the rain-forest and the still-water beach which were the off-stage background for Night of the Iguana.
~ Tennessee Williams, Memoirs

An Open Book by John Huston, McMillan (1980)
Ava: My Story by Ava Gardner, Bantam (1990)
Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis by Ed Sikov, Henry Holt (2007)
Deborah Kerr Personal Collection:


  1. Happy Birthday Lady Eve! How nice of TCM to line up this broadcast schedule for you! Ejoy your day tomorrow and I'll look for some of these movies to watch and think of you and Laurence Olivier.

    1. Thanks, Christian, TCM rarely lets me down. By the way, while researching my post on Preston Sturges' The Players, Chateau Marmont and the Garden of Allah I discovered that Alla Nazimova is another one Larry and I share our birthday with...

  2. Happy birthday! I can't believe anyone would attempt to upstage Bette Davis (or Shelley Winters). The Night of the Iguana is such a dark picture--the B&W cinematography seems to add to it. It is such an unusual character study. Really loved reading this.

    1. Thank you, Kim.

      According to a Bette Davis biographer, Shelley Winters got a bit of revenge for the upstaging. During one performance she shoved her character's prop, a serving cart, across the stage at Patrick O'Neal - it knocked him down and as he fell he hit Margaret Leighton, who also fell. According to Shelley, the audience roared.

      As much as I think b&w worked beautifully in Huston's previous films of the early '60s, especially "The Misfits," I think color would have enhanced the emotionally rich themes of "Iguana" and the performances of its wonderful cast. Not to mention the lush setting of Mismaloya.

  3. Happy Birthday, Lady Eve! TCM has an eclectic line-up for you today, and inspiration for a lyrical review on two films I have yet to see. I’ve seen “Faraway, So Close”, which was a sequel to “Wings of Desire”, and like you I have waited for the opportunity to see the original. I was also looking forward to “Night of the Iguana” and even more now that I have read your excellent review. I have been reading “The Cambridge Companion To Tennessee Williams” for background on "The Roman Spring Of Mrs. Stone", and the author makes interesting observations regarding the "transformation" of some of Williams's female characters. He discusses the collaboration between Elia Kazan and Tennessee Williams in making Maggie the Cat a sympathetic character for the film version (apparently she has more in common with a canine in the play). Best wishes for a Happy Birthday, enjoy your day with a slice of cake and a good film.

    1. Thanks so much, 'Gypsy, and I hope you enjoy "The Night of the Iguana," it is my favorite film based on Tennessee Williams' work. John Huston was a master of the literary adaption.

      It's Interesting how often the overbearing or devouring female character crops up in his work - as does a gentler, more fragile one - often within the same play. In life, Williams' mother was intrusive and dominating (unbearable might also apply), while his beloved sister Rose was emotionally broken.

  4. Happy Birthday, Lady Eve! Now we know you have an "in" at TCM! I read Ava Gardner's bio last year and adored reading about all the behind the scenes shenanigans. Great post - I know I always say that, but I always mean it!

    1. FlickChick, Thanks - and I would love to have an "in" at TCM...if only!

  5. Eve, some great thoughts on "Night of the Iguana." I watched this a few weeks ago for only the second time, the first being many years ago. I recalled it as being excellent and was curious to see how I felt about it after all these years. Everything I remembered liking about it was still there and if anything made an even better impression on me. It has to be the most underappreciated film version of a Tennessee Williams play. The play structure is a bit obvious, but everything else works wonderfully for me.

    It's one of the great Richard Burton performances. I can't imagine anyone else delivering that caustic/humorous/self-deprecating dialogue with such relish. In fact, all the characters and performances are incredibly strong. It's Deborah Kerr's last great performance. (I've read that Katharine Hepburn turned the film down.) I especially appreciated your background on the evolution of Gardner's character. I love Bette Davis, but I just couldn't quite picture her as the earth mother Gardner portrays Maxine as. Delevanti, Sue Lyon as the teenage temptress, and Grayson Hall (does anyone else remember her as the original Dr. Julia Hoffman in the TV "Dark Shadows"?) rounded out a super cast. I liked the way Burton's Reverend Shannon was so generous to her as his nemesis at the end, refusing to use her repressed lesbianism as a weapon against her because he knew it would psychologically destroy her.

    Finally, I think you're right that the film needed to be in color to emphasize how the exoticism of the setting brought out repressed tendencies in the characters. Just a tremendously entertaining and funny movie without the tendency to the baroque that can make Williams on film seem so contrived.

    1. R.D., I agree that this is one of Burton's greatest, he was wonderfully cast as an all but disintegrated clergyman and Shannon's dialogue literally flows out of him. Such a rich (and rollicking) performance! If Katharine Hepburn turned down the role of Hannah, I'm thankful. She was too old for the part and too spinsterish. Deborah Kerr possessed the element of femininity the role required - Hannah's appeal for Shannon was, for a second, more than spiritual and with Kerr, that's believable. Sue Lyon was fine - Tuesday Weld would also have been fine - but the plum roles all went to the older players in "The Night of the Iguana." John Huston wrote that Cyril Delevanti told him he hoped his role as Nonno would lead to better parts - he was in his mid-70's at the time - and according to Huston, it did...

      The blend of pathos and humor in "The Night of the Iguana" is extraordinary and as you mention, there are no rococo trimmings to distract...

  6. Happy Birthday Lady Eve!! The Night of the Iguana, is one of my favorite films that I wish were filmed in color.. I really enjoyed reading your review.

    1. Thank you, Dawn. I imagine that had "The Night of the Iguana" been shot in color it might be better appreciated today - everything about the film cries out for color - as I hope is illustrated by the color photos I chose to accompany my post.