When American minister Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon is expelled from his Virginia church, he travels to Mexico in search of his destiny and sanity. There he becomes a tour guide for a bus load of spinsters and a teenage nymphet named Charlotte Goodall, who is being chaperoned by the group's leader, the inflexible Judith Fellowes.
Miss Fellowes, who is quite jealous of Charlotte's attentions to Shannon, discovers the young woman in his room and vows to have him fired. To thwart her plot, Shannon takes control of the bus from Hank, the bus driver, and speeds the tour group on a wild ride through the Mexican jungle to the crumbling, secluded hotel of an old friend, the recently widowed Maxine Falk. Eventually Shannon becomes enamored with another guest at the hotel, the rather genteel Hanna Jelkes, an itinerant quick sketch artist and her poet grandfather Nonno. As the wise Hanna partially restores Shannon's fractured world, Shannon struggles to get back the rest of his sanity and his self-respect.
Remade in 2000.
Richard Burton ... Rev. Dr. T. Lawrence Shannon
Ava Gardner ... Maxine Faulk
Deborah Kerr ... Hannah Jelkes
Sue Lyon ... Charlotte Goodall
Skip Ward ... Hank Prosner (as James Ward)
Grayson Hall ... Judith Fellowes
Cyril Delevanti ... Nonno
Mary Boylan ... Miss Peebles
It is possible to watch a film on a wide range of emotional and intellectual levels. One can pay attention only to the visuals, only to the minute trivia related to actors and actresses, to the most obvious displays of physical action, to appeals to one's sympathies, or to the underlying content and profundity trying to be expressed and communicated to the viewer. Thus, films can be judged to fail on the one hand when they succeed on the other, and this, I think, explains the lukewarm response to what is the finest films ever made in the English language. Whether or not Richard Burton always plays a drunk, whether or not it should have been in colour, are not in the least bit relevant to the significance, the concepts and the issues at play in this brilliant film, this monument to the resilience of human souls, to the compassion that can bring such succour on long, tortured nights, to the precious decency that is for some a perpetual struggle to attain, and the search, the life-long search, for belief, love and light.
The backdrop to the exploration of these issues that are so fundamental to individual lives is a Mexican coastal hotel. The central character is a de-frocked and unstable priest, T. Lawrence Shannon (Richard Burton) who, like the iguana that is tethered up in preparation to being eaten, is at the end of his rope. He walks alone, without the crutch of facile beliefs or human companionship beyond sterile physical conquests which only serve to heighten his own self-loathing and isolation. He arrives at the hotel in search of sanctuary in light of his mental deterioration. On his arrival he meets his old friend, the lascivious but no less desperate Maxine (Ava Gardner), a poet on the verge of death who is nevertheless striving for one last creative act, one last stab at beautiful self-expression, and his grand-daughter Hannah (Deborah Kerr), a resilient woman painfully trying to reconcile herself to loss, loneliness and the bitter struggle she faces with her own personal demons. They are united in that they are divided, in that they are all tortured souls seeking beauty, life, meaning and engaged in battles to stand tall, to live with integrity and love. On a hot, cloying night, a night of the iguana, when all their ropes snap taut, they meet.
The pivotal and most crucial part of this film is the conversation between Lawrence and Hannah. The former is in the throes of a nervous breakdown, the latter has survived and endured through the same. They are kindred souls that aid one another through the therapy of human connection, of empathy in the long, lonely walk. It is in this conversation that Tennessee Williams explores the issues make this film so important: through his characters, who are throughout depicted not as mere shallow cliches but individuals with histories and feelings that run deep, with subtleties that bring them to life, he meditates upon the struggle to find meaning in one's life, the need for companionship, the importance of compassion, and the way in which people endure, all the time grasping at what dignity they may have, and which may be forever threatened by trials, doubts and pain. These are not issues that date, that diminish in relevance, or that relate only to certain people - they are concepts that are universal, that speak to each individual and relate to fundamental facets of the human mind and spirit.
Because Night of the Iguana sets out to tackle such issues, it is elevated far beyond the level of most films. It is profound, but also deeply emotional, made more so by the superb characterisations (aided, in addition, by universally superb performances). One is afforded an insight into characters, into people, who live, breath, cry, shout, scream, and endure. They are fallible, capable of spite, caprice, and baseness, but they are also thoughtful, courageous and strangely noble. To watch them interact, thrown together as they are on a Mexican veranda, is affecting both emotionally and intellectually, and it is this interaction which is responsible for creating a film that stands (tall and dignified) above nearly all others.
The Night of the Iguana was a Tennessee Williams masterpiece, probably the last one he ever did. It ran 316 performances on Broadway during the 1961-1962 season and starred Bette Davis, Margaret Leighton, and Patrick O'Neal in the roles played on the screen by Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr, and Richard Burton. For some astonishing reason, John Huston changed the ending and ruined the whole thing. Why couldn't Huston follow the wise example of Elia Kazan who brought A Streetcar Named Desire intact to the screen is beyond me.
Not that the performers do so bad here. Ava Gardner for instance is wonderful in the part of the earthy hyper sexed hotel owner from Puerto Vallarta living on her meager income and her two Mexican beach boys for those cold nights. Then again this was no stretch for Ava because she was merely playing herself in this part at this time of her life.
Ava is reunited with Deborah Kerr who she co-starred back in their salad days at MGM in The Hucksters. Kerr is the itinerant artist who travels with her 97 year old grandfather Cyril Delevanti doing sketches for supper.
Richard Burton chews up the scenery with his part as the disgraced Episcopal minister who let his libido get the better of him. With nubile Sue Lyons around, he's about to let it happen again.
Margaret Leighton got a Tony Award for her performance on stage, but the only acting nomination for this film went to Grayson Hall as the repressed lesbian tour guide who takes an uncommon interest in Sue Lyons's virtue. Words like 'butch' and 'dyke' are used in the script to describe her character showing the Code was coming down. Tennessee Williams's work is loaded with sexual innuendo, but this was even kind of daring for him to be that upfront. Grayson Hall was nominated for Best Supporting Actress, but lost to Lila Kedrova for Zorba the Greek.
I'd see a stage production of The Night of the Iguana before seeing this film. It's the only way you can understand my critique about how the new ending turned a great film into a good one.
The Night of the Iguana is a fantastic piece of drama that examines the human condition through a brilliant script adapted from Tennessee Williams' play of the same name.
From the arresting opening to the heart-warming ending (well, near-ending), this classic motion picture directed by John Huston will have your attention in it's grasp and won't let go until it's finished mesmerising you with all its beauty. I say 'beauty' because not only does the film feature the beautiful Ava Gardner and Deborah Kerr but also has some of the crispest black and white film photography I've seen in classic film to date. Every shot whether it's in the crummy old bus or on a cliff looking down in the cradle of life, looks magnificent on screen and gives the film a fresh feeling and tone throughout.
As can be expected from a film adapted from a Williams play, the writing and dialogue present is criminally witty and charming, often showing it's intelligence but always in the background, never destroying the real focus of the story being the characters. The cast all bring their characters to life magnificently too, giving fitting performances to their already well developed and insightful characters. Reverend Lawrence Shannon in particular is one of the most interesting and versatile characters I have ever seen in a movie, often moving between emotions and mind states faster than he can drive a bus, but never without cause and always with focus.
The plot to the film is admittedly very much on the thin side but nevertheless more than makes up for it with thought provoking themes and dialogues that fill in the spaces where such action may have otherwise been noticed as missing. There was a couple of other little problems I had with the story including the sometimes slow pace and the contrived ending or epilogue as I like to refer to it. However, these aspects don't do much damage to an otherwise perfect and timeless classic.
With an intelligent insight into the human condition, loneliness and the overwhelming need to love and be loved, this has to be one of the best pieces of classic cinema I have seen to date. In the end, The Night of the Iguana should not be overlooked and I recommend it to everyone who really enjoys good film.
* In order to diffuse the tension prior to shooting (due mainly to the isolated location the stars would be working in together), John Huston made each lead actor a gold encrusted pistol with bullets- one with each actor's name on it. This way, when the actors wanted to kill one another, they would use the designated bullet. This proved to be successful. No problems between the cast arose.
* This movie put Puerta Vallarta, Mexico, on the map - it didn't even have scheduled air service before John Huston shot the film there. Elizabeth Taylor's appearance on the set and her ensuing scandalous affair with Richard Burton made headlines around the world. Now it's a top resort destination with thousands of hotel rooms and is a popular cruise ship port.
* Ava Gardner kept changing one of her lines in the film from "In a pig's eye, you are!" to "In a pig's ass, you are!", much to the delight of the rest of the cast and crew, including director John Huston.
* Nearly half the film's $3 million budget was used to pay the three major star's salaries: Richard Burton ($750,000), Ava Gardner ($400,000) and Deborah Kerr ($250,000).
* According to one of the biographies of Tennessee Williams, "The Kindness of Strangers," by Donald Spoto, the character of Maxine, who is portrayed in this film by Ava Gardner, was purportedly based upon Williams' landlady of the apartment he rented in Santa Monica while he was working at MGM Studios in the 1940's. Her mannerisms, her attitudes and even her distinctive one-syllable laugh were detailed by Williams and are expertly performed by Ms. Gardner.
* "The Night of the Iguana," which made its Broadway debut on December 28, 1961 and ran for 316 performances, was Tennessee Williams last hit play.
* The characters of the Rev. T. Lawrence Shannon (Richard Burton), Maxine Faulk (Ava Gardner), and Hannah Jelkes (Deborah Kerr) were played in the original 1961 Broadway production by Patrick O'Neal, Bette Davis, and Margaret Leighton. The play, its producer and Leighton all were nominated for 1962 Tony Awards, but did not win.