June 11, 2014

The Night of the Iguana (1964)
Grade: 55/100

Director: John Huston
Stars: Richard Burton, Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr

What it's about. A black comedy set in the then-sleepy vicinity of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Shannon (Richard Burton) is an easily excitable disgraced middle-aged American clergyman leading a bus tour for Baptist tourists. Prominent among them are forward jailbait and brat Charlotte (Sue Lyon) and her obsessive and vengeful chaperone Ms. Fellows (Grayson Hall). The bus driver Hank (Skip Ward) looks more like a surfer.

The bored Charlotte is intent on seducing poor Shannon, and succeeds. They are caught by Ms. Fellows, who is certain to cost him his job, and perhaps his liberty. With nowhere else to go, Shannon ends up at the resort hotel of Maxine (Ava Gardner), a mercurial forty-something widow.

To make things yet more complicated, prim sketch artist Hannah (Deborah Kerr) arrives with her frail and elderly grandfather Nonno (Cyril Delevanti), a poet determined to finish his last poem, a task that has occupied his mind for perhaps decades. Both are flat broke.

Based on a successful Broadway play by famous playwright Tennessee Williams.

How others will see it. Today, The Night of the Iguana is best known for transforming Puerto Vallarta into a major tourist mecca, courtesy of publicity surrounding the film's production. Elizabeth Taylor began an affair with Burton while making the costly flop Cleopatra, and followed Burton to Mexico with the world press in tow.

Given its stellar cast and the highly regarded director and source play, it was little surprise that the movie was a box office hit and garnered four Oscar nominations. However, it won only for its black and white costume design. Lesser-known Grayson Hall received the sole acting nod, perhaps out of pity for having been saddled with such a humorless and shrill spinster character.

Today at imdb.com, the movie has a respectable 7300 user votes and a high average rating of 7.8 out of 10. Women like the movie more than do men, with the gender gap widest above age 45 (8.7 versus 7.9). Presumably, women appreciate the three strong-willed female leads and find Burton sexy instead of pathetic. Which is how anyone would view his character in real (instead of reel) life.

How I felt about it. The systemic problem with Iguana has to do with Tennessee Williams' reliance on the lurid. He wishes to shock us with controversy, in this case a reverend who is a suicidal alcoholic that consorts with underaged girls. Thus, he combines the character faults of Paul Newman from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Karl Malden from Baby Doll. Sue Lyon is again playing Lolita, only this time she is more aggressive than ever, to the point of caricature.

We are also dubious of the two interchangeable beefy young Mexican men who dance constantly when not chasing iguanas.

The plot doesn't work. Burton would abandon the tour bus at Maxine's hotel, rather than take the bus' distributor head. Which would be taken back from him by force by Hank or the Baptist women. It is difficult to believe that Maxine would volunteer to give away her hotel to Shannon and Hannah. We wonder why Shannon walks on broken glass, why he tells others he is about to commit suicide, and why he acts like a madman when he wants to be untied. We wonder why Maxine is jealous of Hannah's instant friendship with Shannon, when Hannah is obviously as frigid as a nun.

It seems unlikely that Nonno would finish the poem he has been working on for many years, minutes before his death. We wonder why Charlotte is so intent on seducing an unstable man more than twice her age. Or why Maxine would want a man so useless as Shannon. He'll go through her stock of liquor in a week.

Still, it is hard to condemn the film altogether. Burton's speaking voice is always a pleasure to hear, Sue Lyon is admirable as the Brat From Hell, and Kerr is a class act as she flawlessly delivers her sizable chunks of dialogue.