By CARLEY JOHNSON
It’s the heat that makes you crazy.
I’m not talking about the dry, arid heat that more or less defines the American West– the kind of heat that, even at 100 degrees, still allows you to breathe and think clearly; I’m talking about the stifling, claustrophobic, angry wet heat that more or less defines the American South. It’s that villainous heat that is the true main character of nearly every Tennessee Williams work, slowly gnawing at the sanity of its victims until all the pent up frustrations (mainly sexual) finally explode in a magnificent volcano of tawdry melodrama. Whether it’s the physically abusive Stanley Kowalski in Streetcar Named Desire, or the physically neglected Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Tennessee Williams lets his characters suffer: their faces are wet with moisture, their clothes are stained from sweat, and they seem–every one of them–on the cusp of complete emotional derailment, while the Southern sun beats down on them relentlessly.
In the case of John Huston’s 1964 film adaptation of Williams’ play The Night of the Iguana, that sordid sun lies South of the Border, where all of Williams’ hallmark calling cards boil together in a hot, messy stew of religious piety, sexual frustration, and repressed desire.
Huston thrusts us into turbulent life of Reverend Shannon (Richard Burton), a recently defrocked minister who is overly fond of the bottle and keenly aware of his inability to, as he quotes from scripture, ‘rule over his own spirit’–namely, the sin of fornication which, as a man of the cloth, is a condition of employment. After breaking down in church and being ostensibly excommunicated from his congregation, Shannon becomes a tour guide for American tourists in the resort town of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. (Hey, why not, right?) But Shannon’s attempts at forging an uncomplicated life are thwarted, and he becomes something of a ping-pong ball between the paddles (sorry for the awful euphemism, no other word for it) of four very strong women: a teenage temptress, a repressed lesbian, a worldly hellcat, and a virtuous intellectual.
Burton being something of a hunk, and Mexico being a land evoking tropical passion, it is little wonder that the lusty, busty Charlotte (Sue Lyon) makes a conquest of him. This incites the wrath of the matriarchal group leader Mrs. Fellowes (Grayson Hall) who professes it is her duty to look after the minor’s well-being…although it becomes increasingly clear that Fellowes has interest in the young girl that go beyond that of a chaperone. Fellowes makes it her goal to punish Burton for Charlotte’s indiscretions, and punish him she does: her brother, conveniently, happens to be a judge back home in the States, and she threatens Shannon with arrest for statutory rape–not to mention blacklisting from every church in every corner of the South. Refusing to be bullied, Burton takes his tour groups hostage: he drives them to a crumbling picturesque villa on the coast, run by the aging but still highly sexy Maxine (Ava Gardner). Maxine is an old friend of his, and after disabling his tour bus’ motor, forces the group of cranky tourists to stay at the villa in a desperate attempt to, not only preserve his integrity a tour guide (Maxine’s hotel IS much better than the run-of-the-mill tourist trap they’d been scheduled to stay at) but keep control the last strand of stability he has in his life: his job.
Maxine, an old friend who has seen Shannon through similar emotional episodes, is Shannon’s crutch and a true ally against the vindictive Fellowes and conniving Charlotte. Recently widowed, Maxine’s interest in Shannon becomes clear to all but him. The arrival of itinerant artist Hannah (Deborah Kerr) and her poet grandfather to the estate, only exacerbates the situation. Hannah is good, intelligent, and pure–everything that Shannon desires in his own self but lacks. There, on that pretty coastal retreat, is a wanton bastion of classic Tennessee Williams melodrama: A repressed lesbian secretly in love with a whorish teen; a whorish teen in lust with an alcoholic priest; an alcoholic priest infatuated with a virginal old maid; a virginal old maid playing the sexual rival to a worldly sexpot; and a worldly sexpot who desperately desires the emotional and physical attention of a man teetering on the brink.
Shannon is entirely at the women’s mercy, ignorant to the reality that each of them entices out an aspect of his character that desires fulfilling. With the delirious Fellowes, it’s his pride. With Charlotte, it’s carnal lust. With Maxine, it’s emotional dependence. And with Hannah, it’s intellectual fulfillment. Shannon’s inability to comprehend himself fully makes him one of Williams’ less memorable male leads, but Burton is a powerhouse here; Shannon may not understand his ineffectualities, but Burton certainly does. Sue Lyon once again plays a Lolita, although Charlotte is more vulgar and vicious-minded (and decidedly more one-dimensional). Deborah Kerr is dependably solid as the artistic intellectual and Grayson Hall makes for an entertainingly over-the-top villain.
But Night of the Iguana truly belongs Ava Gardner. In fact, I would go so far as to say that she is the primary reason to watch it. Under Huston’s direction, Gardner loses herself as the flawed, wounded, hellish Maxine. There are moments of such searing emotion, one can only wonder if she is even really acting–it is as though a mask is removed from that movie star face, and staring back at us– rawboned and unafraid– is Gardner the flawed, achingly desperate human being.
Yes, Iguana is heavy-handed on the expository, but, so is Tennessee Williams. And even when the film falls into murky, melodramatic quicksand, Huston is always there to rescue us from it with the his stark, pictorial dazzlement–photographed in stunning black and white by Gabriel Figueroa–and the emotionally charged, often gut-wrenching performances he pulls from his actors who put everything on the line for him. Tennessee Williams may have been famously critical of his adaptations, but his work is in excellent hands here with Huston. In this writer’s opinion, the opposing sensibilities of Williams and Huston work to the film’s great advantage.
After all, there is a reason that 34 of Huston’s 37 films were literary adaptations. He was a visual essayist on par with the likes of John Ford, and could therefore bring a visceral, visual poetry to Williams’ prose. There’s deep humanity in the heat of those contentious, stifling nights, that would, with a lesser director, get mired in the melodrama. Watch as Huston lets Gardner dance in the black tide of a midnight tropical sea, wet and undulating to the rhythm of her young sex toys, and pay close attention to the terror behind the eyes of the tigress. She is disgusted with herself, aching for love, and hating life for the cards it has dealt her.
Williams crafted the words; Huston to gave them life.