"THE NIGHT OF THE IGUANA: CLOSE ENCOUNTERS IN THE
BY EVE GOLDBERG
The Night of the Iguana, Tennessee Williams’s last great
play, was turned into a 1964 movie which, in its day, was as famous for its
behind-the-scenes spectacle as for what actually appeared on screen.
Today, Iguana is rarely mentioned alongside the other
classic Tennessee Williams film adaptations: Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a
Hot Tin Roof, and Suddenly, Last Summer. Despite a tremendously talented cast,
compelling characters, and a can’t-look-away examination of our anguished,
redeemable humanity, Iguana is often neglected.
So, it’s high time for a fresh look at this movie — with
a focus on its journey from stage to screen.
"Shannon!" shouts Maxine Faulk from the veranda
of her run-down hotel on the coast of Mexico. Thus opens Tennessee Williams’
1961 play. The setting is 1940. Recently widowed Maxine greets her old friend,
Reverend Shannon, a disgraced minister who has been reduced to leading low-rent
bus tours. He is currently shepherding a group of middle-aged Baptist women
through Mexico. Shannon is in crisis. He has become sexually involved with
Charlotte, a 17-year-old girl on the tour, whose jealous, closeted chaperone,
Miss Fellows, is determined to get him fired. Already locked out of his church
for having an affair with a young Sunday School teacher, Shannon is at the end
of his rope. In a desperate attempt to stop Miss Fellows from phoning the
States and exposing him, he pockets the ignition key and strands his charges at
Maxine’s secluded hotel.
Vacationing at the hotel is a pro-Nazi German family who
stay glued to the radio throughout the play, gleefully reporting on Hitler’s
progress. Soon, another unexpected visitor arrives: the beautiful spinster artist,
Hannah Jelkes, escorting her 97-year-old grandfather, “the world’s oldest
practicing poet.” To eek out a living, Hannah sketches and her grandfather
recites poetry as they wander the globe. Right now they are broke. Shannon
convinces Maxine to let the pair spend the night at her hotel.
Earthy, sensual Maxine wants Shannon to stay on at the
hotel and fill her late husband’s shoes. Persistent Charlotte wants to seduce
him. Vengeful Miss Fellows wants to get him fired. Shannon wants some peace of
mind. As he fights against his own desires for both Charlotte and alcohol, he
becomes increasingly distraught and emotionally unstable. He finally falls to
pieces after the bus driver wrests the ignition key away from him and leaves
with the women to continue their tour. To prevent Shannon from running down to
the beach to take that “long swim to China,” Maxine ties him up in a hammock on
the verandah. During a stormy night of soul-searching (while strapped to the
hammock), Shannon connects deeply with the serene and understanding Hannah. He
admits to his “spooks,” she to her “blue devils.” Hannah, who has never had
sexual relations, describes to Shannon what she calls her “love experience”
with an underwear salesman. When Shannon asks whether she was disgusted by the
man’s request to hold a piece of her clothing, Hannah replies with the most
famous line of the play: “Nothing human disgusts me, unless it’s unkind,
As a result of the profound communication and connection
Shannon experiences with Hannah, his torment subsides. He frees himself from
the hammock. Then, at Hannah’s request, he cuts loose the iguana which is being
held captive under the verandah by Maxine’s houseboys. At the end of the play,
Hannah’s grandfather finishes his final poem and dies; Hannah leaves to travel
alone; and Shannon reluctantly agrees to stay on with Maxine and help her run
Night of the Iguana opened on Broadway with legendary
Bette Davis in the role of Maxine. The play was well-received, and ran for 361
performances. It won the New York Drama Critic’s Circle award for Best Play,
and was nominated for a Tony for Best Play. However, unhappy with the
production and her role, Davis left the show after a few months. According to
the actress, “There was no camaraderie, no sense of kinship, no attitude of
pulling together to make the play work.” According to Tennessee Williams, “If
she had ever truly had a command of her talent on the stage, she had lost it by
that time.” Davis was replaced by Shelley Winters. Still, Davis hoped to play
Maxine on screen. It was not to be.
When producer Ray Stark brought a screenplay for Night of
the Iguana to John Huston, the director was immediately interested in making
the movie. “I was a great admirer of Tennessee Williams,” said Huston. “I had
seen the play and liked it, with reservations.”
At that time, Huston was at the peak of a long and
illustrious career. His prior films included such popular and critical hits as
The Maltese Falcon, The African Queen, The Treasure of Sierra Madre, and The
Asphalt Jungle. In the sexist vernacular of the day, Huston was known as a
“man’s man” — he was a former boxer, unrepentant boozer, and lover of women,
danger, and adventure — who enjoyed making his films in exotic, challenging
locations. He was also one of the most literate of American filmmakers. He had
been a contract writer at Warner Brothers, penning adaptations of great novels
including Moby Dick and Red Badge of Courage. In Iguana, he saw an opportunity
to explore Tennessee Williams’s meaty theme of “loose, random souls trying to
account for themselves and finally being able to do so through love.”
Huston hoped to cast his movie with big-time stars:
Richard Burton, Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr, and Sue Lyon.
Richard Burton was just coming off mega-movie Cleopatra,
where he met, co-starred, and began a torrid affair with Elizabeth Taylor. The
stunningly beautiful Taylor was the top female box office attraction in the
world. Burton, an acclaimed Shakespearean actor, had become a screen sensation
with starring roles in Look Back In Anger and Becket. Both Burton and Taylor
were married to others when they began their affair — Taylor to crooner Eddie
Fisher whom she infamously “stole” from girl-next-door actress Debbie Reynolds.
At a time in American culture when divorce, much less extra-marital affairs,
was still semi-taboo, the public couldn't get enough of "Liz and
Dick." Their scandalous relationship and glamorous lifestyle captivated
millions. Their photos and personal lives were constant fan mag fodder — solid
gold for the Hollywood publicity machine.
If anybody could rival Liz Taylor in both the beauty and
scandal departments it was Ava Gardner. Brought to Hollywood more for her looks
and legs than her acting ability — which, according to the actress herself, was
close to zilch — Gardner signed a contract with MGM at age 19. She then
progressed from pin-up girl, to small roles in B movies, to femme fatale icon.
She exuded a magnetic, sultry sex appeal. And she was gorgeous. According to Humphrey
Bogart, "Whatever it is, whether you're born with it, or catch it from a
public drinking cup, she's got it."
Gardner gained additional fame for three high-profile
marriages to three high-profile celebrities: actor Mickey Rooney, band leader
Artie Shaw, and no-introduction-needed Frank Sinatra. The tumultuous
Frank-and-Ava marriage was chronicled in the press as avidly as the
Liz-and-Dick affair. After six years of a passionately volatile relationship,
Gardner and Sinatra divorced in 1957. By the time Iguana came around, Ava
Gardner was 44 years old and living in Spain where she hung out with Ernest
Hemingway and a bevy of bullfighters. Huston decided that her unique blend of
beauty, maturity, and lusty sensuality made her ideally suited for the role of
hotel owner Maxine.
As for Bette Davis, who openly coveted the role she had
pioneered on Broadway, Huston decided she wasn’t right for the part. He felt
she came across as “too threatening” for the kind of Maxine he had in mind.
When 18-year-old Sue Lyon was cast in Iguana as seductive
teenager Charlotte, she had exactly one film credit to her name: the title role
in Lolita. 'Nuf said.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Deborah Kerr already
had 42 films under her belt. She had played a troubled nun in Black Narcissus;
a neglected military wife in From Here to Eternity (iconic beach make-out scene
with Burt Lancaster!); a widowed school teacher in The King and I; and the
tragically romantic heroine in An Affair to Remember. She had been nominated for
an Academy Award as Best Actress six times. On screen and off, Kerr had gained
a reputation as a class act. Huston thought she'd be perfect as the chaste
"We went to see them, one after another" Huston
wrote in his memoir, Open Book. "Richard, in Switzerland, promptly
accepted; likewise Deborah in London. That took us to Madrid and Ava
Gardner." According to Huston, Gardner was unsure whether she had the
ability to do the part. However, after the requisite wooing, she agreed to be
in the film.
Now the stars were set. The press closed in. The fun was
about to begin.
"We've got more reporters up here than
iguanas." -- producer Ray Stark.
In 1964, when Iguana's cast and crew descended upon it,
Puerto Vallarta was still a small fishing town with a few hotels; 24-hour
electrical service had only recently arrived. Eight miles up the coast,
accessible only by boat, was an isolated rain forest peninsula called
Mismaloya. High atop the cliff at this lush, mosquito-infested spot is where Huston
decided to film Night of the Iguana. A strong believer in location shooting, he
thought the wild, sweaty atmosphere of Mismaloya would visually reflect the
inner tumult of the movie's characters. He also hoped that the challenging
environment would force the actors out of their comfort zones and enhance their
Up on this jungle mountaintop, a construction crew built
the movie's weathered hotel set. They also erected 40 bungalows to house the
125 cast and crew members who would live there for the entire 72-day shoot. In
addition to living quarters, the crew built an editing room; a large kitchen,
bar and restaurant; water tanks and an electrical plant; plus various paths and
roads. All materials and supplies had to be carried up 134 earthen steps from
the beach to the cliff-top location. It took 280 men and 80 burros to complete
As construction of the miniature city proceeded, Huston
and his co-writer, Anthony Veiller, worked on the script.
Finally, Iguana's cast arrived in Puerto Vallarta. As did
more than 100 members of the press and paparazzi. Fascinated by the
high-wattage gathering of filmdom glitterati, reporters expected plenty of
behind-the-scenes fireworks. Especially because Burton was accompanied by his
lover, Elizabeth Taylor. With sexy co-stars Ava Gardner and Sue Lyon roaming
the set, the press assumed that Taylor wanted to keep an eye on Burton. "I
trust Richard completely," she told reporters. "It's just that I
don't trust Fate. After all, Fate threw us together on Cleopatra."
And there was plenty more to feed the gossip-hungry
public: Burton brought along his publicist, Michael Wilding, who had been Liz
Taylor's second husband. Teenager Sue Lyon was visited on location by her
25-year-old fiancé, actor Hampton Fancher III. And Ava Gardner took up with
several hunky beach boys. Director Huston, married at the time, was accompanied
by his mistress, Zoe Sallis. Deborah Kerr brought along her husband, writer
Peter Viertel, who had once been Ava Gardner's lover. Viertel was the author of
White Hunter, Black Heart — a novel based on the making of The African Queen —
which featured an unflattering portrait of a Huston-like movie director.
Before filming began, Huston assembled his stars, plus
Taylor and Stark, and presented each one with a velvet-lined box. Inside the
box was a derringer pistol and five gold-plated bullets. Each bullet was
engraved with the name of one of the others. A photo from that moment shows the
assembled group examining their pistols and sharing a hearty laugh. The
atmosphere was loose and fun — regardless of what the press hoped for.
While most of the cast and crew lived at the Mismaloya
mini-city for the duration of the shoot, top stars Burton, Kerr, Gardner, and
Lyon stayed in Puerto Vallarta.
Wrote Kerr about their accommodations in town:
"Never have there been such raucous donkeys, such snuffling and screeching
pigs, such shrill and insistent roosters and babbling turkeys. Top this off
with a thick sauce of mariachi music, plus phonographs and radios at full
blast, season with firecrackers and rockets at all hours of the night, and you
have a fairly tasty idea of what the sleeping conditions are like in this
Early each morning, the stars boarded motor boats to make
the 25-minute ride to Mismaloya. Documentary footage shows Deborah Kerr being
carried by a crew member, who is waist-deep in the surf, and being placed in a
Lines were drawn on the first day of shooting when Kerr
and Lyon announced that they expected the set to be "dry." Burton, a
devout alcoholic, said this was "preposterous." He ordered a bar to
be set up at each end of the crude staircase which connected beach to
cliff-top. Huston and Gardner, both committed drinkers, did not object. Thus,
beer and tequila flowed freely during the shoot. Burton took his first drink
early each morning before the cameras rolled. Gardner had a personal icebox
stocked with her favorite Mexican beer. For her part, Elizabeth Taylor ordered
gourmet hamburgers imported daily from the U.S. and brought up to the set.
Despite prodigious alcohol consumption, filming
progressed fairly smoothly. While the press anticipated juicy sex scandal and
interpersonal catastrophe, the most serious mishap of the production was
actually due to the sub-standard materials used to construct the housing at
Mismaloya. One night, assistant director Tom Shaw was standing on his balcony
when it collapsed. Shaw broke his back and had to be flown back to the U.S. for
surgery. Fortunately, his injuries healed and he would work with Huston again.
Producer Ray Stark wanted to shoot Night of the Iguana in
color. Huston, however, opted for black-and-white. "I thought that color —
especially the sea, sky, jungle, flowers, birds, iguanas, beaches — would be
distracting," remembers Huston. "Black-and-white would place the
emphasis where it belongs— on the story.”
In another unconventional move, the director hired
Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa as his Director of Photography. He
admired Figueroa's work, particularly on Bunuel's Los olvidados and El angel
exterminador. “There’s a dreamy quality to it, and yet it has definition,”
Huston explained. "He can sharpen, soften, create haloes, there’s a
mystery to his work.”
As a writer and director, Huston enjoyed the challenge of
transforming literature into cinema. He always aimed to stay true to the core
of the original text, while simultaneously integrating the visual and action
elements so essential to film.
In adapting Night of the Iguana, the most obvious change
he made was to convert much of the dialogue-delivered backstory into
front-loaded action. Rather than begin the film with Reverend Shannon arriving
at Maxine's hotel, the movie opens with a devastating scene: Shannon on his
pulpit having a nervous breakdown and chasing his parishioners out of the
church. CUT TO: Two years later. A defrocked Shannon is drinking a cold beer in
the hot Mexican sun. From there, the first third of the film is an action and
comedy-packed journey on Blake's Tours as a conflicted Shannon surrenders to
young Charlotte’s flirtations. When Miss Fellows accuses Shannon of seducing
the teen, and threatens to get him fired, Shannon's desperation to save his job
culminates in a hair-raising bus ride through the Mexican jungle.
Once Shannon and the women reach Maxine's dilapidated
hotel, the film sticks more closely to the play. With a few salient exceptions:
First, Huston sets the movie in the present rather than
1940, completely excising the pro-Nazi German family. He felt the family was
irrelevant to the story's main concerns.
Next, he adds a number of scenes which, in the play, were
presented off-stage, only revealed through dialogue, or non-existent. These
includes a comedic fight between Shannon's bus driver and Maxine's houseboys;
an erotic night threesome at the beach; and the climactic freeing of the iguana
which, in close-up, becomes visceral and intensely moving.
Huston also softens Shannon’s character in his
relationship to his nemesis, Miss Fellows. In the play, Shannon channels his
hostility by accusing her of being a lesbian: “Hey Jake, did you know they had
lesbians in Texas — without the dikes the plains of Texas would be engulfed by
the Gulf.” (He nods his head violently towards Miss Fellows who springs forward
and slaps him.) In the film version, those lines are given to Maxine who
continues to confront Miss Fellows:
Maxine: "Let’s level for a while, butch, old gal.
You know what you’re really sore about? That little quail of yours has a
natural preference for men instead of—"
After Miss Fellows leaves, Maxine asks Shannon why he
stopped her rant. He replies:
Shannon: "Miss Fellows is a highly moral person. If
she ever recognized the truth about herself, it would destroy her.”
Hannah witnesses this entire scene, gaining respect for
Shannon because he displays compassion for Miss Fellows, recognizing her
weaknesses as he does his own.
The fact that Miss Fellows could be acknowledged as a
lesbian in this film reflects changes in American movie censorship. In the
early 1930s, under pressure by conservative religious groups, and preferring
self-regulation to government censorship, the Hollywood movie studios created
their own self-censorship guidelines known as the Motion Picture Production Code.
They also created the Motion Picture Producers of American (MPPA) which
enforced the Code from 1934 to 1968. Among a long list of Dos & Don’t, the
Code listed as taboo “any inference of sex perversion.” Thus, film adaptations
of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) completely
excised any mention of the homosexuality of Tennessee Williams’ gay characters.
The producers of Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) received a special dispensation
to broach the subject of homosexuality because, according to the MPPA, “the
film illustrates the horrors of such a lifestyle.”
In 1961, the Code was revised. The MPPA announced, “In
keeping with the culture, the mores and the values of our time, homosexuality
and other sexual aberrations may now be treated with care, discretion and
restraint.” Thus, as Iguana was filmed in 1963, Miss Fellows was allowed to
remain as Tennessee Williams intended: an angry, closeted, repressed lesbian.
At one point during filming of Night of the Iguana,
Tennessee Williams visited the set. Huston asked the playwright to help him
with some re-writes. One scene which needed work takes place at Maxine's hotel
where an amorous Charlotte bursts into Shannon's room, but he resists her
advances. Huston remembers:
“Shannon…explains to her all the reasons why they should
not become lovers. The dialogue is good, but the scene just didn’t come alive.
I showed it to Tennessee and asked him if he could help us with it. What he did
is an example of his genius. As Tennessee rewrote it, the girl comes into the
room suddenly and Shannon is startled. He knocks the bottle of liquor off the
chiffonier [chest of drawers], so there is broken glass all over the floor.
Explaining his position to the girl, he starts to pace the floor, and so great is
his agitation that he doesn’t realize he’s walking barefoot on broken glass and
cutting his feet. The girl watches him, then, suddenly inspired, kicks off her
shoes and joins him in walking over the glass. What had been a dull scene,
became one of the best in the picture — frightening and funny at the same
The image of bare feet crunching over shards of broken
glass is not easily forgotten. Maybe it's a good thing the film was shot in
Lastly, Huston took issue with the ending of Williams'
play. “He had written the character Maxine with considerable affection, then,
at the end, turned her into a spider woman who devoured her mate. … But Maxine
was the best thing that could happen to Shannon. I felt Tennessee had
perfunctorily changed Maxine’s character for his own dark purposes, as a means
of expressing his own prejudice against women, and I called him on it… 'You see
women as your rivals,' I said. 'You don’t want a woman to have a place in the
love life of a man. That’s why you chose to do this with the character of
Maxine. You’ve been unjust to your own creation.'"
At the end of the play, Maxine invites Shannon to live
with her at the hotel. "I've got five more years, maybe ten, to make this
place attractive to the male clientele, at least the middle-aged ones. And you
can take care of the women who are with them." It's a cynical pact. They
go down to the beach together, leaving Hannah alone and panicky, nobody to turn
to as her grandfather dies and the curtain comes down.
The film version of Iguana ends on a more optimistic
note. Maxine invites both Shannon and Hannah to stay on at her hotel. Hannah
declines. Shannon accepts. Maxine seems to genuinely love Shannon. He is
conflicted, but tender with her. When Maxine suggests that she and Shannon go
down to the beach together, he doubts he can make it back up the steep hill.
"I'll get you back up, baby," Maxine reassures him. "I'll always
get you back up." (Yes, really, that is the dialogue! Double-entendre
Years later, Huston ran into Williams at a party. They
chatted pleasantly, but as they were saying their goodbyes, the playwright
called out to the filmmaker, "I still don’t like the finish, John!"
The Wrap Up
The Night of the Iguana was released to mixed reviews.
Time magazine’s reviewer opined, "Huston and company
put together a picture that excites the senses, persuades the mind, and even
occasionally speaks to the spirit—one of the best movies ever made from a
Tennessee Williams play.”
Bosley Crowther in the New York Times wrote that the film
“doesn't really make you see what is so helpless and hopeless about [the film’s
main characters]—it fails to generate the sympathy and the personal compassion
that might make their suffering meaningful.”
Regardless of what reviewers thought, Iguana was a hit
with the public; it was the 10th highest grossing film of the year. As for
Oscars, it won for Best Costume design (black-and-white); and was nominated for
Best Art Direction (black-and-white), and Best Cinematography (black-and-white).
The only cast member nominated was Grayson Hall for her supporting role as the
closeted Miss Fellows.
Beyond awards and box office, what is Night of the
Iguana’s place in film history? In 1964, the Hollywood studio system was still
in full swing, and this is certainly a studio product — big stars, big budget,
big hype. However, while “the 60s” had not yet fully bloomed, American culture
was beginning to change. The repressive Cold War years were thawing. And Iguana
was part of this evolution. Huston pulled no punches in depicting sexuality of
all kinds as a natural part of the human condition. Nor did he shy away from
presenting the protagonist as an alcoholic struggling with his addiction. As in
the original stage play, the main characters are all complex — not good or bad,
A broad swath of the American public saw Night of the
Iguana. What effect the film had (or didn’t have) on the American psyche is up
for speculation. But it most definitely made a significant impact on Puerto
Vallarta. In large part a result of the enormous amount of publicity around the
film’s production, Puerto Vallarta grew rapidly from a sleepy coastal village
to a major international tourist mecca. In 1988, a statue of John Huston was
erected in town to commemorate the making of Night of the Iguana and its part
in local history.
Watching the film today is still a thoroughly engaging
experience. Burton and Kerr are amazing. The dialogue is superb. Tennessee
Williams’ lyricism, and his depiction of the devastating effects of repressed
desire, come through loud and clear.
On the negative side, Sue Lyon's acting is painfully
awkward, and Ava Gardner is trying but not quite succeeding at pulling off her
role. Even more disconcerting is the entire character of 17-year-old Charlotte.
In both the play and the film Charlotte is presented as a teenage nymphet who
seduces the conflicted older man, Shannon. Due to our growing consciousness
around male predatory sexual behavior, the idea of the girl as the aggressor is
less palatable today than it may have been in the 1950s.
Even with these flaws, The Night of the Iguana is a
compelling cinematic adaptation of Tennessee Williams at his best. To witness
this story about vulnerable people who face their demons of despair,
self-loathing, and loneliness — and come out the other side — is a privilege
and a pleasure.
(Eve Goldberg is a writer and filmmaker.
Her articles have appeared in Hippocampus, The Gay & Lesbian Review,
The Reading Room and AmericanPopularCulture.com. Her film and television
credits include Emmy-nominated Legacy of the Hollywood Blacklist, and Cover Up:
Behind the Iran-Contra Affair. Her first book, Hollywood Hang Ten, is a
mystery novel set in 1963 Los Angeles. See a sampling of her short films on her
web site at