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John Huston's Night of the Iguana
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February 22, 2010

On the Trail of the Iguana - John Huston's behind-the-scenes look at the making of Tennessee Williams' The Night of the Iguana in 1964. (These clips include great footage of Puerto Vallarta at the time of its "discovery" by the outside world.)
In late 1962, John Huston received a proposal from producer Ray Stark to direct The Night of the Iguana. 'I thought it would make a wonderful picture, especially in Mexico,' said Stark. 'John, of course, was the guru of Mexico. I just got him at a lucky time when he wanted to go back there.'

John was indeed thrilled with the chance to work again in Mexico, and more so to take on Tennessee Williams's melodramatic play about an odd group of beleaguered individuals struggling with their frailties at an isolated, second-rate hotel on the tropical coast. Huston considered Williams a genius, one of the very few playwrights capable of presenting complicated characters in a way that illuminated them.

He knew that the story's weighty subject matter - people coping with personal failings, alienation, and lonelness - would be difficult to capture on film and understood that audiences tended to get bored with a movie if not enough action appeared on screen. But he also believed that an intelligent public would appreciate a well-hewn motion picture of the play 'The question is,' Huston posed, 'are you interested in what is happening? I personally find it hard to distinguish between dialogue and action. What's going on in someone's head can also be action, and can have as much violence in it as slow-motion bleeding.'

Both Huston and Stark agreed that the key to the film's success hinged on the casting. 'I choose an actor,' Huston explained, 'always for his kinship to the role. I don't give an actor a script and have him try to change his personality into something that's suitable for the role. I prefer to let him discover whatever part of himself is in that role and present it to me.'

If Huston's ideal for drawing out superb performances was to match an actor's persona with that of the character's, then the leading stars in Iguana couldn't have been better suited for their parts.

To play the defrocked, alcohlolic Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon, such formidable actors as Marlon Brando, Richard Harris and William Holden were considered before Huston shrewdly decided on Richard Burton, a man whose own tormented life and exaggerated living paralleled that of Shannon's: the virile but sensitive male stereotype, destroying himself through the indulgence of liquor and women.

Ava Gardner was singled out by Huston to play the part of the bawdy widowed innkeeper, Maxine Falk. He knew Ava to be among the most beautiful, untamed women in the world, but coaxing her into playing Maxine wouldn't be easy On the other hand, said Gardner, Huston had 'a line of talk that could charm cows in from the pasture or ducks off the pond.' She agreed to do the film and later recalled the decision as 'the start of my relationship with John, one of the greatest and most enduring friendships of my life.'

Rounding out the cast was the refined Debra Kerr tagged to play the spinster-artist Hanna Jelks, a gentlewoman who harbors an innate sense of etiquette and kindness that has a salutary effect on Shannon but raises the hackles of a jealous Maxine. And to play the film's expanded role of Charlotte Goodall, the teenaged sexpot whose relentless pursuit of Shannon precipitates his night of undoing, Huston picked 17 year-old Sue Lyons, fresh from playing the title role in the sexually oriented movie, Lolita.

The decision to film Iguana in Mexico was in keeping with Huston's preference for making movies on location. 'The location, just like an actor,' Huston explained, 'gives something to the picture, you know, envelops it in an atmosphere.'

For the actors, that was all well and good if the locations were in such exotic places like Rome or Paris. But in Mexico? 'Williams had set his play in Acapulco,' Gardner drolly recounted,' but God forbid that John, whose motto clearly was, 'Do things the hard way whenever possible,' should even consider filming there. Instead he hit on the idea of Puerto Vallarta, a remote spot on the Pacific coast of Mexico that had been called the most unlikely resort this side of the Hindu Kush. There were no roads into the town, no telephones either, and both plumbing and electricity was decidedly erratic. When John told people, 'It's not at all like getting up in the morning and driving to MGM,' he was not kidding!

The director of photography was Gabriel Figueroa, a legendary pioneer in motion pictures during Mexico's golden era of film. Huston chose and depended on his technicians just as he did his actors. 'The cameraman is, of course, cast for the picture just the same as an actor would be,' said Huston. 'You decide what you want on the screen and then go to the right man for that.' Figueroa's wonderful cinematography earned him an Academy Award nomination.

Never before, or perhaps since, had such an eclectic and combustible mix of talented personalities been assembled to make a movie, 'one of the most publicized pictures of its time,' claimed Ray Stark.

In addition to the prestigious cast and crewmembers, an equally renowned entourage of high-powered celebrities was encamped during the filming. Mega movie star Elizabeth Taylor, who happened to be in the midst of a torrid, scandalous affair with Burton, accompanied her soon-to-he fifth husband for the duration of the shoot. The strange and brilliant Tennessee Williams was also present, as was the fun-loving, pistol packing Mexican director-actor Emilio Fernandez, who had a tendency, according to Huston, to shoot people he didn't like. And there were various current and ex-lovers at hand that fueled the celebrity name and tropical intrigue. From late September through early December in 1963 the small village of Puerto Vallarta was deluged with hundreds of media and paparazzi from around the world, eager to report on the expected ruckus.

As it turned out, the entire cast got along remarkably well. According to Huston, the production went 'as smooth as silk.' He added, 'The press gathered down there expecting something to happen with all these volatile personalities being there. They felt the lid would blow off and there would be fireworks. When there weren't any, they were reduced to writing about Puerto Vallarta. And, I'm afraid, that was the beginning of its popularity, which was a mixed blessing.'.

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