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The Rev. T. Lawrence Shannon has been living in Mexico for two years, working as a tourist guide for a cut-rate travel agency. Shannon lost his church and was defrocked after taking liberties with one of his parishioners. He's now accompanying a group of middle-aged ladies from Texas whose leader, Judith Fellowes, is keeping a close eye on her teenage ward, Charlotte Goodall, who definitely has an interest in the former priest. After Charlotte and Shannon spend the night together, Fellowes is out to have him fired and to keep her from communicating with his employer, Shannon strands them at a remote hotel run by his good friend Maxine Faulk. It's the arrival of Hannah Jelkes and her elderly grandfather that has the greatest impact however. Her approach to life and love forces Shannon to deal with his demons and re-evaluate his life. Written by
Star Actors at Their Peak Inhabiting Tennessee Williams at His Most Flamboyant in a Rundown Mexican Resort
Flamboyantly flawed characters are Tennessee Williams' oeuvre, and I doubt if any of his plays has more of them wallowing in their debilitated states of psychological disrepair than "The Night of the Iguana". This richly acted 1964 adaptation directed by the estimable John Huston has its share of excesses, veering wildly from melodrama to black comedy, but they are all for the sake of illustrating Williams' broader themes of alienation and redemption while screenwriter Anthony Veiller stays true to the playwright's Baroque flourishes.
The protagonist is Reverend Dr. T. Lawrence Shannon, defrocked from his church in Virginia for an indiscretion with a young girl. He desperately takes a job as a tour guide for a group of spinster teachers from Texas headed by the belligerent Miss Fellowes. Vacationing in Puerto Vallarta, they end up shanghaied by Shannon to a dilapidated beach resort run by his old friend and lover, the hedonistic slattern Maxine Faulk. Enter a caricature artist named Hannah Jelkes and her poet grandfather, penniless travelers who find themselves drawn by fate to the resort. Complicating matters among the tour group is a nubile blonde named Charlotte, as she tempts Shannon to repeat his previous misdeeds. His unrepentant desires all come to a head when Hannah and Maxine tie him to a hammock, and a series of cathartic moments occur among the principals.
Richard Burton is ideally cast as Shannon, as he seizes the screen with his Shakespearean voice and increasingly manic behavior. With her trademark gentility, Deborah Kerr brings a curious mix of hucksterism and guile to Hannah, but it's Ava Gardner who gives her career-best performance as Maxine - brash, funny and undeniably sexy surrounded by her maraca-shaking beach boys. Having just read Lee Server's illuminating biography of the tempestuous star, I get the strong impression that the character mirrors Gardner's real-life persona to a T. The last act, which highlights the thematic dynamics represented by Shannon, Hannah and Maxine, shows the actors in peak form. Sue Lyon plays Charlotte in her most appropriate post-Lolita manner, and Grayson Hall does her best to avoid the gargoyle-like caricature that Miss Fellowes represents. The one casting flaw is the wooden Skip Ward, a Troy Donahue look-alike, as the tour group assistant.
Better than what he did with Arthur Miller's "The Misfits" three years earlier, Huston does an impressive job balancing all the disparate elements without falling into the trap of making it too campy, even if the chorus-like beach boys do seem silly in hindsight. Gabriel Figueroa's crisp black-and-white photography is effective, though it is the one Tennessee Williams-related work that I wish took advantage of the colorful flora and fauna of the area. The 2006 DVD offers a couple of worthwhile extras - a vintage short, "On the Trail of the Iguana", which has interviews with cast and crew and give a sense of the paparazzi blitzkrieg surrounding the stars, especially Burton who was then living with Elizabeth Taylor before her divorce from Eddie Fisher was final; and a recent, more academic featurette, "Huston's Gamble" with comments from film historians on the movie's impact.
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