Monday, December 8, 2014

Reeling Backward: "The Night of the Iguana" (1964)

James Garner was offered the lead role in "The Night of the Iguana" but said it was "too Tennessee Williams for me." I understand what he was talking about.

Stage-to-screen translations are often handicapped from the get-go. There's the feeling of being severely bookended -- both with locations and the number of characters. It's OK for a play to stay stuck in one place with a handful of people for a couple of hours, but movies tend to get claustrophobic if they aren't on the move.

Then there's Williams himself, whose plays tended to focus on lost, pitiable souls who struggle to articulate their own despair. Sometimes the film versions, some of them scripted by Williams himself, soared on the strength of the cast and direction -- "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," "Streetcar Named Desire." But with "Iguana" it often feels like the story is caught in an eddy, swirling about itself without ever going anyway.

The main character, the Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon (Richard Burton), is a youngish man of the cloth whose ability to withstand temptations of the flesh is, shall we say, lacking. In the two decades since he was ordained he was without a parish to call his own for all but a single year, and his one stint as a pastor comes to a crashing end when he diddles with an underage girl of his flock. In the opening scene he suffers a near-breakdown from the pulpit, denouncing the worshipers for judging him, and literally chases them out of the church.

Flash to two years later, and Shannon is now working in Mexico as a guide for Blake Tours, a bargain-basement outfit catering to religious types. His current gig isn't going so well. As they pull into the coastal town of Puerto Vallarta -- a name made famous by this film; a statue of director John Huston still resides in the village square -- Shannon is being henpecked by Miss Fellowes, the domineering head of a group of Baptist women teachers.

Fellowes doesn't like Shannon because she senses the lecherous personality beneath Shannon's gentle facade. Her suspicions aren't unfounded -- her winsome teenage niece is played by Sue Lyon, who had the title role in "Lolita," and plays a similar part here as a teenage temptress. Shannon tries to hold off the girl's advances, but not very hard.

Fellowes is played by Grayson Hall, who earned an Oscar nomination for the role, though I find this style of screechy, google-eyed overacting hard to swallow. Late in the going it's suggested Miss Fellowes is a "butch" who secretly desires the girl for herself, though the harridan is too self-deluded to admit this to herself.

This is notable in of itself, to have a fairly overt reference to homosexuality in a mainstream 1964 film. There's also an explicit reference to smoking marijuana, though it's not depicted.

Anyway, Shannon's dalliance is discovered and Fellowes declares her intention to have him fired. So he hijacks the bus and takes them to the Costa Verde Hotel, a rundown little place up the beach run by an old friend of his, Fred. He confiscates the bus' distributor cap and dumps the old biddies there, since he thinks there is no phone and thus now way to contact his employer.

Alas, Fred has died, and one of his last acts was getting telephone lines run up the steep hill to the hotel. Shannon responds by getting good and drunk and waiting for the axe to fall.

The Costa Verde is now run by Maxine (Ava Gardner), Fred's widow, who is a real piece of work. She espouses a carefree attitude but has a short temper and plenty of vim left in her. An aging beauty, Maxine felt abandoned by her much-older husband the last few years, and took to openly consorting with her two cabana boys -- a pair of shirtless, perpetually smiling young studs who constantly hang around, rarely speaking, occasionally helping out the guests or the proprietress with luggage, or any other needs.

Maxine never wears any shoes or seems bothered by anything, but it soon becomes clear she's carried a torch for Shannon for a long time. She finds him pathetic but adorable, a man-boy who has regular crack-ups about twice a year, and clearly needs someone to look after him. And this is a woman who desperately needs some fun in her life.

Some unexpected competition for Shannon's attention arrives in the form of Hannah Jelkes (Deborah Kerr), an English portrait artist who travels the globe with her 97-year-old grandfather, whom she calls Nonno (Cyril Delevanti) and introduces as the world's oldest practicing poet.

Of course, it's been 20 years since Nonno last composed a poem, and the two are essentially well-bred vagabonds who fritter around, peddling their artistic services -- her portraits and his recitations -- in exchange for food and lodging.

If Maxine is a piece of work, then Miss Jelkes is an even odder bird. Her prim manners and reserved disposition resemble those of a missionary, and in some ways that is her role in the film -- to show up and minister to the troubled heathens. Jelkes has a very firm grip on who she is and what her shortcomings are, and seems not at all troubled by her current hardships.

"Nothing human disgusts me, Mr. Shannon, unless it’s unkind or violent," she says.

Things go on from there. Miss Fellowes and her flock of biddies, having successfully detached Shannon from Blake Tours, depart for more sightseeing, and we're left with Shannon, Maxine and Jelkes to figure out the dynamic between them. Jelkes offers counsel to the suicidal Shannon -- though, as Maxine correctly surmises, it's halfway playacting; the man has an inveterate theatricality about him.

There's some splendid acting in "The Night of the Iguana," particularly Kerr and Gardner. I found Burton to be a twitchy, sweaty mess, a whole lot of behavior substituting for a character.

Hanging around with this crew is like being trapped at an annoying party you can't leave. You might wander into a semi-interesting conversation or two, but in the end it feels like time wasted.

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