Movie Review: Night of the Iguana (1964)

Tennessee Williams’ finest? ___ 10/10
Review by Brian Wright

Night of the IguanaHannah Jelkes: Who wouldn’t like to atone for the sins of themselves, and the world, if it could be done in a hammock with ropes, instead of on a Cross, with nails? On a green hilltop, instead of Golgotha, the Place of the Skulls? Isn’t that a comparatively comfortable, almost voluptuous Crucifixion to suffer for the sins of the world, Mr. Shannon?

Hannah Jelkes: Nothing human disgusts me, Mr. Shannon, unless it’s unkind or violent.

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Hannah Jelkes: Acceptance of life is the first lesson in living it.

Mr. Shannon
: You still unsure about God?
Hannah Jelkes: Let’s say, I’m not as unsure as I used to be.

: [After encouragement by Hannah, who wants him to let the iguana go.] I just cut loose one of God’s creatures from the end of its rope.

Directed by John Huston
Written by Tennessee Williams
Screenplay by Anthony Veiller

Richard Burton … Rev. Dr. T. Lawrence Shannon
Ava Gardner … Maxine Faulk
Deborah Kerr … Hannah Jelkes
Sue Lyon … Charlotte Goodall
Skip Ward … Hank Prosner (as James Ward)
Grayson Hall … Judith Fellowes
Cyril Delevanti … Nonno

Night of the Iguana has to be Tennessee Williams’ all time favorite labor of love. Though I’m no authority on the playwright’s body of work, it has always seemed, through many of his film adaptations, that his characters—particularly his women—endure far more angst and depression than necessary or commonplace. What films have I seen?

  • A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)—The ultimate T. Williams vehicle, story of faded beauty Blanche Dubois (Vivien Leigh) and the kindnesses of strangers it elicits. She moves in with her ‘commoner’ sister Stella in New Orleans and has to contend with Stella’s brutish—albeit almost heroically practical—husband Stanley and other men.
  • Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)—with Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman. Newman is the son of a tyrannical Southern would-be tycoon, played by Burl Ives, who struts and pontificates about how worthless his son is. Notable for Newman’s ‘Brick’ resisting the affections of Taylor’s ‘Maggie.’
  • Period of Adjustment (1962)—starring Jane Fonda and Jim Hutton. Story of young marrieds, which turns into a sexist, misogynistic rampage by the Hutton character. You root for the Jane Fonda person, suffering needlessly and virtually endlessly.
  • Sweet Bird of Youth (1962)—Another Paul Newman role, where he plays drifter Chance, coming back to his hometown with a faded movie star Alexandra (Geraldine Page); the object of Chance’s affection is Heavenly Finley (Shirley Knight) whose father is the town business monopolist (Ed Begley). Whole lotta drama goin’ on here. Heavenly, as I recall, steps in and saves the man.

So I’ve seen some other major films Williams is known for, and they’re great films, displaying genuine sensitivity to the human condition. If I could name a general leitmotif of a Tennessee Williams’ writing, it would be ‘the social conventions we embrace seldom help—indeed, they hinder—us from resolving the substantial curve balls life throws our way… particularly those mores regarding the relationships between men and women, and family.’ To continue: ‘But a few real people exist who are kind and caring—often defying the conventions—who with the simple, authentic joys available to humankind, do make the ride of life worth the price of a ticket.’

Rev. Lawrence Shannon (Richard Burton) is given to defying conventions, mainly the one that states a man and a woman should not have carnal knowledge of each other outside of matrimony. Actually, Rev. Shannon is given more to yielding to temptations (and his strong sexual urges) along these lines, rather than defying the conventions directly. He loses his church back east, kicks around with other flocks, then winds up in Texas as a barely ordained minister-cum-tour guide for group excursions. This particular tour takes some ‘church ladies’ from San Antonio into Mexico, Puerto Vallarta.

One of the more loudly sanctimonious ladies on the bus, Judith Fellowes, has brought her beautiful, ripe young niece Charlotte (Sue Lyon) along. Doesn’t seem plausible, but it does further the plot insofar as Shannon’s weaknesses are concerned. He does his best to stave off Charlotte’s PDAs[1] and touch-me overtures, especially because Church Lady Judy will report him and he’ll lose this last crummy job he’s grasping onto. In Puerto Vallarta, Shannon, in a panic, decides to deviate the trip from its itinerary and crash the off-main-street resort lodge owned by his favorite adventure couple, the Faulks. Maxine (Ava Gardner), now a widow, is lustfully happy to see him. Doesn’t want the church-lady entourage, but relents.

The ladies reluctantly climb the rocky steps to their unplanned lodge, and Shannon wonders what he’ll do next. And then… and then… along comes Hannah. I’d seen this movie when it came out; I’m 15 in 1964, and I recognized its ‘art film’ qualities: black and white, conversational, about sex and relationships. Also, that Richard Burton was in it and he was a famous actor. That’s about it. So watching it the other night, the next big scene comes as a complete new thing: Wandering artist Hannah Jelkes (Deborah Kerr) and her grandfather poet emerge to the lodge patio. From that point on, the story belongs to this unexpected spiritual teacher.

The Hannah character overwhelms. You can see it in her quotes above, but there’s so much more: how she makes her living, her:

  • subtle kindnesses and awarenesses of kindnesses
  • Zen grasp of life and what matters, acceptance, Being
  • esthetic ideals and the role of her grandfather-poet in life
  • nod to Shannon’s understanding, ‘man’s inhumanity to God’
  • awareness of Shannon’s addictions and his redemption

Believe it sports fans, you’ll never see another character in movies like the amazing Hannah Jelkes. She’s a female Jesus and the Buddha rolled into one; people can construct entire spiritual philosophies from her sequences. Or I can. Seriously, Deborah Kerr’s role is perhaps, in film history, the most salient general teaching on the meaning of life. And guess what? Only 20% of her insights are recorded on the IMDb quote page. They’re so exceptional I’m going to buy the movie.

So major treat in store for those questing for enlightenment: the character Hannah. Other features: Ava Gardner plays a brave role as a woman falling to the dim side of appeal to men, just as her femme fatale star was dimming in 1960s Hollywood. Burton is fantastic, playing his part with uncharacteristic humor and nerve; he, too, like Hannah, has a special sensitivity to the universe, only his is buried under an addictive haze. He expresses the theme of the movie best, as he frees Maxine’s iguana: “I just cut loose one of God’s creatures from the end of its rope.” Did Hannah do the same for him? Absolutely one of the best creations ever. Huston’s direction is transcendent.

[1] PDA = public display of affection

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