A timeless classic directed and co-written by John Houston from another great stage play by Tennessee Williams. Anthony Veiller was Houston’s co-writer. An unqualified 10 out of 10 despite the fact that it won no Oscars except for the “Best Costume Design, Black-and-White” for Dorothy Jeakins. Good for Jeakins. But the absence of Oscars for this film in the “Best Acting,” “Best Writing” and “Best Directing” categories is nothing short of a joke for the rest of us movie fans.
I’m aware that it is not polite to watch movies for “messages.” (“Use the Western Union instead!” as the old joke goes.)
But I still think this one has a very clear “core concept” which is expressed by Deborah Kerr (playing Hannah Jelkes, a sensitive painter travelling the world with her poet grandfather and earning whatever she can by doing quick live sketches) towards the end of the Second Act:
“Acceptance of life is surely the first requisite of living it.”
The volatile trio of Richard Burton (Rev. Dr. T. Lawrence Shannon), Deborah Kerr and Ava Gardner (Maxine Faulk) weave fiber by fiber this very humane and touching story of the fall and redemption of an Episcopalian pastor, of his desperate struggle to save his soul and find some solace other than alcohol.
By peeling off one layer of a man’s soul after another, Tennessee Williams and John Houston treat us to the agony of Rev. Dr. T. Lawrence Shannon, a man caught in between the strict demands of his vocation as a man of God and the temptations of his flesh and mind as just an average creation of the same power. His unexpected deliverance is provided by Hannah Jelkes and Maxine Faulk whom he tries to control like all the others but fails — for his own good.
The movie starts off with the motif of “captivity” at all levels. Parishioners are imprisoned by their blindness and rigidity. Rev. Shannon imprisoned by his own volcanic desires and disillusionment with his parish. And a wild iguana is forced to live a captive life, tethered to a wooden deck by the tight rope around its neck.
When that “night of the iguana” is over, they are all freed from their leashes and fears and limitations, including the iguana. That’s the kind of life-altering night Tennessee Williams has brought to life for us. It is still jolting and liberating 42 years after the movie was released.
The story, at a “realistic” level (one of the two levels of existence brought up in the film), is not complicated at all. It is at the other and “fantastic” level that its time-release magic slowly unfolds like an intoxicating rose.
Rev. Shannon loses his job after accusing his parishioners with insincerity and shallowness and chasing them out of his church.
A few years later we see him as a tour guide down in Puerta Vallarta, Mexico, taking a group of elderly ladies on a sightseeing tour, to show them the “wonders of God” as explained by a “man of God.” However, he certainly is not fond of the open advances of one of the tour participants, the 17 year old Charlotte Goodall. That’s after all how he got into trouble back home when another young amorous parishioner visited him at his church office. Although the Reverend first suggested they pray together by kneeling down, it soon led to other things that ended his church career.
The Reverend Shannon does whatever her can to keep Charlotte at an arms distance but she is the spoiled daughter of a very successful and rich man and she won’t take no for an answer. As she pushes herself on the alcoholic Shannon, her secret admirer and tour leader Judith Fellowes (played like a hot knife through butter by Grayson Hall) throws a jealous fit and makes life sheer misery for the vulnerable Shannon.
Shannon is still trying to put his life together although he is firmly on the bottle, His internal circuitry is just too damaged to bear the high voltage of Fellowes’s cruel attacks — she threatens to have him arrested for “seducing a minor” as soon as they return to the USA. Unable to face the reality of her own attraction to the “pretty dove” Charlotte, Fellowes promises to destroy Shannon’s second career and livelihood and looks like she is capable of carrying out her threat.
To make sure no such career-altering development takes place, Shannon hijacks the whole group to a mountain top vacation resort run by his old flame Maxine Faulk (Ava Gardner) who is a diamond in the rough, a vivacious woman with a coarse exterior but a lonely interior landscape. By stealing the distributor cap of the bus, he makes sure they won’t be able to turn back but stay there with him for a while until perhaps Fellowes’s ire is diminished to a more manageable level.
Shortly after, the group is joined by a travelling sketch artist Hannah Jelkes (Deborah Kerr) and her wheelchair-bound poet grandfather. They provide the gentle but solid ballast to balance the mercurial outbursts of Rev. Shannon and the equally explosive Faulk.
The decisive scene arrives in the Second Act when Rev. Shannon is hog-tied to a hammock to help him overcome his alcohol withdrawal symptoms. Playing his redeeming angel, Hannah helps Shannon exorcise his devils by giving him an unforgettable lesson about love.
The scene starts with Rev. Shannon, very sure of the superiority of his own life exploits and experiences and still struggling to free himself from his hammock-jail, asks Hannah if she had ever in her life had any kind of love affair.
“Two,” she admits, to Shannon’s surprise, and proceeds to recount the story of her two experiences both of which do not even remotely resemble what the earthy Shannon would normally define as a “love affair.”
In her first “love experience” Hannah was only sixteen. When a young man pressed his knee against hers in a Nantucket movie theater she screamed aloud and had the young man arrested. Later, she regretted and took her complaint back and said that since it was a Greta Garbo movie she was just “excited” and that’s why she overreacted and created such a scene.
Her second “love affair,” which took place only 4 years earlier, is even more curious an episode. An Aussie underwear salesman whose sketch she drew at a Hong Kong hotel, asked her to join him for a ride in a sampan. She accepted the offer because he was such a gentle man and he tipped her very well for the sketch. In the boat the Aussie salesman got “more agitated” and asked her if she would do him a favor. He said he would turn his back to her if she would hand him her articles of clothing, which Hannah did.
At this point Shannon asks her what the salesman did with her clothing. Hannah says she has no idea because she also turned her back to him. And that was that. The end of the story.
Rev. Shannon is flabbergasted one more time, And here follows their unforgettable exchange:
Rev. Shannon: “And that experience, you call it a…”
Hannah: “Love experience. Yes I do Mr. Shannon.”
Rev. Shannon: “That sad little dirty little episode, you call a …”
Hannah: “Sad, it certainly was for the poor little man but why you call it dirty?”
Rev. Shannon: “You mean you weren’t disgusted by it?”
Hannah: “Nothing human disgusts me Mr. Shannon unless is is unkind or violent. And I told you how gentle he was. Apologetic. Shy. Really, very, well… delicate about it.”
Then she cuts him loose, telling him that by listening to her story he is now “exorcised” from all the agitation in his heart. Why? Because now he is in a frame of mind where he is not just reacting to life but also accepting it. And she delivers yet another unforgettable line: “Acceptance of life is surely the first requisite of living it.”
Another development — Hannah’s grandfather dies after composing his best poem ever on the “night of the iguana.”
The next day, the group of traveling ladies leave Shannon with Faulk who offers him the management of the resort and the restaurant since she is so sick and tired of running the whole show on her own. For the first time she is enjoying the freedom of letting go of her control on her own affairs and livelihood and sharing it all with someone she loves. Besides, the presence of a man will help her business by making it attractive for female tourists, she figures.
Hannah is made the same offer but she prefers to move as the independent spirit that she is. She has liberated Shannon from his own devastating bonds, and her work is done. She moves on like the summer wind, with her drawing pad under her arm. We are pretty sure “the elements” will take care of her.
The last scene shows Shannon and Faulk resolving to start a new life together at the resort, hopefully a new life propelled with self-understanding, graced by tolerance, and illuminated with truth, a life of liberation where even the iguanas live free.
A must see for all movie lovers. It should be an indispensable item on every cinema fan’s “school curriculum.”