Night of the Iguana, The (1964): John Huston’s Brilliant Adaptation of Tennessee Williams, Starring Richard Burton, Deborah Kerr and Ava Gardner in Top Form

Tennessee Williams experienced his peak as a dramatist in the late 1940s, but the heyday of the movies based on his plays was in the 1950s with such works as “A Streetcar Named Desire” in 1951, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” in 1958, and “Suddenly Last Summer,” in 1959.

Grade: A- (**** out of *****)

The Night of the Iguana
The Night of the Iguana poster.jpg

Theatrical release poster by Howard Terpning

The only Williams-based movie which was a commercial success in the 1960s was John Huston’s version of The Night of the Iguana, which grossed in domestic rentals about $5 million, or $12 million in box-office receipts.

This was largely due to the prestige of the play, which had won the 1962 New York Drama Critics Award, and the film’s high-profile cast, headed by Richard Burton, Deborah Kerr, Ava Gardner, and Sue Lyon right after her scandalous performance in Kubrick’s “Lolita,” all in top form.

Williams’ signature themes, homosexuality, alcoholism, love and lust, fantasy and reality, define this work as well. Williams uses captured iguanas as symbols of human beings that are tormented (consciously and unconsciously) by fate or by design. The iguanas are also creatures that look nastier and crueler than they really are. In the movie, Iguanas seem to be constantly running for their lives, or having their lives obliterated on the nearby highway.

The Mexican lizards seem to be appropriate company for the movie’s cast of misfits.

Richard Burton Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon, a defrocked alcoholic clergyman, who arrives at a Mexican resort with a busload of teacher tourists (mostly pathetic women) for whom he is serving as a guide. Deborah Kerr is an eccentric sketch artist and indomitable spinster Hannah Jelkes. Ava Gardner playing the role that Bette Davis had done on stage, is the free-spirited hotel proprietress, surrounded by local muscle boys as sexual companions.

Charlotte Goodball (Sue Lyon), the youngest member of the group, finds Shannon attractive, so he squires her to his shabby hotel room. Unfortunately, they are caught by Judith Fellowes (Grayson Hall), an older, bitter woman, who threatens to get him fired for his dalliance with Charlotte. It’s never entirely clear whether Judith’s anger derives from jealousy of the relationship between Charlotte and Shannon, or from her attraction to the young teacher.

The group is supposed to be quartered in a fancy guest house but instead is placed in a shabby place owned by Maxine, an old friend of Shannon’s who has recently become a widow and now throws herself into sexual affairs and wild nocturnal swims with the local boys. The teachers, of course, complain, but they are stranded while Shannon tinkers with their bus, which forces them to remain longer at the seedy hotel. Burton falls ill with fever and tells Maxine that Hall means to have him fired, so Gardner won’t let Hall use the phone to call his supervisors.

Meanwhile, the fledgling artist Hannah, travels with her grandfather Delevanti (Nonno), a poor poet. The odd couple has been working their way across Mexico by selling Hanna’s sketches and arranging readings by Delevanti; by they time they arrive at the hotel, they are completely broke.

In the end, Ward, the tour’s driver, becomes Lyon’s suitor, and after repairing the bus, he leaves as the tour leader along with the teachers. The central characters remain at the place and the dramatic conflicts among them intensify. Maxine still loves Shannon but realizes that his life might be better off with a woman like Hannah. Meanwhile Delavanti, who has been working on the same poem for 20 years, finishes it and dies. Hannah leaves after burying her grandfather, and Shannon and Maxine stay on at the hostelry as the film ends on a rather ambiguous note.

The thematic thread in most of Williams’s movies is perhaps best expressed by Hannah, when she says: “Nothing human disgusts me, Mr. Shannon, unless it is unkind or violent.”

The movie opened to lukewarm and mixed notices. The New York Times Bosley Crowther complained about the film’s “difficulty in communicating what is so barren and poignant about the people and lacking the power of showing what is so helpless and hopeless about them. The New Yorker critic Pauline Kael noted that John Huston brought some “coarse melodramatic vitality” to the play, but “whatever poetry it had seems to have leaked out.”

Grayson Hall is outstanding as the angry repressed lesbian guardian of the young Sue Lyon, who played another Lolita-like role. But it’s Gardner’s sweetly lustful innkeeper who steals the movie. “Even I know the difference between lovin’ somebody and just going to bed with him,” she tells Hannah.

The location shoot at Puerto Vallarta became an object of international gossip, when Liz Taylor, madly in love with Burton, arrived to make sure that he doesn’t fool around with Ava Gardner. For her part, Gardner spent her time driving a sports car wildly through the surf along the beach. Reportedly, Huston offered weapons for his actors with which to protect themselves from unknown dangers.

Commercial Appeal:

Made on a budget of $3 million, the movie was well received by critics and performed impressively at the box-office, earning $12,000,000.

Lines to remember:

Hannah Jelkes: There are worse things than chastity, Mr. Shannon.”

Oscar Nominations

Supporting Actress: Grayson Hall
Cinematography (b/w): Gabriel Figueroa
Art Direction-Set Decoration (b/w): Stephen Grimes
Costume Design (b/w): Dorothy Jeakins

Oscar Awards: 1

Costume design

Oscar Context:

Richard Burton was not Oscar-nominated for this picture, but received a nomination for playing the title role in “Becket,” co-starring Peter O’Toole. The supporting actress winner was Lila Kedrova for Michael Cacoyannis’ comedy, “Zorba the Greek,” which also won b/w cinematography for Ewalter Lassally and art direction for Vassilis Fotopoulos. This is the only Oscar nomination for Figueroa, the acclaimed Mexican lenser who studied with Gregg Toland and is best known for his work with director Luis Bunuel.


Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon (Richard Burton)
Hannah Jelkes (Deborah Kerr)
Maxine Faulk (Ava Gardner)
Charlotte Goodball (Sue Lyon)
Hank Prosner (James Ward)
Judith Fellowes (Grayson Hall)
Cyril Delevanti (Nonno)
Miss Peebles (Marty Boylan)
Miss Dexter (Gladys Hill)
Miss Throxton (Billie Mattics)


Directed by John Huston
Produced by John Huston and Ray Stark
Written by John Huston and Anthony Veiller, based on The Night of the Iguana 1961 play by Tennessee Williams
Music by Benjamin Frankel
Cinematography Gabriel Figueroa

Production company: Seven Arts Productions

Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Release date: August 6, 1964

Running time: 125 minutes