John Huston’s 110th Birthday!

Night of the Iguana Set

Happy 110th birthday to one of my favorite directors, John Huston. Iconoclastic, eccentric, bold, dark, and occasionally hilarious – I have a soft-spot for his adventurous and subversive spirit.

This year I intend to celebrate by re-watching Night of the Iguana. It’s not everyone’s favorite Huston film, but it is definitely one of mine.

It’s right on the cusp of Old and New Hollywood. You might say the maverick Huston’s style (personal and cinematic) foreshadowed and influenced what was to come. But, if this film is any indication, I think he was already mourning the loss of Old Hollywood in 1964, or perhaps just the fading of his own youth, or maybe both.

In New Hollywood style, Night of the Iguana, is not shy about being a sex-centered story (based on a play by Tennessee Williams). I haven’t seen the Production Code Administration file on this one, but it must be a doozy (statutory rape, threesomes, lesbianism, and panty-sniffing all come up at some point)!! Its exotic location (Mismaloya, Mexico) functions like The Woods in this very adult fairy tale, allowing all sorts of secret fears and desires to surface.

It’s shot in stark, unsympathetic-as-nature-herself, black and white by the incomparable Gabriel Figueroa. It’s not flattering for the actors, but it is gorgeous and lush.

As you can see from the behind-the-scenes, the cast represented old and new Hollywood, with Sue Lyon, who was only 17, being the freshest face, fresh off Lolita. But lovely as she is, she is a villain here, and a shrill, spoiled, horrible one at that. I swear her audio is mixed louder than everyone else’s to make her that much more abrasive, poor kid. Gardner, Kerr, and Burton who could be said to represent the last generation of Classic Hollywood, all here play characters facing down middle age, including the second half of one’s sex life. Then there is Oscar-nominated Grayson Hall who is a startling match for Burton and not at all afraid to go large.

Oh yeah, and is it racist? Uh.. sort of… those the cabana boys! But it’s pretty self-reflexive – which is to say, the characters display racism, but we, the audience, glimpse that the locals are wiser than these American fools… not unlike Puck and Co. of the woods outside Athens, now that I think of it….

If time travel existed, I can think of several of Huston’s shoots that would be top on my destination list. This one would probably be #2 after The African Queen.

More off-the-beaten-track ideas for my Huston-a-thon viewing:

Beat the Devil (1953) – starring Bogart, Lorre, Jennifer Jones, & Gina Lollobrigida; with script by Truman Capote! Wacky and wry caper film, written and shot on the fly, and it shows!

Roots of Heaven (1958) – Erroll Flynn saves African elephants!

Wise Blood (1979) – Flannery O’Connor story… through the Huston looking glass, starring Brad Dourif

Under the Volcano (1984) – Starring Albert Finney, Jacqueline Bisset, and Katy Juardo. Again with haunting cinematography by Figueroa, this time in color. Day of the Dead on the eve of WWII, and Finney is an alcoholic British diplomat.

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