My birthday wish to Tennessee Williams
Yesterday, between work appointments, I watched "The Night of the Iguana," my two dollar birthday wish to playwright Tennessee Williams on what would have been his 100th birthday.
Based on Williams' 1961 play (which was itself based on his 1948 short story), the film focuses on the breakdown of Episcopal minister T. Lawrence Shannon (Richard Burton) and his relationship with three different women (Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr and Sue "Lolita" Lyon) over one long night at a cheap Mexican hotel. It's a heck of a picture, also starring Grayson Hall, who was nominated for an Academy Award for her portrayal of a sexually frustrated Baptist school vocal teacher.
Gardner is her usual sexy self. Hall gives the performance of her career. Lyon exudes sex appeal, maybe more so (and less creepily) than she did in "Lolita."
Kerr steals the picture with her quiet, dignified portrayal of the chaste artist Hannah Jelkes. Cyril Delevanti gives a meaningful turn as Nonno, Hannah's grandfather poet, who delivers the film's denouement with the reading of his final poem.
Burton's performance is more complicated, more difficult to critique. It's good -- not great -- but a bit overdone, almost distracted. That might be because his real-life lover and future wife, Elizabeth Taylor (who passed away last week), visited him on the set in Mexico -- while she was still married to Eddie Fisher. The paparazzi followed.
So, too, came Williams himself. Rather than causing a distraction to director John Huston, Williams made himself useful, rewriting part of the script that wasn't working. According to film historian Lawrence Grobel, Huston thought that what Williams created, the scene between Burton and Lyon in his hotel room involving the broken glass, "was genius" -- and went with it.
Williams has a connection to Knoxville. In his column this week, Jack Neely tells you all about it, about Williams' father's funeral, and about the playwright's meeting with the writer David Madden at the Andrew Johnson Hotel.
"The Night of the Iguana" doesn't get the attention that other Williams works, say "A Streetcar Named Desire" or "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," receive. Maybe it's because it's not as good a play.
But, it's a heck of a movie, one to see. I liked it much better than the film adaptation of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."
Williams biographer Donald Spoto says "The Night of the Iguana" is "a film that is unashamed to be a meditation on human need, and human frailty, and enduring a dark night. And all we have in this dark night, by God's grace, the great thing we have, is one another."