There's movies about drunks made by sober folks for sober folks (i.e. Days of Wine and Roses) and then there's movies about drunks made by drunks for drunks, such as NIGHT OF THE IGUANA. It's directed by John "drunk in Mexico" Huston, written by Tennessee "alcoholic beachboy junky" Williams, and stars Richard "King Drunkus" Burton. Whether snoring through high-steppin' crap like EXORCIST 2: THE HERETIC or THE MEDUSA TOUCH, chewing the scenery to pulp in stuff like DR. FAUSTUS and BOOM! or--in very rare in between moments of clarity--acting, Burton was always one drink ahead of his slur; a surfer sliding and laughing down the tube as lightweights collapsed in his wake.
I don't like to regale you with too many personal anecdotes, but when dealing with my all-time favorite films I find it helps show you where I'm coming from; the impossibility of being objective, etc., so let me tell you a story that mirrors Rev. Shannon's own, a story that takes me back twenty years:
I'd graduated college in Syracuse, NY where I'd been in a popular rock band, moved to Seattle with my hot girlfriend; wound up in a Hendrix cover band until the Hendrix got arrested and I wouldn't co-sign his bond and put up my car as collateral; became a hopeless drunk with no friends, listening to old scratchy blues LPs, taping old WC Fields and Jack Hill movies rented from Scarecrow Video, and drinking whiskey while the endless rains fell on our U-district one bedroom apartment's flat-top roof; my hot girlfriend became disenchanted--gaggles of long-haired dudes from the Blue Moon Saloon eyed my spot... I said go for it brothers and left Seattle to boomerang home to regroup and drink free. Shrooming all the way across route 90, I hit Syracuse along the way, right in time for the hardcore psychedelic revels that marked the end of the semester/earth day, an annual block party sloppy-drunk revelry. Crashing with myriad yet-to-graduate friends and bandmates, I was out of the band but still invited onstage to sing "Sweet Jane" and improvise weird lyrics to "Mannish Boy." I may have been nothing but a cut-rate Noel Redding in Seattle, but in Syracuse I was a lizard king-ish icon. Free at last, girls literally standing in line to welcome me back and confess their crushes and compassion for my loss of a girlfriend, my head full of cocky entitlement and psilocybe, it was already the happiest two weeks of my life.
But the parents came, the students left, and finally, the last person I knew had left for home. Still glowing, I finally returned to New Jersey and the Kuersten family tract; in debt and alone and a week late. My mom started right in lecturing and a man had been waiting there, in the kitchen, to give me a urine test for life insurance - he'd been waiting an hour! No one had even told me! So I went from living the "lush life" as king of the world, to making vague excuses why I couldn't give a urine sample -- all in a matter of four hours drive-time.
That night I lay in my crappy little twin bed, alone. Pillow wet with tears, I was too young to understand that going from universal adulation to hostile indifference in one day would dampen near anyone's spirits. I felt the full weight of my Seattle failure, the shame of being a 'boomerang child' an in those days it was still not cool for dudes to cry and mope. We were supposed to man up, tie our ties and take temp agency typing tests every day until we died, in Jersey.
I was so sad I couldn't sleep. So I waited until I could hear the snores of my parents in the next room.... slowly I crept downstairs to see if I could perhaps find solace in TV and the parental liquor cabinet.
Suddenly out of the fog of paid programming what should appear on TNT but Richard Burton, in color (it was on TNT, colorized), fending off Sue Lyon's irresistible advances down in Mexico and basically giving voice to all my miserable woe right there on the spot. The rum hit me like a warm hug right as I saw Burton's face and recognized "Lolita." I was going to be all right!
I rushed to tape it, missed about the first twenty minutes, realized it was playing again the following night so I could tape the whole thing. Thank you, God! Thank you, Richard Burton! Thank you, John Huston! Thank you, Tennessee Williams! And of course, thank you, Sue Lyon and all the other irresistible women that Burton deals with in the film: thank you, tangle of closeted lesbian cock-blockers, nymphs, sexually active widows and middle-aged virgin quick-sketch artists with your tins of opium poppy tea!
I'd avoided the film prior to this moment because of childhood resentments against the "Iguana" in the title. What monster-loving child expecting giant iguana attacks wants to see "alcoholic priests dealing with various women in Mexico"?
Some people don't like this film for other reasons than its lack of rampaging giant iguanas. They see Reverend Lawrence T. Shannon as too passive, letting himself by fought over, pursued and pushed this way and that by various ladies, including Lolita's butch guardian, Miss Fellowes (Grayson Hall). To them he's little more than rag doll flopping in one pair of jaws after another, barely able to choose or fight back, unwilling to sober up and escape. trying to swim out to his death the minute he doesn't get his own way. Yeah, but can I suggest that if you hate him because of that, well, maybe you wish some girls would fight over you while you laid back in a similar rag doll fashion?
I've been that rag doll, and can vouch for Shannon's realism. As the very great and wasted Joe Walsh once wrote: "It's hard to leave when you can't find the door." And so when a ride shows up you nearly always say yes, wherever it's going. The only way out of a bad relationship, then, is when some woman bothers to scoop you up and steal you away from the one you're with. Whatever the new temptation is, you take it. The alternative is an ever-tightening noose of co-dependence as your last temptation slowly ages into a death trap. When things get too tight, it's time to change nooses.
You know the score, dear reader, everyone has had their May 1990, that shining moment when more than one person is fighting to take you home to their place and you just soak it all up and let them fight it out, and then, in the end, you can only go home with one of them. You can't decide which to pick, and anyway, the party is in full swing! Who wants to go home at all? So you stay, drink more, and then around dawn, you realize you are alone, both options are gone, the person you've been talking to for the last hour is just a house plant in front of a Marilyn Monroe poster... you stagger to bed and wake up the next afternoon and its sadder than if nothing ever happened.
There are critics who also dismiss Iguana as being talky and grandiose, but you have to understand the mindset: if you're a talky, grandiose drunk with the worried realization that you've already had your glory days, and if you keep photos of ex lovers in secret drawers, and notebooks of slurred poetry and tear-stained letters you'll never send to the only girls you'll ever love while trapped in a pre-internet suburbia NJ hell, then Night of the Iguana is your movie.
Few things are more boring than a sane artist. And of course, academia and the bourgeoisie are flooded with them, and they will always suck. If you're not down there in the sludgy flooded basement of your inner mansion, digging for monsters and jellyfish and risking being sucked under by ego or illusion, then what are ya? In the living room having tea? A spot o' tea, guvna?
The sane artists are willfully ignorant of said basement; they prefer to convince the bourgeois grant-giving foundations to vote no on funding basement art -- just try to lead one of these sane artists down the stairs and just see how they fight to get back up, screaming in litigious terror. Then there are the ones with completely clean basements, they have nothing left to dig for and so their writing moves from "fiction" or "non-fiction" into "spirituality" or "Self-help."
Fame is the main thing, then, that makes mundane formalist status quo keepers out of once visionary artists. Rather than prizing process all else, these newly famous artists fall prey to to the addictive craving of attention, success, making it big, and letting it go to their head. While self-aggrandizing is a necessary thing for some artists to overcome blocks with, eventually old Ego--a "too much thing" according to the Manson song--chokes all the pipes and the bullshit starts to rise and rise; coprophiliac sycophants gather like hyenas in some mad night club nature show; the first line you cross is free but the costs rise until suddenly the limelight isn't over your head anymore, it's below your feet and all you're left with is a stamp on the back of your hand, now slowly washing away in the early morning rain.
The summary of Iguana's own plot is a great example of the has-beenophobic male as well: right at the beginning Lawrence T. Shannon is derided by his pinch-faced congregation, for "praying" with one of his more attractive young (female) parishioners. We never see this girl but when we next find Shannon, he's acting as a Mexican tour guide, showing old church ladies around, trying to stay awake or semi-sober as best he can. Complicating matters is Charlotte (Sue Lyon), as a wanton nymph under the care of Ms. Fellowes, a lady so misandric she could go toe-to-toe with Mercedes McCambridge in JOHNNY GUITAR.
Charlotte is madly in love with Shannon, promising him a job at her father's church and completely deluded and swept away on a girlish infatuation born of boredom. Shannon's conscience is so strict about messing around with an under-age girl that he has no choice but to drink said conscience clean into oblivion. Fellowes catches them one too many times in a clinch and threatens to have him fired from Blake's Tours. Shannon strands the tour bus near his old drinking grounds, a suite of bungalows high in the hills run by yet another hot-to-go girl with an eye for defrocked Welsh priests (Ava Gardner). Brother, the heat is on! Literally as the hill is super steep and the sun hot enough to fry the minds of some of the older ladies in the congregation.
Shit, man... and to see it all in color the first time was really nice. The TNT folks did a fine job. You can practically smell the coco de oro in the air. The black and white version is the original--the real one, I saw only much later with the arrival of the DVD, for some reason it just doesn't feel the same.
There's great anecdotes about the film, such as from Ava Gardner's autobiography (she remembers that Huston and Burton insisted there be a bar at both the bottom and top of the hill during shooting); or Sue Lyon's remembrance that she could smell the booze oozing out of Burton's pores during their intimate scenes together. Maybe that's what interests me now that I'm sober. In black and white the film seems too polished and "classic" - maybe it needs colorization; maybe it needs you, dear reader, to plunge into the cold water of direct experience before trundling back to pass out on the shore in the hot yellow sands below Ava's hillside retreat, exhausted and worn out, and ready for the nurturing succor of genius rationalizations, poetry on the edge of death, and Sue Lyon dancing in those short, hip-huggin' white shorts. Honey, have a heart! She does, Larry, she does.