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Without John Huston’s 1963 film The Night of the Iguana, there would not exist today the gringo tourist mecca of Puerto Vallarta.

Before Huston & Co. arrived to transfer the prizewinning play of Tennessee Williams to the big screen, Puerto Vallarta was an unknown, “undiscovered” village just entering the age of electricity. As The Night of the Iguana became one of the most publicized film shoots in the history of the movies, the town was transformed from a sleepy backwater on the heat-plagued west coast of Mexico into one of the most attractive jetset destinations on the globe.

Ray Stark brought the Iguana property to Huston. The rookie producer had put but one film upon the screen when he acquired the rights to the play, believing it “would make a wonderful picture, especially in Mexico. John, of course, was the guru of Mexico. I just got him at a lucky time when he wanted to go back there.”

Huston had shot The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The Unforgiven in Mexico and had planned to lens The Misfits there until overruled by that film’s writer/producer, Arthur Miller.

Williams had specified Acapulco as the location of his play, but Huston scoffed at the notion of staging his film there. He sought a place more wild and forlorn, one that would reflect the torment of the work’s characters, particularly protagonist T. Laurence Shannon.

This defrocked clergyman, locked out of his church for fornicating with a young parishioner, finds himself adrift, awash in alcohol, reduced to escorting elderly churchwomen on fourth-rate bus tours through fifth-rate sites in Mexico and the southwest US. The Night of the Iguana is, in Huston’s words, the story “of a man, desperate and full of despair, at the end of his rope.”

On a long-ago voyage off the coast of western Mexico, Huston had been struck by the splendid isolation and smothering atmosphere of an insect-infested promontory known as Mismaloya. He found that in 1963 this lonely spot on the Bay of Banderas was still the domain of mosquitoes and lizards—unmarked on any map, surrounded by thick rainforest, accessible only by dugout canoe, populated by less than 100 Tarascan people. Huston determined to make his film here, shooting bits of early action in the hamlet of Puerto Vallarta, some 15 minutes away.

Huston learned that Mexican architect Guillermo Wulff held a lease on Mismaloya. He then contracted with Wulff to build, under the supervision of set director Stephen Grimes, an exact replica of a weathered Mexico hotel at the very tip of Mismaloya, some 300 feet above the sea. Huston also ordered construction of 40 bungalows as living quarters for cast and crew; he and Wulff hoped after the film to turn this “temporary” housing into a profitable resort.

When Grimes saw Wulff using beachsand to make cement, he demanded the architect desist, arguing the sand contained so much salt it would inevitably and prematurely weaken the concrete. Wulff and Grimes first quarreled, then compromised: beachsand would be used for the bungalows, less salty material would go into the actual set.

While 283 workers and 80 burros labored in Mismaloya, Huston and writer Anthony Veiller went to work on the script. In the play, a panicked Shannon, desperately fleeing a swarm of interior “spooks” and seeking to move his crumbling life from “the fantastic level to the realistic level,” more or less hijacks his tour bus full of straightlaced females and strands it in an isolated out-of-season hotel run by the widow of an old friend. There he is set upon by Nazi tourists and plagued by a rapacious trio of women, eventually driven to his death by the poisonous emanations of the spiderlike widow Maxine.

Huston and Veiller first jettisoned the Nazis, then transformed Maxine from the agent of Shannon’s destruction into his salvation. Richard Burton was chosen to play Shannon; Ava Gardner signed on as Maxine. Deborah Kerr would appear as the asexual itinerant sketch-artist Hannah, who arrives at the hotel with grandfather Nanno, “the world’s oldest living and practicing poet.” Sue Lyon, fresh from Lolita, was cast as Charlotte, the insistent nymphet whose presence after hours in Shannon’s room precipitates the maddened minister’s panicked flight to the sanctuary of Maxine’s hotel.

Burton, his inamorata Elizabeth Taylor, Gardner, Kerr, and Lyon, as well as Huston and Williams, were at or near their peak period of popular acclaim. The press slowly became aware that a clutch of filmdom’s most fascinating personalities was inexplicably bound for some isolated place none of them had ever heard of. Surely bloodshed or other scandal must result. In newsrooms around the world, inkstained wretches began making plans to be there.

The converging journalists soon found that even reaching Mismaloya from Puerto Vallarta qualified as a harrowing ordeal.

“There’s no harbor at Vallarta,” scribe Stephen Birmingham would report. “You climb into a native dugout canoe on the beach—which they call the Beach of the Dead—then wait for a wave big enough to carry your canoe into deep water. Then you are paddled out to a waiting motor launch. There you stand up and leap for the other boat—which is always tricky since the rim of the launch is considerably higher than the rim of the canoe. Next comes the eight-mile trip across the bay to the peninsula itself. Disembarking at Mismaloya is equally nervewracking. You must leap from the launch onto a floating pier, where you wait till a wave carries the pier close to shore. Then you literally fling yourself onto some rusted steps leading to a kind of wharf, which puts you on dry land. Catching your breath, you doggedly tackle the 134 earthen steps which have been carved into the mountainside—to the pinnacle where Huston has his hotel.”

Most believed the trip worth the effort, however. For Huston had assembled in and around The Night of the Iguana what was without doubt one of the most incestuous grouping of Hollywood glitterati in the history of motion pictures. The prospects for disaster were so great that before filming began the director summoned Burton, Taylor, Gardner, Kerr, Lyon, and Stark to the bar of his newly completed Mismaloya hotel and presented each with a gold-plated derringer in a velvet box. Each of the six also received five golden bullets, engraved with the names of the other five.

Richard Burton, still legally wed to wife Sybil, arrived in Puerto Vallarta accompanied by lover Elizabeth Taylor, still legally wed to Eddie Fisher. Taylor was not in the film, but Gardner, Kerr, and Lyon were. “I trust Richard completely,” Taylor assured a skeptical press. “It’s just that I don’t trust Fate. After all, Fate threw us together in Cleopatra.”

Burton’s agent Hugh French brought his assistant Michael Wilding, better known as the second Mr. Taylor. As part of his official duties Wilding publicized the romance between Burton and Taylor, rented the couple a yacht so they could glide in comfort from Puerto Vallarta to Mismaloya each day, and often thoughtfully packed picnic lunches for Burton and his own once-upon-a-time blushing bride.

The thrice-wed Ava Gardner had once been legally linked to Artie Shaw, who was currently married to Huston’s most recent ex-wife, Evelyn Keyes. Years before, a bleary-eyed Huston had driven to Las Vegas to marry Keyes only hours after Gardner refused to conclude an inebriated pool party in the director’s bed.

Deborah Kerr was on set with current husband Peter Viertel, who had been Gardner’s bedmate during the filming of The Sun Also Rises. Author Budd Schulberg dropped in for a week: first wife Virginia Ray had left him to marry Viertel; Schulberg arrived still miffed at producer Stark for purchasing the rights to The Disenchanted, his bleak novel of the last days of a burnt-out Fitzgeraldesque writer that Stark wanted to turn into a sappy love story. Viertel had written screenplays for Huston, and would do so again, but the two men were currently estranged over Viertel’s searing portrait of the director in his “novel” White Hunter, Black Heart, an only occasionally fictionalized account of the pair’s nightmarish adventures during the making of The African Queen.

In Wulff’s newly constructed bungalows Sue Lyon entertained her "fiancee" Hampton Fancher III, while a few doors down Fancher’s wife roomed with the starlet’s mother. Lyon also brought companion Eva Martine, a beautiful young opium aficionado. Back in the states, Skip Ward’s wife was furious to learn the actor had arrived on location with inamorata Julia Payne. Tennessee Williams, who had never married anybody, flew down with lover Freddy in tow, as well as a poodle named Gigi who proved pathetically susceptible to sunstroke.

No mix was ever too volatile for Huston, so he added a few fiery locals as well. First he hired a pair of dissolute beach boys to prance around Gardner onscreen and off; then the director sent one of the loosest cannons in all Mexico rolling inexorably towards the most famous adulterers in filmdom.

When Burton and Taylor’s plane touched down in Mexico City, thousands of people were there to greet it. As Taylor wondered whether it was safe to leave the craft, a large, sombrero-shrouded Mexican with one pistol in his belt and another in his fist suddenly clambered aboard the plane, grabbed the stunned actress with his free hand, and bellowed confidently, “Follow El Indio! You will be safe with me!”

“Get this bloody maniac off the bloody plane before I bloody well kill him!” shouted an enraged Burton. A brace of crewmen grappled with the armed intruder, eventually disarming the man and escorting him out onto the tarmac.

Turns out he’d been sent by Huston. “El Indio” was in truth Emilio Fernandez, a notorious Mexican director known to resort to firearms in both his life and his art. Occasionally he would pistol-whip a particularly slow actor; on the set of his most recent film, he’d shot the producer. Fernandez had worked with Huston in The Unforgiven and would work with him again in Under the Volcano; for Iguana Fernandez had been hired as an assistant director and cast in a bit part as a bartender. He served admirably in both capacities; official greeter, however, was a role he was never meant to play.

“Contingencies are bound to arise,” was Huston’s comment when he learned of the El Indio airport incident. “Emilio’s only weakness is his tendency to shoot people he doesn’t like. Luckily, he did not fire upon Richard. This means he likes him. I’m sure they’ll adjust to one another.”

With the press distracted by the antics of all these other sybarites in Iguana’s promiscuous zoo, Huston was able to make his film in the company of lover Zoe Sallis and their 18-month-old son Danny, without attracting a single line of salacious media coverage.

Alcohol was a unifying force for many of the film’s principals. The theme was sounded even before production began, when Huston and Stark flew to Madrid to convince Gardner to accept the role of Maxine.

“I knew damn well that Ava was going to do it,” Huston recalled. “She did, too—but she wanted to be courted. So we went out with my beloved Ava two or three nights running. She lived a very rigorous existence, I must say. We’d meet late in the afternoon, have drinks, then go to dinner around ten o’clock. After dining, it was the clubs and the dancing, and this would go on all night. Ray was made of stronger stuff than I—not quite of the metal and fiber of Ava, who was quite capable of going on through that night and through the next day and the next night and the next. I presently dropped out and Ray went on as her escort for several nights until we left Madrid.”

On location, when the likes of Taylor demanded daily doses of hamburgers slathered with onions, imported at great cost from the US, and the 17-year-old Lyon insisted she could not act unless supplied with gefilte fish and red horseradish flown in each morning from Cuernevaca, Gardner requested only that her icebox remain fully stocked at all times with bottles of Mexican beer.

Although she moved five times during production, Gardner would invariably awake each morning to find her beach boys “dead drunk on the patio. Once I had a house with no roof and a twenty-foot wall on the outside. They could scale it like monkeys.” She eventually abandoned the abode because “you never knew in the morning when you woke up who would be lying there next to you.” The pair consistently appeared on camera “high on pot and this cactus booze called raicilla, which kind of twists your mind.”

Burton too was quite taken with raicilla, a paralyzing 180-proof blend of cactus brandy. “If you drink it straight down,” he confided to one reporter, “you can feel it going into each individual intestine.” Huston, who was also known to imbibe a glass or nine of the stuff, claimed this effect was due to the fact the distillery “left the needles in.”

“They were all into the tequila,” Sallis recalled. “Burton and Elizabeth had a lot of rows. Steve Grimes was with some weird German who kept dancing on the tables nude.” One evening the usually mild-mannered Williams felt compelled to batter an unconscionably slow Puerto Vallarta bartender. Cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, most often a quiet, sensitive man, became, when one with tequila, an opera singer of considerable lung power; only unconsciousness, it seemed, could stop the music.

Shooting began each morning promptly at 7:30 a.m.; Burton usually popped his first beer of the day some time earlier. “It used to amaze me, seeing Burton at seven in the morning drinking beer,” said assistant director Tom Shaw. “And he’d drink beer all morning long. By the time we finished he would have had a case of beer. And then he’d shift into high gear.” One morning Burton apparently experienced difficulty with his gearbox: while the cameras rolled, Burton poured out of a chair onto the cement, slashing his thigh. Stoically he waved away assistance and went on with the scene.

When he first arrived on Mismaloya, Burton was horrified to hear Kerr and Lyon state their belief this would be a “dry” set. “Preposterous!” he bellowed. “Inconceivable! Whoever heard of a location site without a bar? In England, while working with Pete O’Toole on Becket, I was stoned for three entire days—and that was a much more religious role. I was the Archbishop of Canterbury! Why, a bar is absolutely ethnic to our culture.”

Huston’s cotillion of libidinous, bibulous gringos quickly attracted the wrath
of Siempre, a local newspaper that editorially thundered “our children of 10 and 15 are being introduced to sex, drink, drugs, vice, and carnal bestiality by the garbage of the United States: gangsters, nymphomaniacs, heroin-taking blondes.” The paper called for the prompt deportation of the Iguana troupe, vowing “it is not too late. Responsible Mexicans can still save Puerto Vallarta.”

Huston’s public response was a verbal shrug: “I am far too busy to spread any carnal bestiality.”

(The finished film, however, contained a scene in which El Indio, as the proprietor of a beachside boozeshack, upbraids Charlotte for her sensual three-step with Maxine’s beach boys. “No more!” he shouts. “Stop it, I say! Senorita, go home. Take your dollars with you. I am a rich man; I do not want your dollars. I do not want you dancing to my music. No more music! We do not want our sons to know that young girls can be like you.”)

In the end some 130 members of the world press descended on Puerto Vallarta for The Night of the Iguana. “They’re giving us ten million bucks of free publicity,” crowed producer Stark. “We’ve got more reporters up here than iguanas.”

The newshounds grew increasingly frustrated, however, as the expected offscreen orgy of sexfueled violence failed to materialize. In desperation, some members of the press tried to manufacture a romance between Fernandez and Gardner, a fantasy that intrigued the former and amused the latter. Gardner was in fact spending much of her time in the company of a local beach bum named Tony, but where they went and what they did remained a secret, for no reporter was ever able to follow long Gardner’s sleek new Ferrari.

At one point the shoot was plagued by rumors El Indio had suddenly gone for his guns in a Puerto Vallarta cantina, wildly emptying his revolvers and killing two gringo tourists. When a persistent reporter for a Fleet Street rag demanded details, Fernandez claimed he’d only knocked the two unconscious. “I have not shot a tourist in seven years,” he protested.

In truth, the biggest news on Iguana, as on
many Huston films, was the cast and crew’s daily battle with their own mortality. To begin with, Mismaloya was home to an astonishing variety of malevolent fauna—scorpions, midges, chiggers, mites, mosquitoes, fleas, flies, spiders, and snakes. “Turn on a light and your wall is covered with insects,” moaned one principal. “Walk outside and a spider lands in your hair.”

Shooting was interrupted while Lyon recovered from a serious scorpion bite. When Taylor blithely strutted about in open-toed sandals, chiggers bored into her feet and had to be carved out with a knife. “They burrow under the skin until they find a vein,” the chastened chiggerbearer explained, “then they enter your bloodstream. After that, the only time you can see them is when they’re passing across your eyeballs.” Huston was proud of Taylor’s courage beneath the blade: “That Liz is sure a cool veteran of operations. She’s had thirty of ’em to date. Someone is always putting that girl on an operating table and slicing her up.”

Before they even reached Mismaloya, Huston nearly lost most of his cast in Puerto Vallarta. Skip Ward was set to careen through the streets of town behind the wheel of the bus full of biddies; on one curve he swerved too close to the edge of a cliff, and the soft dirt shoulder began to crumble away. The panicked cast scrambled off the bus as the puzzled vehicle teetered ponderously at the lip of the sea. When he reached solid ground Burton purposefully strode over to the script assistant and patted her affectionately on the rear, explaining “I just wanted to make sure we were still alive.”

The actor’s comeuppance arrived when it was time to shoot the film’s epiphany. The script had a now-becalmed Shannon, as an act of empathetic anthropomorphic mercy, cutting loose a tethered iguana bound for the stewpot, thereby freeing “one of God’s creatures at the end of his rope.” Problem was the iguana, a congenitally sluggish animal, refused to move. Shouting and stomping did no good; the thing also ignored brandished broom handles; turpentine applied to its tail produced only a slight twitch. Finally Huston instructed a technician to rig a charged wire to deliver 110 volts of electricity into the flesh of the recalcitrant beast. But when Huston gave the word it was Burton who did the dance of St. Vitus: he’d been unaccountably stroking the reptile and the current passed directly into his hand.

The most serious accident to strike the set occurred early one morning when it became clear Gardner’s big dramatic moment would have to wait until she had only 10 or 15 beers in her system, rather than the 40 or 50 she’d that eve consumed. Assistant director Tom Shaw retired to the balcony of his room, calling over to neighbor Terry Morris to come by so the two could discuss the next night’s shoot. When Morris joined Shaw on his perch, some 18 feet above the ground, the entire balcony collapsed. The salty beachsand Wulff used to construct the bungalows had at last given way. Morris landed atop Shaw and limped off with minor injuries; Shaw’s back was broken in two places. He was placed aboard a boat and floated to Puerto Vallarta, where he was flown the same morning back to the US.

“Here we go again,” said a member of the crew as the groaning Shaw was lifted from the rubble. “On John’s pictures somebody is always being flown to a hospital. I’d say Shaw was lucky to get off Mismaloya. It’s like having a war wound; they take you out of the battle zone and send you home.”

A disgusted Huston walked into another bungalow and with a single kick knocked over the balustrade. As the stunned director gazed upon this latest manifestation of entropy a panting crewmember dashed up to inform him the roof of a third structure had suddenly collapsed. “God alive!” Huston swore. “We’d better get this damn picture finished before we’re all covered with rubble.”

“We had a sixty-day schedule and half the bungalows started to fall apart after sixty days,” said Stark. In the end, only the set was left standing. “A nice twist,” Grimes added. “Looks better now than when we shot it. Aged beautifully.”

The press could expend only so many inches on chiggers and crumbling stone. What readers wanted was human dirt, and the Iguana people obdurately refused to provide it. None of the principals were even remotely close to resorting to their derringers, and, on Huston’s orders, even El Indio had been shorn of his six-guns (“It’s like asking Samson to get a crewcut,” Fernandez complained).

So, inevitably, the 130 scribes, to justify their continued existence in sunny Mexico, began instead to file stories on the place instead of the people. In a matter of months Puerto Vallarta was transformed from a small coastal village into one of the top ten “in” spots in the western hemisphere.

“The press gathered down there expecting something to happen with all these volatile personalities,” Huston said years later. “They felt the lid would blow off and there would be fireworks. When there weren’t any, they were reduced to writing about Puerto Vallarta. And, I’m afraid, that was the beginning of its popularity, which was a mixed blessing. The beaches became lined by hotels and condominiums. The natives have became waiters, chambermaids, or cops. There are traffic jams, burglaries, muggings. Most of the shops are tourist-oriented.

“But the water is potable. Nobody’s face is pitted with smallpox anymore. Typhoid and typhus have almost ceased to exist. And children have as good a chance to be born alive here as anywhere in the world.”

(This piece, illustrated, previously available in red.)

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