A Letter from John Huston’s Eden at Las Caletas [circa 1980]
For the better part of the last five years I have been living in Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco, Mexico. When I first came here, almost thirty years ago, Vallarta was a fishing village of some two thousand souls. There was only one road to the outside world – and it was impassable during the rainy season. I arrived on a small plane, and we had to buzz the cattle off a field outside town before setting down.
Over the years I came back to Puerto Vallarta a number of times. One of those times was in 1963 to film The Night of the Iguana. It was because of this picture that the world first heard of the place. Visitors and tourists flocked in.
I am now living in Las Caletas, where I’ve leased one and a half acres from the Chacala Indian Community, the Mexican government has granted these Indians a long stretch of coast and a large interior region. To get to where I live you drive about fifteen miles south of Puerto Vallarta to a small fishing village called Boca de Tomatlan, where the highway leaves the sea and turns inland over the mountains. From Boca you take a panga (an open fiberglass boat with an outboard motor) south some thirty minutes to Las Caletas.
I have my place on a ten-year lease, with an option for another ten. After that, the land and whatever I’ve built on it go back to the Indians. Las Caletas is my third home. There are no roads to it, and it’s unlikely there will ever be – the nearest village is about half an hour away by jungle trail. Las Caletas faces the sea and its back to the jungle, for this reason one thinks of it as an island.
Life here is lived in the open. At night wild creatures come down to inspect the changes I’ve made in their domain: coatimundias, opossums, deer, boars, ocelots, boas, jaguars. We find their spoor or trails in the mornings. Flocks of frenetic parrots come winging in at first light, full of talk. They climb, dive, wheel as one bird, alight in the treetops, all talking. They take off, do another quick turn or two and disappear – talking.
After sunrise the jungle quiets down, but there is always something going on at sea. Pelicans in tandem, skimming the waves – gulls and other seabirds, diving when the surface of the bay seethes and boils with sardines or schools of other small fish. There’s a manta ray who performs regularly about fifty yards offshore. He always jumps twice. The first time is to get your attention. Then he throws all three thousand pounds of himself so high out of the water that you can see the freckles on his white underbelly. Gray, humpback and killer whales and porpoises ply the offshore waters. We’re trying to keep a record on the grays because this is the farthest south they’ve ever been seen.
The winters are sparkling clear. There is almost no rain for nine months. By spring the jungle greens have faded to olive drab. In late June the clouds begin to gather. They thicken and lower until they’re halfway down the mountainsides. The atmosphere gets heavier and heavier. Then one day the heavens open and the torrential rains beat down. Instantly there are explosions of color throughout the jungle: orchids, birds or paradise, all manner of bromeliads. And every night there’s an electricity display out at sea, lighting up the horizon like a great artillery duel between worlds.
Now that I’m of a certain age, I’m following a piece of old Irish advice in going to live by the sea: ‘It stops old wounds from hurting. It revives the spirit. It quickens the passions of mind and body, yet lends tranquility to the soul.’
The Night of the Iguana
In late 1962, John Huston received a proposal from producer Ray Stark to direct The Night of the Iguana. ‘I thought it would make a wonderful picture, especially in Mexico,’ said Stark. ‘John, of course, was the guru of Mexico. I just got him at a lucky time when he wanted to go back there.’
John was indeed thrilled with the chance to work again in Mexico, and more so to take on Tennessee Williams’s melodramatic play about an odd group of beleaguered individuals struggling with their frailties at an isolated, second-rate hotel on the tropical coast. Huston considered Williams a genius, one of the very few playwrights capable of presenting complicated characters in a way that illuminated them.
He knew that the story’s weighty subject matter – people coping with personal failings, alienation, and loneliness – would be difficult to capture on film and understood that audiences tended to get bored with a movie if not enough action appeared on screen. But he also believed that an intelligent public would appreciate a well-hewn motion picture of the play ‘The question is,’ Huston posed, ‘are you interested in what is happening? I personally find it hard to distinguish between dialogue and action. What’s going on in someone’s head can also be action, and can have as much violence in it as slow-motion bleeding.’
Both Huston and Stark agreed that the key to the film’s success hinged on the casting. ‘I choose an actor,’ Huston explained, ‘always for his kinship to the role. I don’t give an actor a script and have him try to change his personality into something that’s suitable for the role. I prefer to let him discover whatever part of himself is in that role and present it to me.’
If Huston’s ideal for drawing out superb performances was to match an actor’s persona with that of the character’s, then the leading stars in Iguana couldn’t have been better suited for their parts.
To play the defrocked, alcoholic Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon, such formidable actors as Marlon Brando, Richard Harris and William Holden were considered before Huston shrewdly decided on Richard Burton, a man whose own tormented life and exaggerated living paralleled that of Shannon’s: the virile but sensitive male stereotype, destroying himself through the indulgence of liquor and women.
Ava Gardner was singled out by Huston to play the part of the bawdy widowed innkeeper, Maxine Falk. He knew Ava to be among the most beautiful, untamed women in the world, but coaxing her into playing Maxine wouldn’t be easy On the other hand, said Gardner, Huston had ‘a line of talk that could charm cows in from the pasture or ducks off the pond.’ She agreed to do the film and later recalled the decision as ‘the start of my relationship with John, one of the greatest and most enduring friendships of my life.’
Rounding out the cast was the refined Debra Kerr tagged to play the spinster-artist Hanna Jelks, a gentlewoman who harbors an innate sense of etiquette and kindness that has a salutary effect on Shannon but raises the hackles of a jealous Maxine. And to play the film’s expanded role of Charlotte Goodall, the teenaged sexpot whose relentless pursuit of Shannon precipitates his night of undoing, Huston picked 17 year-old Sue Lyons, fresh from playing the title role in the sexually oriented movie, Lolita.
The decision to film Iguana in Mexico was in keeping with Huston’s preference for making movies on location. ‘The location, just like an actor,’ Huston explained, ‘gives something to the picture, you know, envelops it in an atmosphere.’
For the actors, that was all well and good if the locations were in such exotic places like Rome or Paris. But in Mexico? ‘Williams had set his play in Acapulco,’ Gardner drolly recounted,’ but God forbid that John, whose motto clearly was, ‘Do things the hard way whenever possible,’ should even consider filming there. Instead he hit on the idea of Puerto Vallarta, a remote spot on the Pacific coast of Mexico that had been called the most unlikely resort this side of the Hindu Kush. There were no roads into the town, no telephones either, and both plumbing and electricity was decidedly erratic. When John told people, ‘It’s not at all like getting up in the morning and driving to MGM,’ he was not kidding!
The director of photography was Gabriel Figueroa, a legendary pioneer in motion pictures during Mexico’s golden era of film. Huston chose and depended on his technicians just as he did his actors. ‘The cameraman is, of course, cast for the picture just the same as an actor would be,’ said Huston. ‘You decide what you want on the screen and then go to the right man for that.’ Figueroa’s wonderful cinematography earned him an Academy Award nomination.
Never before, or perhaps since, had such an eclectic and combustible mix of talented personalities been assembled to make a movie, ‘one of the most publicized pictures of its time,’ claimed Ray Stark.
In addition to the prestigious cast and crewmembers, an equally renowned entourage of high-powered celebrities was encamped during the filming. Mega movie star Elizabeth Taylor, who happened to be in the midst of a torrid, scandalous affair with Burton, accompanied her soon-to-he fifth husband for the duration of the shoot. The strange and brilliant Tennessee Williams was also present, as was the fun-loving, pistol packing Mexican director-actor Emilio Fernandez, who had a tendency, according to Huston, to shoot people he didn’t like. And there were various current and ex-lovers at hand that fueled the celebrity name and tropical intrigue. From late September through early December in 1963 the small village of Puerto Vallarta was deluged with hundreds of media and paparazzi from around the world, eager to report on the expected ruckus.
As it turned out, the entire cast got along remarkably well. According to Huston, the production went ‘as smooth as silk.’ He added, ‘The press gathered down there expecting something to happen with all these volatile personalities being there. 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.’