My abbreviated John Huston month kicked off this week with two literary adaptions about lapsed Southern preachers. The Night of the Iguana is Huston's prickly take on the Tennessee Williams play set mostly within a crumbling Mexican resort. Richard Burton plays a fallen man of the cloth turned South of the Border tour guide after being ousted from the church for "inappropriate relations" with a young Sunday school teacher. Old troubles rear their head (as they tend to do) when Burton is tasked to escort a gaggle of Baptist ladies to the beach, one of them being the flirtatious under-aged stunner Sue Lyon (apparently, the go-to girl for inappropriate May-December romances after Lolita) and her Puritanical aunt Grayson Hall. When Hall catches Burton and Lyon taking a chaste dip in the ocean, she freaks and threatens to "have his job." Burton, in a brazen act of further self-sabotage, kidnaps the whole busload to old pal Ava Gardner's beachside hotel where many an iguana scampers about, many a moody Tennessee Williams monologue ensues.
Huston doesn't give in to total melodrama though. He keeps the brooding inherent in the source material as fleet-footed as possible (like those lizards!), injects humor where he can. He gets much comic mileage (maybe too much) out of Ava Gardner's perpetually shirtless Mexican manservants, Pepe and Pedro, who seem to be shaking maracas and dancing whenever they enter the frame. There's one particularly amusing scene where a bus driver attempts to intervene during a frisky cha-cha-cha number between the boys and Sue Lyon and thereby has his ass handed to him in a sort of boxing match cum dance number. In this one sequence, you can see how, yes, this same man directed both Fat City and Annie.
But mostly Iguana is an actor's piece, and Burton is fantastic as always doing that world-weary but well-spoken thing he does so well in movies like this and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Not to mention Deborah Kerr as a traveling artist who entertains Burton's sizable ennui for a bit and Ava Gardner as the very liberated resort proprietor looking to finally settle down.
Next up was Wise Blood, Huston's adaptation of Flannery O'Connor's first novel. Brad Dourif plays a disillusioned veteran, Hazel Motes, returned home from war to his Georgia hometown. Angered and motivated by his churchly upbringing (John Huston plays his preacher father in a cameo), Dourif sets out to the city to begin his own fumbling anti-religion, the Church Without Jesus Christ. There he meets other assorted religious crackpots-- Harry Dean Stanton as a blind but not really blind seer, Ned Beatty as preacher-promoter looking for a new evangelist to cash in on (regardless of what gospel he espouses), William Hickey as an sermonizing alcoholic spin-off version of Dourif himself. Hazel reluctantly takes on a few followers, both male and female, and an automobile that is always in the process of breaking down. He attempts (and mostly fails) to spread the message of "hard truths."
Like O'Connor's short stories, Huston jam-packs this movie with peculiar Southern goofballs and actors/non-actors great at playing same. There's a lived-in Dixie quality to this small production from the opening credits on down, something which Hollywood tends to ape and mostly get wrong. And speaking of apes, yep, there's a guy in a gorilla suit for much of this movie (see below). "Conga" is his name and huckstering children out of pocket pennies is his game. Huston's sly stab at Hollywood remakes (King Kong, 1976)? Apparently, one doesn't need an entire religion to be a successful charlatan, just a handy monkey suit.