The Night of The Iguana (1964) and The God-Shaped Hole

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It’s a Sunday morning in St. James Episcopal Church. The minister pulls his sermon from Proverbs 25:28: “A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls.” But there is an elephant in the room, an unspoken force coming between the shepherd and his sheep. He starts to stutter before he erupts in an indignant tirade lambasting his parishioners.

There’s something unsettling in seeing Richard Burton as a minister. I would have felt a similar unease with Peter Finch as a preacher (he was a surgeon in A Nun’s Story). Although it’s true, the similarly resonant actor, Richard Todd portrayed one of the most sincere clergymen ever in A Man Called Peter.

But Burton has the largest and most volatile personalities of all three.  So when he loses his train of thought during his Sunday sermon, perched from his pulpit, it’s not altogether unwarranted watching him implode on the spot. We expect as much.

It feels like Reverend Lawrence T. Shannon (Richard Burton) has inherited the lectern from Barabara Stanwyck in Miracle Women, though his conflict is more difficult to sort out. It’s as much about the watch-dog hypocrisy in his own church as it is his personal crises of conscience. We don’t know what his presumed sins are, but as the pews clear and he thunders down the aisles, he calls out the fleeing congregants, denouncing them thusly:

“You’ve turned your backs on the God of love and compassion and invented for yourselves this cruel, senile, delinquent who blames the world and all that he created for his own faults! Close your windows. Close your doors! Close your hearts – against the truth of our God! ”

Be that as it may and totally regardless of his innocence or guilt, the next moment we see Shannon, he’s fallen to a new low — taking a busload of Texas schoolteachers down through Mexico so he can serve as their tour guide past all the religious relics below the border.

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What a sorry figure he is — a tortured, broken, smarmy man just trying to get by. This portrayal is generally enhanced by the realization that Richard Burton, though he probably grew up in The Church of England, was at the very least a cultural atheist. Nor does he come off as a ministerial type. He was notorious for drinking like a fish. Meanwhile, his highly publicized off-screen tryst with Elizabeth Taylor was commanding the contemporary tabloid covers. It all fits into this conflicted, mercurial performance of his. Hardly likable but strangely compelling for all its wild instabilities.

James Garner is said to have turned down the role because “it was just too Tennessee Williams” for his taste. He’s not wrong and frankly as much as I love him to death, the part wouldn’t have fit. Burton can carry it off because his demons, whether real or imagined, are far more visible onscreen.

However, there is another pressing question. How in the world do you get the creative marriage of John Huston and Tennessee Williams? I’m not sure if you could call it a perfect match, but it’s ceaselessly interesting. It’s a new side of Mexico — in the fishing village of Puerto Vallarta — well after The Treasure of The Sierra Madre. Consequently, the setting seems a bit left-of-center for typical Williams fare even as the sordid dramatic content is much what we would expect. In the middle somewhere the two men meet.

The words from Proverbs are easily recalled as the disgraced Reverend finds himself being pursued by a loquacious young blonde (Sue Lyon continuing in her Lolita vein). She finds him easy to talk to and fascinating — his life is engaged with people’s souls and yet he’s young and virile. Charlotte takes a dip with him innocently enough and still notes she could never do this with the preacher back home in Texas.

It’s the first sign of hot coals. He wants nothing of her coquettish advances even as the acerbic chaperone Ms. Fellowes (Grayson Hall) watches him like a hawk — ruling over the girl with an iron fist of ascetic repression. It makes her a tiresome thorn in Shannon’s side; he’s about ready to go mad. Eventually, he does.

Having just about enough of their campfire songs and rigid drudgery, he shanghais the busload of priggish Baptist schoolteachers, taking them on a harrowing ride, bumping their way down the dusty backroads. He screeches to a halt, jumps out, rips out the distributor head, and proceeds to streak up the hillside with his suitcase. They might as well be in the middle of nowhere.

For the sake of this movie, they are not. The tropical Costa Verde hotel is hidden up in the forest overlooking the water, and it just happens to be run by an old friend of Shannon’s. Fred is dead, but his wife, the larger-than-life Maxine Faulk (Ava Gardner), is still running the place. She’s an earthy force to be reckoned with indebted to Gardner’s lively showing.

If not for her, Burton would probably steal the show, but he’s met with another gale storm of enduring cheerfulness and utter obstinance. Their impact is such you almost forget about Deborah Kerr. Sure enough, she appears on their doorstep as the peripatetic painter, Hannah Jelkes, who travels with her grandfather, a diminutive, 98-year-old poet.

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Though the other two dominate the screen, she quietly commands it. When Gardner and Burton get to shoving the drink cart at one another, it is Kerr who becomes their unofficial mediator. Because she is a voice of reason, an artist with a pensive gaze, and a surprisingly lucid perspective despite her meager lifestyle.

Later Charlotte bursts into Shannon’s room yet again causing him unwanted torment as she tries to get him to go away with her. She’s very good at stirring up men’s hearts and instigating mini scandals in the process. In another scene, a fistfight for her affections breaks out between the tour’s bus driver (Skip Ward), and some local boys replete with music, maracas, and stereotypical flourishes. Huston plays it for a laugh. It’s inconsequential if not altogether inane.

Because it is from the stage, The Night of The Iguana does seem to stall. Eventually, the bus leaves without Shannon and the second half of the story feels like an existential dialogue more than anything else. It could be a dead-end, though on the merit of our three established stars, it remains something intermittently though-provoking if not entirely compelling.

The curious thing is how the adversary melts away. True, the bus leaves with both his temptation and condemnation and yet he has pity even on his adversary. “Miss Fellowes is a highly moral person. If she ever recognized the truth about herself it would destroy her.” He recognizes her as another conflicted, constricted creature — a fellow Iguana tied up to a post.

With the bottom dropped out of his life, Shannon wants to swim to China, seemingly a handy euphemism for ending it all. He’s taken to the brink of his wits, lashing out at Maxine and anyone else who will avail him. It’s Kerr who rules the final act amid the paucity of moral rectitude. She perceives that his version of Golgotha is on a green hillside overlooking the water. His cross being strung up in a hammock on the verandah. In comparison, it seems like a fairly cushy alternative. She strips him down to who he really is.

Far from condemning him, Jelkes feels strangely sincere and genuine, particularly for Williams. She perceives that his problem revolves around “The need to believe in something or in someone — almost anyone — almost anything.” It’s Augstine or Pascal’s God-shaped hole rehashed. Likewise, she deflects his metaphors. She is not a bird but a human being. Nothing human disgusts her except if it’s unkind or violent. What extraordinary statements they are, and Kerr delivers them with a perfectly composed performance.

As each person tries to decipher their own religion or least some semblance of existential understanding, whether through legalism, drink, or sex, even cutting Iguana’s lose as a private act of personal Godship, she’s the one character who brings down the thoughts and words of the wise and makes them feel foolish.

For a film suffused with a great deal of religiosity, she’s startling unprepossessing. And yet in her words and in her humanity are the roots of something bountiful and beautiful in their very simplicity. It’s the kind of simplicity that can help loosen the Iguana from the hitching post, where we find out by sojourning, it’s possible to fill up the vacuum inside each and every one of us.

4/5 Stars

Baby Doll (1956): Elia Kazan Does Southern Comedy

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Elia Kazan had a fairly lucrative partnership with Tennessee Williams and the same could be said of his ongoing working relationship with Karl Malden. It’s fitting that all three are back for Baby Doll and yet it still manages to feel like a bit of an outlier in Kazan’s oeuvre thus far.

As per usual, Kazan invests great commitment in his actors and the emotional richness of their performances, which enter near hyper-realized heights. Because there would be no Baby Doll without Malden, Eli Wallach and of course, Carroll Baker. They must carry its weight and for what it’s worth, they manage the task quite well.

Malden is the bug-eyed hick, Archie Lee, who made a pact with the dying pappy of his virginal bride that he would take care of her. Whether he’s held sway on his side of the bargain is up for debate, as Baby Doll and he live in a home literally crumbling around them by the hour

He’s a narrow-minded cotton gin operator who has recently been hitting the skids due to competition. If you are looking for the bare minimums of the story, there you have them. The situations themselves venture on the absurd in this hardly fully-realized plot.

With their house a decrepit eyesore, the furniture soon gets taken away. Archie Lee’s just about at the end of his tether and so he sneaks out one night and commits an act of arson on a whole silo full of cotton. It’s a desperate attempt to give himself an advantage and direct some business his way.

It’s true many might be unaccustomed to comedy in a Kazan film because though it’s masked by typical antics, melodrama, and the risque veneer that precedes it, the humor is unquestionable. If it sounds like melodrama you only have to look at the performances to crack a grin because they do feel like over-the-top exaggerations.

The galvanizing moment, of course, is our first view of Baby Doll lounging in a crib-like bed, sucking on her thumb. Her husband peeps on her through a hole in the plaster giggling like a lecherous schoolboy when she wakes up. We have a Lolita archetype and no doubt the source of its censorship woes, which elicited a “Condemned” rating from the Catholic League of Decency.

What always stings more is hearing the N-word bandied around so inconsequentially as the African-American characters play an unheralded supporting role in the far-off periphery. There you see the hypocrisy. No one in the Catholic or Southern Christian communities probably saw it fit to condemn this element, no doubt considering it acceptable, even commonplace. It’s at least something worth acknowledging soberly.

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If Archie Lee is our entry point into this asinine world, then Baby Doll and Vacarro (Wallach) have the presence to keep us watching. In a momentary lapse in judgment watching Long Hot Summer, I mistook Lee Remick for Carrol Baker because they look vaguely similar at first glance. However, Baker does more than a southern belle here full of sing-song dialogue. There’s a tremor, an impediment to her speech which, comes off as strangely childlike. She boasts a cutesy name and enticing sensuality akin to Darling Jill from God’s Little Acre and really there’s the film we can draw the most parallels between.

Because Eli Wallach plays the other man who pays Archie Lee a visit the following day after the conflagration at his place. He’s derisively referred to as a “Whop” and so it’s easy for him to become the outsider with a chip on his shoulder. He’s willing to do what he needs to do in order to get back on top of the heap. Ironically, he lets Archie Lee in on his philosophy.  He’s a proponent of “biblical justice,” an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, though he obviously didn’t read the scriptures too closely.

Instead, he implements their “Good Neighbor Policy” and while the other man is out fixing his machines to take on a new cotton crop, Silva starts playing with his wife even sneaking into the house to toy with Baby Doll. But remember this is not A Streetcar Named Desire. Wallach has his own inner demons but he’s no Stanley Kowalski and Baby Doll’s no Blanche.

Their trajectories take them into different places as a drunken Archie Lee gets jealous of his wife’s suitor, going after his adversary with his shotgun. However, in the end, the stakes are slighter than its predecessors and yet there’s something novel and slightly refreshing in this. While Baby Doll is nowhere near the best of Kazan’s work its “otherness” makes it a risible endeavor out of left field.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

Brando_-_Leigh_-_1951Blanche Dubois and Stanley Kowalski. They’re both so iconic not simply in the lore of cinema history but literature and American culture in general. It’s difficult to know exactly what to do with them. Stanley Kowalski the archetypical chauvinistic beast. Driven by anger, prone to abuse, and a mega slob in a bulging t-shirt who also happens to be a hardline adherent to the Napoleonic Codes. But then there’s Blanche, the fragile, flittering, self-conscious southern belle driven to the brink of insanity by her own efforts to maintain her epicurean facade. They’re larger than life figures.

In truth, A Streetcar Named Desire is one of those cases where play and film are so closely intertwined it’s hard to pull them apart. And there’s so many connecting points. Tennessee Williams helped to adapt his initial work and Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, and Karl Malden all transposed their original stage roles to the screen while Elia Kazan took on direction once more.

As such it became the showcase of The Method, the shining beacon championing that long heralded yet controversial movement born of Stanislav Konstitine and disseminated in the U.S. by such instructors as Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler. It was from this latter teacher from whom Marlon Brando honed his craft and it’s true that he was one for the ages. The Greatest by some people’s account.

But before this film, Vivien Leigh was the biggest name on the marquee and she, of course, had ties to Laurence Olivier, the apex of Shakespearian actors and arguably the most reputed actor of the age until Brando came along. In Streetcar, you can invariably see the thin link connecting such luxuriant Hollywood offerings as Gone with the Wind to the evolution of cinema with later classics like The Godfather because it’s physically there on the screen.

Vivien Leigh, forever synonymous with Scarlet O’Hara and Brando’s own brand of sometimes brutal authenticity. She wavers and sashays through her scenes, clinging to the set and delivering her lines as pure searing drama. Whereas Brando just is. This animalistic force of brawn stuffing his face with chicken and moving through his home like he actually lives there. It’s social realism but it’s also a conflict on multiple levels that goes far beyond the main tension within the film itself.

Within the narrative, it is certainly a clash of culture, dialect, and acting styles and we’re never allowed to forget it anytime Stanley (Brando) or Blanche (Leigh) are in a room together. Still, they are not the only players in this film and Kim Hunter lends an added layer to the conflict as she simultaneously yearns for the romantic passion coursing through Stanely while wanting to protect her sister from harm. It’s a precarious tightrope to walk and Hunter makes it heartwrenching. Beyond her, Karl Malden plays Mitch, one of Stanley’s old war buddies who nevertheless exhibits a softer side that is easily taken with Blanche’s cursory level of class.

So in the end, Blanche’s fall not only harms Stella but Mitch too as he sees his heart get hurt and he feels lied too. But the one who fairs the worst is, of course, Blanche herself as she becomes completely overtaken by her delusions of grandeur. The fact that she goes for magic over reality ultimately becomes her undoing.

Today Streetcar does come off as stagy and yet Kazan is still able to personify the sticky, grungy, sweaty atmosphere of New Orleans — palpable with its billowing cigarette smoke and humidity. It somehow functions as this odd dichotomy between the theatrical and utter realism. In one way at odds and in another married perfectly because the juxtaposition only draws out the drama even further.  And the fact that the film pushed the boundaries as far as content easily heightens the drama. Stanley’s attack on Blanche is not only in a verbal or emotional sense but physical as well and we have little problem believing Brando in his role.

It also struck me that in her final moments Blanche feels hauntingly reminiscent of Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd only a year prior. But her delusions are far more pitiful because she never was anything and yet she still tries to cling to this sense of pride in her upbringing and the looks that once were. She constantly needs the affirmation and adulation of others to reassure her in her fears and frailties. Always putting on a pretense — a face to get by — but she’s the only one she’s able to deceive in the end. It’s one of the preeminent tragedies of the 20th century and its actors guide it into transcendent territory.

4.5/5 Stars

Blue Jasmine (2013)

90cbd-blue_jasmineThe emotionally unstable socialite Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) seems to think everyone in the world wants to listen to her talk and reminisce
This film shares a resemblance to Tennessee William’s A Streetcar Named Desire, and it can be know coincidence because Woody Allen knows his history.  On her part, Blanchett ironically shines as Jasmine, a woman who was married to a swindler (Alec Baldwin), has a nervous breakdown and then finds herself penniless in San Fran on her sister’s doorstep (Sally Hawkins). Jasmine is a snobbish jetsetter who had all the possessions that money could buy and a successful hubby. However, pull out the rug from under her and what’s left is a needy hypochondriac plagued by bouts of loneliness.  When she’s not jamming down pills chased by martinis, she’s feeling sorry for herself. She is also often prone to be unstable and throw tantrums. But by the end of this film she is all alone on a bench. No money, no family, not even any love life. Jasmine is a tough case because she is absolutely despicable and on top of that annoying, and yet we still have a small degree of sympathy for her. Allen’s film walks the tightrope between comedy and tragedy to great effect. 
 
4/5 Stars 

 

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)

671b8-cat_roofAdapted from the Tennessee Williams play, the film stars Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, and Burl Ives, with Jack Carson, and Judith Anderson. The film opens with Brick Pollick (Newman) injuring himself while he is drunk one night. The next day he is still constantly drinking and cold to his wife Maggie (Taylor). We learn this is because of the death of a friend. At the same time Big Daddy (Ives) arrives to celebrate his birthday with his family. The evening is full of angst and conflict over Big Daddy’s health, lies, truth, power, and love. Maggie wants Brick to look out for his interests based upon the conniving actions of his brother’s wife. Brick wants nothing of it and eventually tells his father so. They reconcile and Brick makes up with Maggie ending this film on a positive note. This film was certainly full of unrest and drama showing people struggling in love and figuring out their lives.

4/5 Stars

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

The film adaption of the Tennessee Williams’ play, A Street Car Named Desire was directed by Elia Kazan and stars Marlon Brando as the rough Polish husband of Stella Kowalski. Vivien Leigh plays the role of Stella’s airy and superficial sister Blanche. The film opens in the French Quarter of New Orleans where the Southern Belle Blanche DuBois comes to live with Stella and Stanley. Over time we learn of her past full of forbidden love and other problems. Stanley is a brutish, dominating man and the arrival of Blanche upsets his relationship with his wife. A friend of Stanley’s, Mitch (Karl Malden) is drawn to Blanche but the conflict between her and Stanley make the relationship impossible. Now Stanley knows of her past and confronts Blanche about it. His cruelty and violence lead to her final breakdown. Ultimately, Mitch is angered, Stella is grief-stricken, and Stanley shows his dependence on Stella. This film is full of drama and at times you dislike both Stanley and Blanche. Mitch is one of the characters you actually feel for.

4/5 Stars