The Night of the Iguana (1964) ****

The eponymous reptile is a rather obvious metaphor for characters trapped by quixotic decisions. Regardless of the Rev Dr. T Lawrence Shannon (Richard Burton) being a defrocked priest, he was always going to lead a dissolute life, alcohol the least of his temptations. This heady drama begins with comedy about a man with ideas above his station ending up as an incompetent tourist guide.

And if his behaviour is not scandalous enough for current coach party, middle-aged Baptist ladies, he leads them to a hotel in Mexico run by former lover Maxine (Ava Gardner) who has two younger lovers on the go. And as is the way with author Tennessee Williams there’s a posse of fascinating characters, led by spinster Hannah (Deborah Kerr) who ekes out an itinerant living selling paintings while her aged grandfather (Cyril Devalanti) recites poetry. Raising the moral stakes is under-age Charlotte (Sue Lyon) who has taken a fancy to Shannon, partly in rebellion against her frosty chaperone Judith (Grayson Hall).

For a movie with no great narrative drive, there’s no shortage of drama, whether it’s the Reverend under constant attack from his charges, Charlotte making advances, Shannon succumbing or trying to fight his addictions, Maxine succumbing then rejecting his advances, and Hannah on the sidelines trying to work out why her entire life has been lived in the shadows.

A simple dramatic fuse has been lit, disparate group with secrets set to explode, and you just sit back and enjoy the ride. Exceptionally daring, even if in discreet fashion, for the time, not just the Lolita-style Charlotte, but the middle-aged Maxine cavorting with not one but two men young enough to be her sons, so effectively a Cougar (before the term was invented) in a threesome, a woman in full command on her sex life not at the whim of a male. There’s as overt a gay woman as you would find in this era. And that’s before we come to Hannah, one of whose two sexual experiences involved averting her eyes while her male companion masturbated on a piece of her clothing. That was taking it way beyond the limits of acceptable on-screen behaviour of the day.

Characters are either engulfed by their passions or weaknesses or trying to come to terms with them, sometimes both. Over everything hangs poignancy at the self-deception practised, redemption scarcely a possibility, communication a minefield, acceptance the best anyone can hope for. Quality acting prevents this disappearing down a sinkhole of self-pity.

Richard Burton (Becket, 1964) was on a roll, one brilliant performance after another either with or without Elizabeth Taylor, essaying a wide range of characters. This is one of his best. You should despise the sham he has become, relying on charm to dig himself out of a hole, relying far too much on the kindness of strangers whose sympathy is exhausted. Yet the loss of the only position, a clergyman, for which he was possibly suited, thrown out for committing unforgiveable sin while preaching sanctity, makes him a very relatable human being. This isn’t Days of Wine and Roses reborn, but someone trying to win the pinch of oxygen required to keep his soul alive, and stir the energy inside. And he would be furious if you ever made the mistake of feeling sorry for him.

Ava Gardner (Mayerling, 1968) is superb, staring age in the face, unrepentant, sex an acceptable substitute for love, underlying sadness admirably restrained. But Deborah Kerr (The Chalk Garden, 1964), brings a refreshing dash to her introspective character, a woman with practical solutions except to her own emotional emptiness. Sue Lyon (Lolita, 1962) is only briefly scandalous and the movie’s conclusion suggests she is capable of settling down and not giving into the base desires that afflict all the others.

Just as with The Misfits (1961), director John Huston allows his characters to breathe. It would have been very easy to allow Shannon to have a more heroic or stoic stature, instead of someone stumbling around. Tinges of comedy and wit lighten the load. Huston and Anthony Veiller (The List of Adrian Messenger, 1963) wrote the screenplay from the Tennessee Williams play.

Behind the Scenes: “The Grass Is Greener” (1960)

Cary Grant was coming off a commercial career peak, comedy Houseboat (1958) with Sophia  Loren, Hitchcock thriller North by Northwest (1959) and war comedy Operation Petticoat (1959) all among the top box office hits of their years. He was in enormous demand. In 1960 Jerry Wald wooed him for Tender Is the Night, eventually made in 1962 with Jason Robards.  He went so far along considering Can-Can (1960) that he began working with a voice coach and passed on Let’s Make Love (1960).

The prospect of Lawrence of Arabia – he had been lined up to play the lead over two decades before – reared his head with producer Sam Spiegel eyeing him up for Allenby (played in the 1962 picture by Jack Hawkins). He turned down Lolita and a remake of The Letter. The biggest letdown was John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King which would have teamed him with Clark Gable. Of the screenplay, Grant commented: “I’ve read it twice and am still uncertain whether it’s fair, good, or perhaps, even excellent.” (It would not be filmed until 1975.)

Also in the pipeline was an intriguing original screenplay in which he and Ingrid Bergman would essay dual roles and his alternative company, Granart, also purchased The Day They Robbed the Bank. (Neither project was made.)

In the face of such indecision it’s not surprising he decided to play safe. The Grass Is Greener would be made by his own company, Grandon, a production outfit set up with director Stanley Donen – they had previously made Indiscreet (1957) – at that point still best known for musicals including Singin’ in the Rain (1951), though he had also directed Grant in the comedy Kiss Them for Me (1957).

Initially Grant cast himself as the American, with Rex Harrison (The Honey Pot, 1967) and his real-life wife Kay Kendall (Once More with Feeling, 1960, also directed by Donen) the titled British couple. Harrison would certainly have brought more natural acidity to the part but he pulled out after his wife died prematurely. Deborah Kerr, the most English of actresses, was ideal for the Earl’s wife.

Robert Mitchum, with whom Kerr had just appeared in The Sundowners (1960), was a late addition as the Yank even though it meant him dropping to third billing for the first time in over a decade. For The Sundowners he had ceded top billing to Kerr on the basis it would be better for the poster, not realizing he would be viewed as the male lead rather than the acknowledged star (not quite as subtle a difference as you might imagine in the cut-throat credits business). Kerr was at an artistic peak, winning her sixth Oscar nomination for The Sundowners. Mitchum, by contrast, nominated in a supporting role for The Story of G.I. Joe (1945) had nary a sniff of peer recognition since.

Jean Simmons (Spartacus, 1960) was a surprise choice for Grant’s character’s ex-lover but was willing to accept lower billing because she was desperate to extend her range by doing comedy. The foursome already had considerable experience working with each other, Mitchum paired with Simmons for Angel Face (1952) and She Couldn’t Say No (1953) while Kerr and Grant had dallied in Dream Wife (1953) and An Affair to Remember (1957). To round things off Kerr had played opposite Mitchum in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957) and, as mentioned, The Sundowners.

Although the picture was financed by Universal, director Donen was more of a Columbia favorite. On top of Once More with Feeling and Surprise Package for the latter studio, he was contracted to make another four, all to be filmed abroad, the director having set up home in London. Deborah Kerr was involved in Cakes and Ale, based on the Somerset Maugham novel, with George Cukor and was announced as starring in Behind the Mirror (neither film made). Mitchum was also diversifying, the first of a three-picture deal between United Artists and his company being North from Rome (never made), based on the Helen MacInnes thriller.

Shooting began at Shepperton in London on April 4, 1860, but this time round, the personalities did not quite gel. Simmons complained that Grant was “a fuss-budget, everything must be just so.” Although she did admit that his preparation worked wonders. “He’d come forth with the most amusing, polished take, everything so effortless.” Mitchum complained Grant lacked a sense of humor. “He’s very light and pleasant but his humor is sort of old music-hall jokes.”

Despite the high-class cast, Grant had very definite ideas about his star status. In one scene that called for both actresses to be bedecked in expensive jewelry, he instructed the jewels be removed in case the audience was distracted from him.

Grant and Mitchum had one thing in common, a liking for experimenting with drugs. Mitchum’s preference for marijuana was well-known. Although he had been previously jailed for his “addiction,” Mitchum still grew his own. Grant’s drug of choice, on the other hand, was LSD. He had been on a course of LSD treatment since 1958 and was in the middle of coming off the drug. “He was a little weird,” noted Mitchum.

Fittingly, their personality clash was very English, “a mild, undeclared, rivalry.” The battleground was costume, Grant perturbed that Mitchum’s laid-back style was making him look over-dressed while Mitchum complained that he was a glorified feed, employed simply to make non-committal comments in the middle of a Grant monologue.

Grant’s parsimony was also a bit extreme. As part of his invoice for doing publicity on the picture, “not only did he turn in his hotel bills and meal receipts for those four extra days but also the costs of the suits” he had had made in Hong Kong. In other words, he billed his own company. Money paid for these expenses would be deducted from any potential profit he would receive.

Kerr, however, had no complaints. “Between Cary’s superb timing and Bob’s instinctive awareness of what you’re trying to do, this was a very happy film.” But there was one other source of contention. The British media were barred from the set on by Stanley Donen on the grounds that journalists of the more sensation-seeking newspaper were apt to needle actors. Grant softened the blow by arranging to be interviewed once filming was complete.   

However, Variety was able to give the picture a publicity boost by hailing stately home tourism as “a new type of British show business,” reckoning the 400 operations raked in $4 million a year. Average admission prices of 35 cents meant over 10 million visitors a year.

Ironically, the infidelity theme cost The Grass Is Greener a lucrative Xmas launch at the prestigious Radio City Music Hall in New York. The cinema felt the content was not in keeping with Yuletide and opted for The Sundowners instead, the Donen picture shifting to the much smaller and semi-arthouse Astor. Just how important the Hall was to a movie’s public reception could be judged by the takings the previous year for Operation Petticoat (a Granart release), a whopping $175,000 opener. The point was made when The Sundowners grossed $200,000 in its first week, three times as much as The Grass Is Greener.

SOURCES: Scott Eyman, Cary Grant, A Brilliant Disguise (Simon & Schuster, 2020) p339-343,363-368; Lee Server, Robert Mitchum, Baby I Don’t Care (Faber and Faber, 2002) p204-207, 429; Eric Braun, Deborah Kerr (WH Allen, 1977) p176-177; “Deborah’s Cakes & Ale,” Variety, July 15, 1959, p3; “Grant in Original, with Himself and Bergman in Dual Roles,” Variety, September 30, 1959, p10; “Nativity and Grant Combo at Hall,” Variety, December 9, 1959, p9; “Maugham-Hurst Film Location in Tangier,” Variety, January 6, 1960, p167; “Col Extending Donen,” Variety, May 25, 1960, p20; “400 Stately Homes of England,” Variety, June 1, 1960, p2; “Needling and Smartalec British Interviewers Not Allowed In By Donen,” Variety, June 22, 1960, p2; “Infidelity Theme Cancels Grant’s Comedy at Hall,” Variety, September 21, 1960, p7; “Cary Grant’s,” Variety, November 9, 1960, p20; “B’Way soars,” Variety, December 28, 1960, p9.

The Grass Is Greener (1960) ***

A genuine all-star cast goes off-piste in what used to be called – and maybe still is – a comedy of manners. A chance encounters at the stately home owned by Victor (Cary Grant), an Earl who makes ends meet by opening up his home to tourists, sees his wife Lady Hilary (Deborah Kerr), who helps make ends meet by selling home-grown mushrooms, fall in love with American oil millionaire Charles (Robert Mitchum).

Victor is far too English and posh to go off in the deep end and after considering allowing her to indulge in an affair until she gets bored, comes up with a strategy to ensure it’s her lover who is shooed away. Hilary’s best friend, the glamorous and often barmy Hattie (Jean Simmons), all Dior outfits and full-on make-up,  meanwhile, steps in to attempt to rekindle her romance with former lover Charles.

Needless to say, this scene does not exist in the film.

While it’s peppered with epigrams and clever lines and several twists, what’s most memorable is the acting, the initial scene between Charles and Hilary a masterpiece of nuance, what’s shown in the face opposite to what they say. And there’s another peach of a scene where the most important element is what’s conveyed by a sigh. And by Robert Mitchum of all people, an actor not known for nuance.

But it’s let down by the staginess – it was based on a hit play – the very dated by now notion of showing the comic differences between British and Americans and the pacing. The theatrical element, thankfully, doesn’t resort to farce but with a whole bunch of entrances at unexpected moments you occasionally feel it’s heading in that direction. There are minor attempts to open up the play, a scene in the river, some location work in London and upmarket tourist haunts, but mostly it’s a picture that takes place on a couple of sets.

The British vs American trope just becomes tiresome after a while except that essentially the two men trade cultures, Victor exhibiting the kind of ruthlessness you might expect (in the old cliched fashion) from an American while Charles displays the kind of subtlety you would more likely find in an Englishman.

The pacing’s the biggest problem. The actors deliver lines at such speed that no time is allowed for the audience to laugh. The three British characters are almost manic in their urgency, while the Yank so laid-back he might belong to a different century.

Late on, a couple of subplots brighten up proceedings, a joke played on Hilary by Victor over the contents of a suitcase that she has devised an elaborate cover story to explain, and a betrayal of Hilary by her friend. Devilishly clever though it is, the duel scene almost belongs to a different picture. There’s also an amusing butler Sellers (Moray Watson), a wannabe writer, who believes, as is obvious, he is being under-employed, and pops up when the movie requires straightforward comic relief.

It starts off, via the Maurice Binder (Goldfinger, 1964) credits with babies, occasionally in the buff, unspooling film and indulging in other humorous activities. The only characters established before the plot kicks in are the Earl and the butler, Victor shown as tight-fisted, literally counting the pennies (although, literally, these are actually half-crowns, the price of admission to the stately home), the efficient Sellers revealed as otherwise baffled by life. The joke of a wealthy couple forced to rely on the income from visitors was not even much of a joke by then.

Perhaps what’s most interesting is that this movie essentially about immorality failed to click with U.S. audiences while an equally immoral picture The Apartment (1960) did superb business, the difference less relating to star quality than directorial ability, Billy Wilder’s work always having a greater edge than the confections of Stanley Donen.

It’s the supporting cast – if stars can be so termed – who steal the show. Robert Mitchum  (Man in the Middle/The Winston Affair, 1964) is just marvelous, one of his best acting jobs, relying far more on expression to carry a scene. He delivers a masterclass in how little an actor needs to do. Jean Simmons (Rough Night in Jericho, 1967) is also excellent for the opposite reason, an over-the-top mad-as-a-hatter conniving ex-lover with an eye on the main chance. That’s not to say Cary Grant (Walk, Don’t Run, 1966) and Deborah Kerr (The Arrangement, 1969) are not good, just overshadowed, and Kerr’s first scene with Mitchum, where she, too, realizes she is falling instantly in love is remarkably underplayed.

Stanley Donen (Arabesque, 1966) should have done more, pre-filming, to tighten up the script and expand the production. Hugh Williams and Margaret Vyner adapted their own play. It’s entertaining enough but I was more taken by the acting than the picture.

The Arrangement (1969) ***

It might have been better if director Elia Kazan had handed over the screenwriting chores for this adaptation of his bestseller about the midlife crisis of advertising man Eddie Anderson (Kirk Douglas). Anderson’s attempts to juggle wife Florence (Deborah Kerr) and mistress Gwen (Faye Dunaway) coupled with growing disgust at selling a new brand of cigarettes, Zephyr (“The Clean One”), in a way that pointedly avoids their cancer potential, leads to a suicide attempt.  

During convalescence he determines to quit the advertising world and go back to his first love, writing, but in fact he ends up sabotaging his career. Florence represents impossible seduction and conscience. Slinky, in dark glasses, hot-tempered rather than submissive or demure, she accuses him of self-deception in his job. The picture flits back and forth between his various choices – different job, return to wife, settle down with mistress, or what seems his ideal world, cossetted by both Gwen and Florence.

Gwen is an excellent study of the modern woman (of that fast-changing period, I hasten to add), who needs a man for sex but not necessarily love, and can use the opposite gender as ruthlessly as any man. What she actually requires in her real life is quite different to what she seeks in the fantasy love she enjoyed with Anderson, sex on the beach, the buzz of controlling a high-powered man. Florence could be seen as an old-fashioned portrait of the adoring wife except for capturing so well the bewilderment of betrayal.

Kazan conjures up some wonderful images: the tension before the suicide attempt as Anderson plays chicken between two trucks, Gwen emerging wet from the pool to eat dangling grapes or with her legs up on Anderson’s desk, Anderson’s mother lighting votive candles in her house before using the same match for her cigarette, Kerr’s futile attempts to win back her fallen husband, Anderson flying solo.

In parts well-observed and directorially savvy, quick cuts between the present and the past, however it sinks beneath its own self-indulgence. My guess is that author Kazan could not bear to kill off a single one of the characters he had created for his acclaimed novel and the upshot is a vastly over-populated picture, few of whom cast any real light on Anderson’s predicament. So we are not only introduced to mother, dying father, brother, sister-in-law and  analyst but priest and a bucket of clients and guys from the office. And there are some plot oddities – Anderson gets time off apparently to write journalistic pieces – and what is clearly intended as hard-hitting satire of the advertising world does not come off.

Dunaway (Bonnie and Clyde, 1967) is the standout as Gwen, living life according to her own rules, and with an unexpected vision of domesticity but Deborah Kerr (Prudence and the Pill, 1968) does pain like nobody else and is extremely convincing. Strangely enough, I didn’t go much for Douglas (Seven Days in May, 1964). He could have been leading a cavalry charge for all the range of emotions he exhibited. Douglas is no Montgomery Clift (Wild River, 1960), James Dean (East of Eden, 1955) or Marlon Brando (On the Waterfront, 1954) who was Kazan’s first choice. Kazan had not made a picture in six years and it had been eight years since his last hit Splendor in the Grass (1961). Not quite out-of-touch in concept and delivery, nonetheless it was shunned by the Oscar fraternity.

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