Greed and glamour in the Mexican jungle, The true story about the making of "The Night of the Iguana"
A Stolen Paradise is the true, never-before-told story about the making of John Huston's classic film "The Night of the Iguana" and its effect on Puerto Vallarta
Journalism History, Travel
||Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
||4 publishers interested
A Stolen Paradise is a controversial new book about the making of The Night of the Iguana. The non-fiction narrative follows the history of this modern classic from its creation as an acclaimed stage play by Tennessee Williams, regarded as the greatest playwright of the twentieth century, to its adaptation as an Oscar-winning movie directed by the legendary filmmaker John Huston. Sharing the spotlight in this riveting saga are two international megastars whose love affair dominated news coverage for much of that millennium: Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, together with the highly combustible superstar Ava Gardner, and a third equally impressive star, Deborah Kerr, who lived side-by-side for three months in the Mexican jungle during the film’s production. Everyone involved hoped they would benefit from the movie’s success. But what was the personal and professional cost to each of them? Through extensive archival research and firsthand interviews, which uncover many previously unknown facts, Howard Johns brings to life the people and events surrounding The Night of the Iguana and its transformative effect on Puerto Vallarta – once a small fishing village, now an international tourist destination. It was there, in the isolated jungles of Mismaloya, that the movie had its greatest impact, introducing the native inhabitants, who had no previous contact with the outside world, to a modern way of life, the effects of which are still being felt today. This richly detailed account of movie making is more than an exposé of Hollywood or a sentimental wallow in nostalgia; it is also a time capsule of world events. A Stolen Paradise combines elements of American pop culture, Mexican history and Aztec mythology to tell a prescient saga of human conquest and its surprising, often tragic, consequences.
A Stolen Paradise is constructed in four interconnecting parts with a prologue and epilogue. allowing readers to follow the complete arc of this epic story from its intriguing beginning to its revelatory end.
OUTLINE: The exciting introduction, in which a group of Mexican boys trap and kill iguanas, provides a dynamic opening to the book, setting the explicit tone for the subsequent story. Money changes hands for the captured lizards. Innocence gives way to corruption. A montage of famous faces introduces readers to the main characters in this intriguing blend of romance and adventure.
PART ONE: THE SEVENTH ART
CHAPTERS 1-14; untitled, numbered only
OUTLINE: The fascinating development of the Broadway hit The Night of the Iguana, which became the crowning glory of Tennessee Williams’ long and successful career. Star Bette Davis bows out of the play and Shelley Winters steps in. Seven Arts Productions begins pre-production of the movie, setting in motion an unexpected chain of events. Ray Stark hires John Huston to direct the cinematic version. Casting begins. Huston visits Richard Burton in Switzerland, Ava Gardner in Spain, and Deborah Kerr in England.
PART TWO: 20 DEGREES ABOVE THE EQUATOR
CHAPTERS 15- 23; untitled, numbered only
OUTLINE: Preparations get underway to make The Night of the Iguana in the seaside town of Puerto Vallarta. John Huston persuades Seven Arts to finance the building of a hotel on a remote strip of coastline with no roads or essential services. Huston gets his wish to hire acclaimed cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, but for budgetary reasons, the film will be photographed in black and white. Huston flies to Mexico City for the Independence Day celebrations. Sue Lyon attends her first bullfight. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor are ambushed by paparazzi at Benito Juarez Airport. Ava Gardner goes to a health spa to lose weight. Filming of the movie begins at Churubusco Studios.
PART THREE: SACRED MONSTERS
CHAPTERS 24- 30; untitled, numbered only
OUTLINE: The cast of The Night of the Iguana arrives in Puerto Vallarta for the start of filming. The visiting celebrities are enthusiastically greeted by the townspeople, who are unaware that planeloads of intrusive journalists and photographers will shortly be descending on their peaceful village. Elizabeth Taylor rents a house with Richard Burton. Heavy rainstorms delay filming. Burton gets drunk on tequila. Actress Grayson Hall nearly drowns in the ocean. Sue Lyon bursts into tears when her boyfriend is evicted from the set. Deborah Kerr keeps a secret diary that she later sells to a major magazine. Ava Gardner goes water skiing with her Mexican boyfriend. Tennessee Williams performs in drag.
PART FOUR: HOLLYWOOD ON THE ROCKS
CHAPTERS 31- 45; untitled, numbered only
OUTLINE: Production of The Night of the Iguana moves to Mismaloya, where the actors mimic the lives of their onscreen characters. Temperatures rise; romance blossoms and tempers flare in this primitive jungle setting. John Huston presents gold-plated Derringer pistols and engraved bullets to the cast. The town celebrates Day of the Dead. Budd Schulberg kisses Richard Burton. Assistant director Tom Shaw falls down a hill and breaks his back. Cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa and Ava Gardner perform a barefoot Cuban dance. The film’s wrap party becomes a drunken orgy. Elizabeth Taylor divorces Eddie Fisher and marries Richard Burton. After Huston’s job is finished he moves on to his next film, leaving producer Ray Stark with the responsibility of editing and releasing one of the most talked about movies in history.
OUTLINE: The enormous success of The Night of the Iguana has mixed blessings for Puerto Vallarta, which struggles with its new identity, while the film’s cast and crew were plagued by misfortune. Sue Lyon’s brother commits suicide. John Huston’s wife is killed in a car accident. Ray Stark’s son jumps to his death. Tennessee Williams chokes to death in a hotel room. Richard Burton dies from a cerebral hemorrhage. Elizabeth Taylor suffers congestive heart failure.
A Stolen Paradise is an indispensable resource for movie fans, scholars and tourists alike, who will be informed of the remarkable circumstances surrounding the making of The Night of the Iguana – one of the most exceptional films in living memory.
The potential readership for Howard Johns’ forthcoming book is international. People around the globe have a natural curiosity about the rich and famous, especially such icons of glamour as Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Ava Gardner.
Some examples of active fan clubs are: www.elizabethtaylor.com, www.richardburton.com, and www.avagardner.com. There are also several tribute sites offering email newsletters through membership subscriptions. For example: Ava Gardner Museum, Smithfield, North Carolina (www.avagardner.org); Deborah Kerr: Personal Collection (www.deborahkerr.es); and Gabriel Figueroa (www.gabrielfigueroa.com).
The combined achievements of John Huston, Tennessee Williams and Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, who photographed The Night of the Iguana, are known worldwide by film aficionados and students.
In 2012, the US Postal Service honored John Huston with a stamp, and Tennessee Williams was honored with a stamp in 1995.
In 2013-14, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art held a photographic tribute to Gabriel Figueroa, entitled Under the Mexican Sky: Gabriel Figueroa – Art and Film.
Howard Johns is a film historian, author and television personality from Palm Springs, California. In 2004, he wrote the bestselling nonfiction book Palm Springs Confidential: Playground of the Stars (Barricade Books), which sold out through three printings. The title was chosen by Turner Classic Movies as Book of the Month, and selected by InsightOut® Book Club and Advocate magazine for their Christmas book selection. Two years later, Johns published the scandalous follow-up Hollywood Celebrity Playground with similar success.
Howard Johns has been interviewed on numerous TV news broadcasts and documentary programs, discussing the lives and deaths of celebrities. He first gained widespread recognition as a producer for NBC live coverage of the funeral of Congressman Sonny Bono. During the revitalization of Palm Springs, Johns provided exclusive access to the homes of Cary Grant, Loretta Young and Jane Wyman. Among his guest appearances are: Legendary Hollywood Homes, narrated by Sally Kellerman (American Movie Classics); Mysteries & Scandals, hosted by A.J. Benza, and E! True Hollywood Story (Entertainment Television). In 2004, Johns appeared on the Kraft two-hour holiday special Hollywood Home Movies, directed by Morgan Neville (Arts & Entertainment Network), and shown on Time Warner Cable and Comcast. He also has been featured on such top-rated network programs as Entertainment Tonight, Inside Edition, and Hard Copy.
PALM SPRINGS LIFE MAGAZINE
From 1996 to 2002, Howard Johns was editor-at-large for the monthly California prestige magazine Palm Springs Life, where he met and interviewed such stars as Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Kirk Douglas, Stefanie Powers, George Hamilton, and Suzanne Somers. Among his acclaimed feature-length articles are: Too Much of a Good Thing is Wonderful, His Kind of Town, The Great and the Beautiful, Housing Authority, Bob & Dolores: A Love Story, The Desert of Oz, and In the Swing. In 2008, Johns was a contributing editor for the magazine’s 50th anniversary issue, providing a multilayered commentary about the history and development of this unique desert oasis. His extensive research has also been featured in Vanity Fair and Architectural Digest.Johns currently resides in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, where he recently completed his third nonfiction book, A Stolen Paradise.
PREVIOUS ACCLAIM FOR HOWARD JOHNS
“Howard Johns, who raised eyebrows and activated scandal sheets with his Palm Springs Confidential, is back with another full-bodied pictorial about the West Coast glitterati.” – Barnes & Noble
“Johns delights in his tabloid antics and his range of trivial knowledge about a vast array of movie and TV stars is impressive. Bitchy and irreverent… a guilty pleasure.” – Publishers Weekly
“Talk to Howard Johns and you’re talking to a living encyclopedia of glamour… His mellifluous voice gilded with an Australian accent speeds by you at a mile a minute, but he chooses his words with charm and journalistic precision.” – The Bottom Line
“Hollywood Celebrity Playground picks up where his scandalous Palm Springs Confidential left off… dishes the dirt on celebrities and the lavish, lecherous lives they lead.” – TCM Movie News
“In the tradition of Hollywood Babylon comes this riveting, nosy encyclopedia of desert gossip, with cameos by every LGBT visitor imaginable, from Liberace and Udo to Lily and Jane…” – The Advocate
“Howard Johns once again busts through the security gates of the rich and famous to not only give us a look at their cribs and celebrity sleepovers but also their crimes…deliciously scandalous!” – InsightOut Book Club
A Stolen Paradise combines travel, history and biography in a tantalizing mixture, rarely seen in a nonfiction book. Our strong presence on social media is generating widespread interest from website visitors, Facebook members, YouTube viewers and Twitter users. Cut and paste these links to learn more about this enthralling new book:
A built-in ready audience for Stolen Paradise is the lucrative tourist market. Puerto Vallarta is among the top ten most visited beach destinations in Mexico. In 2011, there were 3.5 million tourist arrivals on 400 domestic and 730 international flights. More than 300,000 visitors were American cruise ship passengers. There are 1 million US citizens living in Mexico, says the State Department. Of this number, 35,000 US and Canadian citizens are living in Puerto Vallarta. Many residents, who are retirees, age 65 and over, remember The Night of the Iguana with affection, and are eagerly awaiting publication of this new book.
Although there has been a steady output of books dealing with numerous aspects of Hollywood, there are no books that discuss the making of The Night of the Iguana in the complexity and detail that is to be found in A Stolen Paradise. With its plethora of compelling, real-life characters – Tennessee Williams, John Huston, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr, and Sue Lyon – and an exotic tropical setting, A Stolen Paradise provides a remarkable glimpse of Hollywood movie making and its effects on the people and culture of Mexico. The few books that do exist, several of which are mentioned below, refer to the making of the movie in a peripheral context or not at all.
The private papers of Tennessee Williams, which are housed at the University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee, have provided biographers with a wealth of information about his plays, films and personal relationships. Two recent books have reconstructed key aspects of his career, one (Tennessee Williams and Company, by John DiLeo, published by Hansen Publishing Group, 2010) deals specifically with the actors in his films, and the other (Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, by John Lahr, published by W. W. Norton & Company, 2014) delves into his private life.
Writers continue to debate the existential nature of John Huston’s films in a range of books that are both fanciful (John Huston: Courage and Art, by Jeffrey Meyers, published by Crown Archetype, 2011), and instructional, (The Hustons, by Lawrence Grobel, published by Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1989). The best source of information about the director’s life remains his autobiography (An Open Book by John Huston, published by Alfred A. Knopf, 1980).
Together and separately, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton have merited dozens of books ranging from sycophantic (Liz, by C. David Heymann, published by Birch Lane Press, 1995), to cerebral (The Richard Burton Diaries, edited by Chris Williams, published by Yale University Press, 2012). The most popular of these biographies (Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and the Marriage of the Century, by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger, published by HarperCollins, 2010) contains a mixture of assertive reporting and fawning adulation.
The two most interesting books about Ava Gardner are both posthumous works by their authors. The first (Ava: My Story, by Ava Gardner, published by Bantam Books, 1990) was ghostwritten by Stephen Birmingham, while a second, more recent account (Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations, by Peter Evans, published by Simon & Schuster, 2014), contains various events recollected by a former tabloid journalist. Only one biography gives a full account (Ava Gardner: “Love is Nothing...” by Lee Server, published by St. Martin’s Press, 2006)
The first of two restrained biographies about Deborah Kerr (Deborah Kerr, by Eric Braun, published by St. Martin’s Press, 1978) is a straightforward assessment of the actress and her films, ending with her retirement. A second book (Deborah Kerr: A Biography, by Michelangelo Capua, published by McFarland & Company, 2010) discusses her life and family in a modern context.
Bette Davis had never seen a real iguana. The legendary movie star, who relished playing venomous roles, had only glanced at illustrations of these peculiar looking reptiles and heard about their ferocious reputation. “I thought iguanas were poisonous,” she reacted with astonishment. “No, no, no!” laughed the eminent playwright Tennessee Williams, who was visiting Davis backstage at the Miami Beach Auditorium on the night of January 25, 1960. Their unpublicized meeting took place in the private dressing room of the art deco theatre with its coral pink and sea foam green façade. “Those are Komodo dragons, and they don’t eat people,” quipped Williams from behind thick, black-rimmed eyeglasses, “unless you’re already dead!”
Davis had been nominated ten times for the Academy Award and won the gold-plated statuette twice for her bravura acting in the films Dangerous and Jezebel. This gilded proof of her matchless ability inspired such young admirers as Lauren Bacall and Meryl Streep to enter the acting profession. The evening of Williams’ visit, Davis was sitting at a makeup table framed with electric light bulbs. Resembling a plumper version of Queen Elizabeth, the short-tempered English monarch she had portrayed two different times on the screen, Davis sipped Johnnie Walker Red Label from a whiskey glass. At age fifty-one, her regal features had coarsened from years of heavy smoking, though she still possessed the soft chestnut hair and piercing light blue eyes.
The celebrated actress was performing a national tour of The World of Carl Sandburg, an evening of homespun poetry readings adapted by the esteemed scriptwriter Norman Corwin and interspersed with American folk songs by the virtuoso soloist Clark Allen. The traveling road show, which commenced in Davis’s hometown of Portland, Maine, was slowly winding its way through a total of 108 North American cities until it reached California. On many nights, there was more drama going on in the theater wings with Davis and her fourth husband, actor Gary Merrill, than there was on the stage. The married performers regularly fought each other, sometimes coming to angry blows. The catalyst was their addiction to alcohol. The brawling continued and so Merrill left the play before the end of his contract.
Even so, for many observers, the idea of Davis reciting Sandburg’s philosophical prose and verse, while attired in a formal evening gown, hardly fit her image as a Yankee spitfire. But that was part of Davis’ longstanding appeal; she liked to surprise her fans, which is the reason she agreed to do these historic readings. It was an entirely different kind of theatrical experience – joyful, sentimental, and heartwarming – compared to Williams’ tense emotional dramas with their verbal cruelty. Still, there was no denying his exalted reputation. So she listened to him talking about lizards until he revealed the true reason for his visit. .
Davis glared at the reflection of Williams, who stood behind her like a fawning manservant. A short, bashful man with wavy dark hair, deep blue eyes and a neatly-trimmed mustache, Williams had traveled 150 miles from his home in Key West, to personally offer Davis the starring role in his forthcoming play The Night of the Iguana, which was scheduled to open on Broadway in the winter of 1961. With his black suit and necktie, however, he looked more like an undertaker selling funeral caskets than a famed writer of plays.
“Actually, in many parts of Latin America,” Williams continued, “people eat iguanas. I’m told they taste like chicken.” Davis stared at him bug-eyed, her penciled eyebrows arched like two brown caterpillars. “I don’t believe it!” she snorted, a faint smile crossing her scarlet lips. Although Davis doubted the veracity of his claims, she was amused by Williams’ soft-spoken Southern charm. The actress reached for a packet of Chesterfields, thrust one of the unfiltered cigarettes into her puckered mouth and lit the white cylindrical tip with a solid gold lighter. Then she exhaled, blowing smoke into the air. “Surely you’re joking,” she responded in her emphatic, clipped tones. “No,” he drawled sweetly, “I assure you I’m not.”
It would take one hour before the chill thawed between the overbearing star and the high-strung dramatist. Davis broke the ice by offering the forty-eight-year-old writer a glass of Scotch, which he gladly accepted. Williams proceeded to tell her the story of an Episcopalian minister who is accused of sexual misconduct. The angry priest denounces God from the pulpit of his West Virginia church and runs away to Mexico. While working as a bus tour guide, he meets three beautiful women, representing innocence, guilt and betrayal. But the man must resist the strong impulse to sleep with each of them if he is to make peace with himself and find salvation.
Williams was convinced that Davis would be perfect for the lead female character in the play: a widowed hotel proprietor, who falls in love with the expelled reverend. The part, as he described, was ideally suited for Davis: “She is a stout swarthy woman in her middle forties – affable and rapaciously lusty… Maxine always laughs with a harsh, loud bark, opening her mouth like a seal expecting a fish to be thrown to it.”
Listening to Williams speak, Davis warmed to the play’s dramatic possibilities. Her long film career, which spanned four decades, had begun to slow down. Always restless, she was actively pursuing work on television and in the theatre. A new play by Tennessee Williams afforded Davis the opportunity of staging a major acting comeback. “So these iguanas,” she inquired, hinting at the play’s symbolism, “are they predators?” Williams grinned at her. “Well, actually they are metaphors for the human condition. They feast on insects and plants and when they’re old and wrinkled,” he explained, “some of them are almost as large as a man or woman – and just as fat.”
Davis eyed Williams with a mixture of revulsion and curiosity. Strange or not, he was a powerhouse name in the theater world. If she accepted his offer, it would mark the first time that Davis headlined in a New York stage production since treading the boards in Charles Sherman’s musical revue Two’s Company at the Alvin Theatre. That was in 1952. How wonderful, the aging luminary thought, if she could recapture that same magic.
Davis contemplated Williams’ reflection next to hers in the dressing room mirror. “How interesting, the way you see things,” she commented, and stood up, tugging at the waistline of her dress. Davis showed him to the dressing room door and they said farewell. When Williams had gone, she flung the door shut and leaned back against the wall. Then Davis opened her mouth and guffawed until her raucous laugh could be heard echoing through the empty corridors of the theatre.
Speeding along the Miami Overseas Highway in his shiny white Thunderbird convertible, Williams paused and took a swig of Kentucky bourbon from a silver flask he kept in the automobile’s glove compartment. He savored the taste of the sweet liquor, a look of blissful contentment on his moonlit face. In that quiet moment, alone on the highway, Williams felt blessed.
Hailed as the greatest living American playwright of his generation, Tennessee Williams had achieved that rare show business phenomenon: a meteoric rise from provincial obscurity to global prominence, though it took him a long time to accomplish this remarkable feat. The son of a Mississippi shoe salesman, Thomas Williams was sixteen when he began writing poems and essays. His first play, titled Cairo! Shanghai! Bombay! was performed in 1935. Four years later, after moving to New Orleans, he changed his name from Tom, a moniker that he considered banal, to the more lyrical Tennessee, paving the way for greatness.
Williams was proclaimed a literary genius with his groundbreaking play The Glass Menagerie, a profound study of mental illness, which opened on Broadway in 1945. His next triumph, A Streetcar Named Desire, about the bitter relationship of a chauvinistic factory worker, his pregnant wife and crazy sister-in-law, ran for two years and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The success of these two theatrical milestones turned Williams into an overnight celebrity and made him a wealthy man. But Williams was much more than a skilled writer of bold words.
From the start, his plays stirred up controversy with their sexual frankness and physical brutality. His shocking revelations of impotence, homosexuality, incest, rape and murder, stunned the nation’s theatergoers and provoked the anger of one of his most persistent critics, the Roman Catholic Church. Because of the sacrilegious tone of Williams’ plays, it was inevitable that his popularity would suffer a backlash, which it eventually did. Despite winning a host of early accolades, he had not had a certified Broadway hit since the dysfunctional family saga Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, his second Pulitzer Prize winner, in 1955. So, in an effort to rekindle the fire, Williams turned his attention to Hollywood.
His screenplay for the film Baby Doll, a black comedy about a virginal thumb-sucking teenage bride, unleashed a howl of criticism. Time magazine called it “possibly the dirtiest American-made motion picture that has ever been legally exhibited.” Two days before the film’s release, the Archbishop of New York, Francis Cardinal Spellman, lambasted Williams from the pulpit of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Spellman exhorted Catholics to refrain from patronizing the film “under pain of sin.” The Legion of Decency condemned the film, calling it immoral, and organized a national boycott of movie theatres.
The resulting publicity tripled the film’s earnings at the box office and pushed Williams’ notoriety to unprecedented levels. Imitators copied his grandiose style and the names of his famously neurotic characters: Amanda Wingfield, Gentleman Caller, Blanche DuBois, Stanley Kowalski, Maggie the Cat and Big Daddy entered the vernacular.
Like many great artists, however, Williams was sensitive to criticism and prone to jealousy. He was particularly galled by the success of William Inge, a former newspaper drama critic, whom he encouraged out of infatuation to become a playwright. Inge took his advice and wrote some of the best American dramas of the 1950s: Come Back Little Sheba, Picnic and Bus Stop.
Williams was infuriated. The pressure to dream up more sensational plays caused him to suffer a nervous breakdown, and in 1957 he began seeing a psychoanalyst. Although Williams kept trying to top himself, his most recent productions: Orpheus Descending, Suddenly Last Summer, Sweet Bird of Youth, and Period of Adjustment, were regarded as lesser works by an artist in decline. One disapproving critic, tired of Williams’ unceasing prurience, called him a “dirty-minded dramatist who has long been losing hope for the human race.”
Another equally repulsed reviewer wrote that “Williams now seems to be in a sort of race with himself, surpassing homosexuality with cannibalism, cannibalism with castration, devising new and greater shocks with each succeeding play.” It remained to be seen if Williams, who considered vice his greatest virtue, could prove his accusers wrong.