One Night in Puerto Vallarta

John Huston’s 1964 masterpiece The Night of the Iguana transformed this sleepy part of Mexico into a hot spot.
By Lisa Moore
Published in the September 2008 issue of enRoute

Every inch of the perfect beach is covered with bodies and beach chairs and palm-thatched umbrellas. There are besotted honeymooners, college kids guzzling Coronas and retired couples wearing straw hats and chunky Aztec-style silver jewellery. There is a group of guys, who look like hockey players, with their girlfriends. The lithe girlfriends are full of loud laughter and have great hair and designer bikinis – or what little there is of their bikinis appears to have been designed.

Four men – fiercely buff, pierced, tattooed and tanned – stroll along the beach. One of them holds a tiny Yorkshire Terrier with a pink bow tied so tightly to the top of its head that it’s forced to squint. The men stop abruptly in front of my towel and look up at the sky with their hands over their eyes. The sun is hot but a circle of shade suddenly falls over me – and me alone – and makes me shiver. It’s like a moment in John Huston’s film The Night of the Iguana, based on the Tennessee Williams play, when all the good clean fun turns eerily sinister, when everybody must admit that we desire strange things and that this desire is ungovernable. We don’t want to die or be reminded of death, but it all comes in the same package.

I hear a shrill whistle and see a parasailer hovering about 15 feet over my head. I can see his giant floral-print swimming trunks, the harness straps of his parachute digging into his body and the blue soles of his sneakers, kicking. Four Mexican men race over, catch him in their arms, help set him down and fold up the parachute before it ever touches the sand. They undo the straps and clap him on the back.

This is Puerto Vallarta and the beach is called Playa de los Muertos, a name Tennessee Williams would have enjoyed. My husband and I are off to see the film set of The Night of the Iguana, and we just stopped for a swim. I scan the water for my husband and for a moment can’t find him, but then I see him flick his hair. Drops of water scatter like silver coins.

On the cab ride down the coastal road to Mismaloya, where The Night of the Iguana was shot in 1963, we see people selling sombreros and T-shirts out of huts. The stark white flank of a giant cruise ship is visible through the roadside tropical greenery. When we arrive, we find that the film site is closed and has been for two years. Instead we visit the set of the 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger blockbuster Predator, just because it’s there.

I have never watched Predator, but I suspect that, like many blockbusters, it’s fuelled by a portrayal of death so banal that it becomes a parody and does not offend in the slightest. The Predator monster has been preserved here, a string of skulls slung over its shoulder. There is also a zip-line ride. Tourists in helmets and harnesses fly over the rainforest from one peak to the next. The company promises a personalized DVD of your journey, complete with sound effects, delivered to your hotel that very night – filmmaking of a different order.

On the way back to our hotel, our taxi driver says he thinks he can get us into the Night of the Iguana site. He flicks the rear-view mirror so he can see me. “Since you want to see it so much,” he says.

He drives to the entrance, rattles the padlocked gate and stands with his hands behind his back, head bowed, tapping his foot. There’s a guard in a nearby shed and, after the driver speaks to him, he unlocks the gate and we head down the long cobbled brick lane.

Why does this thrill me? Because Tennessee Williams is irreverent and poetic, a brave and vulnerable writer. Because his plays are full of death and a sexuality that is sometimes twisted and morally provocative but utterly human. And because Huston’s Night of the Iguana is a masterpiece.

In it, Richard Burton is astoundingly beautiful and at the height of his powers as an actor. He plays a defrocked priest-cum-tour guide who’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The film, which also stars Ava Gardner and Deborah Kerr, is all about pent-up desire, despair, repressed homosexuality, poetry and surf – and an ugly iguana that’s being fattened up on the end of a rope for the kill. Richard Burton’s character walks through broken glass and bloodies the floor of the hotel because he is trying to find lost innocence and because he, too, is at the end of a rope.

Now, though, the hotel is in ruins. There is some graffiti and piles of stones where parts of the roof have collapsed. Dried palm leaves crunch under our feet. A hand-painted sign reads: “John Huston, Director.” The taxi driver looks out over the ocean below us at his hometown. The cruise ship we saw earlier has pulled into the bay. I ask our driver if he has seen the movie.

“Of course,” he says. “Everything changed with this movie.” Richard Burton bought Elizabeth Taylor a house in Puerto Vallarta, and what had been an isolated village burgeoned into the tourist spot it is now.

The taxi driver opens all four doors of the car to let the breeze blow through. It is sweltering inside. He gets in, turns the ignition and the engine chugs briefly and cuts out. He tries again and it chugs hard and squeals and then cuts out. We are trapped on the decaying set in the heat.

On the last night of our trip, a crowd gathers on a street corner to watch a lunar eclipse. An elderly man says, “We won’t be around the next time this happens. This is our last chance.” We all stare up as the giant circle of shade crosses over the moon and blots it out.