The Days and Nights of the Iguana (1964) I

May, 1964 – Esquire Magazine

By Deborah Kerr

A cuckoo4kitties presentation in cinemascope.

We arrived in Puerto Vallarta on the evening of the eighth, and it has taken me until now (October 13) to settle in. The unaccustomed heat and humidity take some getting used to, to say nothing of becoming inured to the incredible noises of the village around our house. Never have there been such raucous donkeys, such snuffling and screeching pigs, such shrill and insistent roosters and babbling turkeys. Top this off with a thick sauce of mariachi music, plus phonographs and radios at full blast, season with firecrackers and rockets at all hours of the night, and you have a fairly tasty idea of what the sleeping conditions are like in this tropical paradise. The huge moths and flying beetles that flop and clatter around the lights aren’t much help either; the house has no screens, which seems curious to me in this climate. I shall have to have some made if we are to be able to have the lights on at all. I don’t fancy groping my way around in the dark and stepping on a scorpion. Despite these drawbacks our house is charming and comfortable, with plenty of hot water and johns that work (so far).

Tonight Peter and I sat on the terrace with one drink and watched the life of this end of Puerto Vallarta pass by. On Sunday everyone dresses up: men in white shirts and dark trousers, women in starched gleaming cottons, prints or gingham or spots or stripes, the children starched too-the older girls carrying the babies, and some of the little girls of about nine or ten with their hair piled up in grown-up fashion, which is strangely touching. The light at seven o’clock at night is exquisite: each leaf on each tree seems to stand out, the bricks are rosy in the evening sun, and a breeze stirs the leaves now and then. An old man lurches by, his bottle of rum or tequila or something clasped tightly; a boy wanders along, a pole across his shoulders with a tin bucket hanging from either end. A small child stumbles on the rough dirt road, sobbing bitterly over some tragedy known only to himself. The music is blaring out: records of mariachis and a few American tunes with Spanish words.

OCTOBER 14, MONDAY: Worked all morning learning my first scene. It’s a mouthful, a whole page, and it is the kind of scene that must flow, consequently I must know it backward. As I was rehearsing it, I was suddenly engulfed with that knee-rattling fear of being unable to remember the lines. If it does happen during a scene, blind panic sets in, all rational thought leaves the mind, and a desperate look enters the eye. I have watched it in other actors, and felt keenly for them. I feel chilled with fright as I think of it. Of course you can do it again when it is a movie, but sometimes the place where you have “gone” becomes a complete hazard, and it is difficult to overcome it, however hard you try to think of the sense and content of the scene.

OCTOBER 15: It was terribly hot last night. I couldn’t sleep and finally went into the other room so that I could have the light on and read. That damned cockerel seems to crow every two hours! Just as one gets to sleep he starts up with maddening insistence. I worked until two-thirty this afternoon. I had some new pages to put in my script-nothing really exciting. I was hoping for a better scene between Ava and myself in the kitchen. I keep finding so many marvelous things in the play that are missing, especially in my part [Hannah]. I think there is a danger that it has been reduced to one dimension. A pity. I should have fought harder for it. I should always fight harder, but I don’t. Ambition gone? Yes-a little, I think-but I never liked fighting anyway.

Peter is making a cold soup for lunch. A breeze has come up suddenly, and the rocker on the terrace is rocking wildly as if some invisible person were furiously lulling himself.

OCTOBER 18, FRIDAY: Went out to Mismaloya where the location is, for a round-the-table reading of the script by the whole cast. I was delighted to see Richard again-it is some four years since we saw each other. Elizabeth was there too, with those devastating turquoise black-fringed eyes. Ava warm and friendly but very nervous, and Sue Lyon looking much more grown up than when I met her briefly in London when she was doing Lolita. It’s a jolt for me to realize she is only a year older than my own daughter Melanie. The reading went quite well, everyone rather nervous and hot and swilling beer to quench the thirst which came partly from heat and partly from nerves. I am not going to be needed for shooting until about the end of next week, so I asked if I could go to Los Angeles for the weekend. This heat is very wearing, and I need to do some shopping for tinned food, mainly vegetables and fruit. I fancy a steady diet of rice and fish will both fatten and bore us, and the vegetable marketing here is very difficult in that they are hard to find and, if found, dangerous to eat.

OCTOBER 25, FRIDAY: Received word in the morning to be at the beach, which is called Los Muertos, at four p.m. This cheerful name graces a fairly nice beach, backed with a number of palm-covered huts which are cafés (bars), a couple of beach- and resort-wear shops, and further up the beach the Hotel Tropicana, rather unattractive to look at, modern yellowish-white concrete, and out-of-keeping with the palm-leaf hotels and Spanish-style architecture. The method employed to reach the boat is extremely modern: a dugout canoe. The takeoff is precarious and wet-making, and the transfer from dugout to boat is hair-raising, particularly in rough weather. I arrived promptly at four, and at four-fifteen one of the Mexican assistants came scampering down to tell me my call was canceled because Sue Lyon was ill and Skip Ward was ill and Cyril Delevanti was ill and Dorothy Jeakins was ill and had broken her toe-a positive flood of tragedies.

So I stayed on the beach, bumped into Michael Wilding, who is now working with Hugh French in the agency business and who represents Richard Burton, and swam in the too-hot water and drank the inevitable beer. I must cut down on the marvelous thirst-quenching Mexican beer. I shall not be a very “Miss Thin-Standing-up-Female-Buddha” [which is how Burton, as Shannon, refers to her in the movie]. Lying on the beach gave me my first chance to look at the tourists.

I am intrigued by their reasons for coming at this time of the year. The heat is enormous, the ocean hot and unrefreshing, the bugs formidable and the hotel accommodations (with one or two exceptions) extremely primitive. I suppose some of them have come because a movie is being made here. The notoriety of the cast probably adds spice to what is always a good fly-catcher anyway-moviemaking. But on the whole they are a rather frightening bunch. Gross, overdressed (or excessively underdressed), loud and very drunken. The atmosphere of “no holds barred, anything goes, get drunk, smoke marijuana, behave outlandishly, nothing matters, nobody will see” is rather overwhelming.

OCTOBER 26: Saturdays the company works only until two-thirty. This morning broke grey with pelting rain.

Yesterday evening when we got back home there was a message to take the boat from the beach at eleven-thirty this morning for Mismaloya. I climbed into jeans and a shirt and my raincoat (thank goodness I brought it), and put a scarf over my head, and Carlos, our very “simpatico”* driver, trundled me over the uneven cobblestoned roads to the Beach of the Dead. It lived up to its name this grey morning. There is nothing more melancholy than a tropical resort beach in the rain. Depressed and damp tourists, still bravely sporting their loud cotton shirts and shorts, sat humidly drinking tequila. The beach boys huddled under the round palm shades. The West Coast Editor of Time Magazine was to come too, and, poor girl, she had on tiny cotton shorts and a sleeveless blouse and she was soaked. To sit in the canoe was to sit in a lake and it must have been rather uncomfortable for her. I think she sat on the mailbag eventually. We scrambled aboard the boat and chugged off.

Curiously enough this morning I had received a letter from the editor of a new magazine about to be published called Fact. In it I was asked if I had any firsthand knowledge of inaccuracies published by Time Magazine as they were collecting data on this, and they were writing to many people to ask the same question. I should think they will be oversubscribed. Time’s is notorious for its inaccuracies-indeed the only occasion I ever wrote a letter to the magazine was to protest against Time’s assertion that I wore contact lenses. They had written an article about the advancement of contact lenses, quoting various people who used them. And there was I-Picture too, if you please! I remember I wrote something a bit narky like. “Let us hope Time’s reportage on world affairs is more accurate than this.” Of course they printed my letter. But they left out that bit.

Anyway, I was rather delighted to read the letter to this girl. She seemed amused I couldn’t tell. Quite nice, I thought but tough and ambitious. I felt nervous with her. The scalpel and knives are out for the more news-worthy members of the cast; and I feel rather like a kindly aunt, whose nephews and nieces are in trouble but there’s nothing I can do because they are my sister’s children. But I am a bit bored with being asked if I think Elizabeth and Richard will be married, and did I know Sybil, and is Ava as difficult as “they” say and is she on the make for Burton, or is Sue Lyon? My God! What business is it of theirs or mine! I am revolted by the mass of moronic muck that is printed every day everywhere in almost every newspaper and magazine, and more revolted by the people who assure me this is only what people want to read, how they have tried writing nice, pleasant and interesting pieces about famous personalities but that it just hasn’t worked! I just don’t believe the majority of people are really so filled with envy and jealousy that all they want to read about are people’s misfortunes and trials and tribulations. Depressing thought. I feel more and more like Hannah in this movie. “Nothing human disgusts me unless it is unkind or violent.” I do loathe and detest unkindness and violence and gossip and troublemaking and envy and malice. It does disgust  as well as depress me.

(Continues here…)

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