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Four decades of the Iguana

Forty-one years ago, John Huston’s gritty "Night of the Iguana" put Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, on the paparazzi map.
Grass umbrellas on beach, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
Grass umbrellas on beach, Puerto Vallarta, MexicoAdalberto Rios Lanz / Getty Images

Forty-one years ago, John Huston’s gritty "Night of the Iguana" put Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, on the paparazzi map. Other movies – from "Predator" to "Kill Bill Vol. 2" – have since followed in the big man’s footsteps, capturing the area’s sugary beaches, coastal cliffs and rainforest-swathed Sierra Madres.

Now the Pacific resort is making a bid for true cinematic power and glory: handing out plaudits and trophy case trinkets. The Film Festival of the Americas, which debuted in November 2004, bestows "Maverick Awards" to filmmakers with Huston’s iconoclastic flair.

"He’s is among the most celebrated directors in Hollywood’s history. His work constantly teaches as it commands attention from both filmmakers and filmgoers," explained Robert Roessel, executive director of the festival. "John Huston is a legend and Puerto Vallarta is honored to be part of his past.

"When I arrived in 1991, I quickly learned the town seemed to be built upon a movie. To this day, the city continues to grasp the history of "Night of the Iguana". If any destination in Mexico deserves its own film festival, it’s Puerto Vallarta."

Indeed, the fishing village had just 12,500 inhabitants when the director arrived (legend claims his plane skimmed the runway several times, before managing to shoo cows off the strip). Now it’s 250,000 strong with over 3 million visitors each year, mainly in the drier season from November-April.

The movie featured a defrocked priest (Burton), bawdy widow (Ava Gardner), spinster artist (Deborah Kerr) and nymphet (Sue Lyon, fresh from Lolita). But Liz Taylor upstaged the entire 1964 film with her saucy shenanigans. Her passionate affair with the leading man – both were married to other partners – garnered headlines around the world. After the filming, the couple lingered in the idyllic tropical town. For her 32nd birthday, Burton gave her Casa Kimberly, a $57,000 villa linked to his own by an arched, cotton-candy-pink bridge, one story above the cobbled street.

Also present were the peculiar playwright Tennessee Williams and rowdy, pistol-packing Mexican director-actor Emilio Fernandez. Once Huston reminisced: "The press gathered down there expecting something to happen with all these volatile personalities. They felt the lid would blow off and there would be fireworks. When there weren’t any, they were reduced to writing about Puerto Vallarta. And, I’m afraid, that was the beginning of its popularity, which was a mixed blessing."

Huston – who began his love affair with Mexico as a teen-age lieutenant in its cavalry – eventually retired to a remote cove outside Puerto Vallarta. "He found great happiness there in his last years ... in the jungle, beside the sea, lit by the stars," remarked his daughter, actress Anjelica Huston. Vallarta Adventure now runs daylight and dinner tours of Las Caletas, his refuge (Avenue Las Palmas 39, Nuevo Vallarta, Nayarit; 322 297-1212;

Iguana obsession aside, the area has hosted other productions, such as "Predator" with Arnold Schwarzenegger, "Revenge" with Kevin Costner and the lemon of 'Love Bug' sequels, "Herbie Goes Bananas". Other full-length features include "Solo", "The Savage is Loose", "Le Magnifique", "Swashbuckler", "The Domino Principle" and "Harvest".

Jacques Cousteau puttered around offshore, filming around the pristine Marietas islands. The mid-90s "Acapulco HEAT", a terrorism thriller series, was set in Puerto Vallarta. And, of course, a camera crew from "America’s Most Wanted" hit the action jackpot, as bounty hunters captured Max Factor cosmetics heir and convicted rapist Andrew Luster in June 2003.

More recently, Quentin Tarantino shot parts of "Kill Bill Vol. 2" there and Arthur Allan Seidelman Puerto Vallarta Squeeze. The 2003 film, starring Harvey Keitel, traces an American hit man on the lam with two hapless travelers in tow. Robert James Waller, of "The Bridges of Madison County" fame, wrote the superb novel, evoking the jaded lethargy of many gringos in Mexico. Despite the story’s prowess, distributor Showcase Entertainment downplayed the movie.

Its producer Robert Katz had "the best experience possible." He continued: "I'd film there again, just not in the summer, when the heat and humidity are unbearable." Puerto Vallarta is not a hassle-free location, however. Working in the jungle can be both expensive and inconvenient. And then there’s paranoia to combat.

"A couple of the actors were afraid of the notorious kidnappings they had heard about in Mexico," Katz said. "Some of Harvey Keitel’s friends in NYC convinced him that he and his wife would be kidnapped. I explained that Puerto Vallarta wasn't Mexico City. Anyway, we hired a team of bodyguards to follow Harvey during the shoot." The star dismissed the security squad after a week, feeling comfortable in the mellow, safe state of Jalisco.

That easygoing nature can translate into production problems, though. "Running on Mexican time," is an ex-pat euphemism for "late." Late not as we know it, mere minutes past due, but days late. Excuses appear like sunburn on sorority girls beachside: the drain clogged, the burro went lame, the consulate’s only open three hours each morning and, anyway, the triplicate forms must be notarized...

Yet the country – and Puerto Vallarta in particular – has an exquisite courtesy that counterbalances the chaos. Business people exchange sunny streams of compliments and chitchat. The readers of Condé Nast Traveler voted it the friendliest city in the world, in fact. And favors – enormous, backbreaking, Rumplestiltskin-sized favors – are commonplace. "The city really cooperated with our crew. Even in the most remote regions in the mountains, we received all the help we needed and everyone was gracious," Katz recalled.

He’s not the only one charmed. Conrad Vernon, co-director of "Shrek 2" (and voice of the Gingerbread Man), considers the town a second home: "I’ve visited Puerto Vallarta three times in the past year. The beauty and friendly people keep me coming back.

"Being a filmmaker, I can’t help but notice the incredible diversity between the quaint town and the incredible lushness of the forests and jungles. Now I know why John Huston made films here and eventually lived in this great city."

Film Festival
Puerto Vallarta celebrates the 2005 Film Festival of the Americas from Nov. 7–12. More than 50 movies will screen, many free, at the Rio Cuale Island each evening. Events include a fiesta, art expo, jazz concert, fashion show and galas.

"In the spirit of my father – who worked in the studio system and outside of it – it will be about films that go against the flow," said actor Danny Huston, who supports the festival, as does his sister Anjelica.

Amanda Castleman is an award-winning freelance journalist specializing in travel, the environment and women’s issues.

Copyright 2005 Amanda Castleman. Republished with permission.