The film won the 1964 Academy Award for Best Costume Design, and was nominated for the Academy Awards for Best Art Direction and Best Cinematography. Actress Grayson Hall received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress, and Cyril Delevanti received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
The preface to the story shows Episcopal priest Reverend Dr. T. Lawrence Shannon (Richard Burton) having a "nervous breakdown" after being ostracized by his congregation for having an inappropriate relationship with a "very young Sunday school teacher."
Two years later, Shannon, now a tour guide for the bottom-of-the-barrel Texas company "Blake's Tours," is taking a group of Baptist school teachers by bus to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. The group's brittle leader is Miss Judith Fellowes (Grayson Hall), whose 17-year-old niece Charlotte Goodall (Sue Lyon) tries to seduce Shannon. Fellowes accuses Shannon of trying to seduce Charlotte and declares that she will ruin him.
In a moment of despair, Shannon shanghais the bus and its occupants, then tries to prevent Fellowes from calling his boss by stranding the tour group at a cheap (and, he mistakenly thinks, phoneless) Costa Verde hotel in Mismaloya. Shannon assumes the hotel is still run by an old friend named Fred, but the man died recently, so the hotel is now run by Fred's widow, the bawdy and flamboyant Maxine Faulk (Ava Gardner).
Another new arrival at the hotel is Hannah Jelkes (Deborah Kerr), a beautiful and chaste itinerant painter from Nantucket, who is traveling with her elderly poet grandfather (Cyril Delevanti). They have run out of money, but Shannon convinces Maxine to let them have a room. Over a long night, Shannon battles his weaknesses for both flesh and alcohol, Miss Fellowes' niece continues to make trouble for him, and he is "at the end of his rope," just like an iguana kept tied by Maxine's cabana boys. Shannon suffers a breakdown, the cabana boys truss him in a hammock, and Hannah ministers to him there with poppy-seed tea and frank spiritual counsel.
Hannah's grandfather delivers the final version of the poem he has been laboring to finish and dies. The characters try to resolve their confused lives with Shannon and Maxine deciding to run the hotel together. Hannah walks away from her last chance at love.Richard Burton as Reverend Dr. T. Lawrence Shannon
Ava Gardner as Maxine Faulk
Deborah Kerr as Hannah Jelkes
Sue Lyon as Charlotte Goodall
James ("Skip") Ward as Hank Prosner
Grayson Hall as Judith Fellowes, Charlotte's chaperone
Cyril Delevanti as Nonno, poet and Hannah's grandfather
James Garner said he was originally offered the role played by Richard Burton but he turned it down because "it was just too Tennessee Williams for me."
In September 1962 Huston, Lyon, and Burton, accompanied by Elizabeth Taylor, arrived at Puerto Vallarta—a "remote little fishing village"—for principal photography, which lasted 72 days. Huston liked the area's fishing so much that he bought a $30,000 house "in a cottage colony eight miles outside town."
By March 1964, months before the film's release, gossip about the film's production was widespread. Huston received an Writers Guild of America award for advancing "the literature of the motion picture through the years." At the award dinner, Allan Sherman performed a song, to the tune of "Streets of Laredo", with lyrics that included, "They were down there to film The Night of the Iguana / With a star-studded cast and a technical crew. / They did things at night midst the flora and fauna / That no self-respecting iguana would do."
The film grossed $12 million worldwide at the box office, earning $4.5 million in US theatrical rentals It was the 10th highest-grossing film of 1964.
Time magazine's reviewer wrote, "Huston and company put together a picture that excites the senses, persuades the mind, and even occasionally speaks to the spirit—one of the best movies ever made from a Tennessee Williams play."
Bosley Crowther wrote,
Since difficulty of communication between individuals seems to be one of the sadder of human misfortunes that Tennessee Williams is writing about in his play, The Night of the Iguana, it is ironical that the film John Huston has made from it has difficulty in communicating, too. At least, it has difficulty in communicating precisely what it is that is so barren and poignant about the people it brings to a tourist hotel run by a sensual American woman on the west coast of Mexico. And because it does have difficulty—because it doesn't really make you see what is so helpless and hopeless about them—it fails to generate the sympathy and the personal compassion that might make their suffering meaningful.
Crowther was particularly critical of Burton's performance, calling him
spectacularly gross, a figure of wild disarrangement, but without a shred of real sincerity. You see a pot-bellied scarecrow flapping erratically. And in his ridiculous early fumbling with the Lolitaish Sue Lyon (whose acting is painfully awkward), he is farcical when he isn't grotesque.
Awards and honors
Of the film's four Oscar nominations, it won one, for Best Costume Design in a black-and-white film (Dorothy Jeakins). Also nominated were Grayson Hall (for Best Supporting Actress), Stephen B. Grimes (for Best Art Direction in a black-and-white film), and Gabriel Figueroa (for Best Black-and-white Cinematography). Ava Gardner was nominated for a Golden Globe and a BAFTA as best actress.
A hotel and resort complex, La Jolla de Mismaloya, has been built at the bayfront of the village of Mismaloya; it maintains the film's old sets as restaurants and tourist attractions. A statue of John Huston was erected in Puerto Vallarta, where it still stands, because of his role in making the city a destination.
La Joya de Mismaloya is actually a group of privately owned condominiums on Banderas Bay, and is in the vicinity of the abandoned set of The Night of The Iguana. The resort complex aforementioned is Barceló, an all-inclusive resort situated a few kilometers to the north of La Joya de Mismaloya, at the bayfront of Mismaloya. Although the film's set can be seen from a pathway below, there is no access to it, even for the tour buses which take tourists past. There is a short walking path below which features a tall pole with a very large faux iguana atop it. In the past, a restaurant called John Huston's was open for tourist dining. It has since been abandoned, as well.