July 9, 2010

Puerto Vallarta and Hollywood Royalty

It was recently revealed that Angelina Jolie is going to be taking on the role of Cleopatra, in an upcoming 3D film directed by Steven Soderbergh (Ocean's 11, 12 and 13; Erin Brockovich; Sex, Lies and Videotape).   It's strongly believed that her real life husband, Brad Pitt, will be starring alongside her, as Marc Antony.  While Jolie and her children were enjoying Cancún, a race row was erupting in Hollywood over the casting.   Columnists and commentors were questioning the fact that the Egyptian queen was not being played by an African actress.

Meanwhile, thoughts have returned to the most famous movie Cleopatra.   The eponymous 1963 film cast another fair-skinned actress, Elizabeth Taylor as the queen.   The production costs nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox, with the resulting sale of backlot, necessarily to keep the company afloat, creating the Century City area of Los Angeles, USA.   Four Academy Awards and the title of Highest Grossing Film of 1963 later, the movie still ran at a massive loss of $44 million.   It took decades to recoup the money from international sales of DVDs and box offices. 

However, 'Cleopatra' is notable for another reason and this one impacts strongly on Mexico.    It was while filming it that Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton began their intense love affair.    A year later, she had divorced her husband, Eddie Fisher, and married Richard Burton.   The marriage was tempestuous, resulting in their divorce ten years later; only for them to remarry a year after that.   The relationship, at the time, towed the world's media behind it, just as Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt's common-law marriage does today.   For much of that time, the press were following Taylor and Burton into Mexico.

It all started with 'The Night of the Iguana'.   This 1964 movie was based on a story by Tennessee Williams and it starred many of the A-List celebrities of the day, including Richard Burton.    However, it was directed by John Huston, who wasn't about to pamper them in luxury.   He believed that, for a tense and edgy drama, the best performances would be inspired by placing his cast far away from the glitz and glamor of Hollywood.  He wanted them to feel isolated, devoid of 'yes man' and the endless praise of the paparazzi.   So he transported the entire film shoot to the, then, remote area of Mexico, Puerto Vallarta.

The media followed.   They all wanted a piece of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.  They wanted the exclusive photograph, the soundbite, the latest gossip.   Audiences back home were lapping it up.   The relationship is still billed as one of the great Hollywood romances and it changed Puerto Vallarta forever.

Huston had chosen the location because it was a sparsely populated fishing city, hemmed in by mountaineous jungle.   In the past, it had achieved reasonable prosperity in the mining industry, so had become a destination of sorts for Mexicans escaping the poverty of the Sierra.   It also attracted intellectuals, from Mexico and America, particularly writers, who found a creative muse in the lack of amenities.   Puerto Vallarta didn't have 24 hour electricity until 1958; and its airport was only created in 1962.   The Americans tended to congregate together in an uphill area of Puerto Vallarta, which became locally nicknamed Gringo Gulch (gulch being a sharp valley, in a V shape).   Nevertheless, in 1964, the pace of life in Puerto Vallarta was slow and steady, without any of the luxuries that Hollywood stars had come to expect.

After 'The Night of the Iguana', which was filmed entirely on location there, along with the media pomp surrounding Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Puerto Vallarta was firmly on the tourist map.   Americans and Canadians especially flocked there for their vacations.   The city boomed even more when the couple, now akin to Hollywood royalty, sought to keep the flame of their early romance alive by buying properties in Gringo Gulch. 

Their homes faced each over over a narrow, cobbled street.   Elizabeth Taylor's home, painted pink, was higher up and didn't include a swimming pool.   Richard Burton's property did and also boasted a high wall to keep peeping eyes out.    Once married, they could have just moved in together, but instead came up with an ingenious idea to join the two.   An archway bridge was built over the street, from an upper balcony of Taylor's house to the top of the Burton house.    Locals instantly dubbed it the Love Bridge, as it kept the now wedded couple in contact, without having to run the gauntlet of press and sightseers in the street.    (Later on, post-divorce, it was renamed the Hate Bridge).   

Love Bridge

Fashionable society loved it.    Gringo Gulch swelled with the number of celebrities and jet-set Americans snapping up properties and moving into the area.    John Huston, himself, had a home there, as did Peter O'Toole, Senator John Warner, Bing Crosby, Mary Astor, the Hershey family, Carol O'Connor and many more.   The money pouring into the local economy allowed, firstly, for more conveniences (a British company were brought in to install creating sewerage and plumbing, which provided fresh water to homes all over the mountain); then went on to more commercial facilities down in the city below.   The art community, in particular, erupted.   There are many public sculptures dotted around the place.

Yet none of this stole the charm from Puerto Vallarta; some might say that it added to it enormously.   It might now be a thriving tourist destination, but it still retains that old time air.   It is still possible to wander aimlessly, down twisting, cobbled streets, overlooking the serene beauty of Banderas Bay, breathing in the cool, fresh air.   There's no need to rush.   It might be rich, in Gringo Gulch, but it's tranquil and this is why the stars still grab houses there.   Say hello to John Travolta for me, when you go there.

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