In his autobiography, An Open Book, John Huston states that Reflections in a Golden Eye is “damn near faultless…one of the best films I ever made.” He’s wrong. This brooding, torpid, often ludicrous southern Gothic is full of howlers, woefully miscast and, without doubt, the finest piece of work he ever committed to film.
Adapted from Carson McCullers’ novel by Chapman Mortimer, the movie is imbued with the tragic melodrama of the first author and the stagnant portentousness of the latter. Marlon Brando plays the introverted Major Weldon Penderton, stationed in the Deep South with his adulterous nymphomaniac wife, Leonora, played by Elizabeth Taylor. Taunting Penderton with her conquests, daring him to intervene—or to even care—Leonora is one of Taylor’s most wonderfully spiteful and emasculating interpretations. And Brando? The great man’s reputation sometimes occludes the immaculate subtlety of his craftsmanship. He gives, under Huston’s powerful direction, a performance of unmatched potency and complexity—and, in the process, became one of the first major U.S. actors to play a homosexual leading character.
The role of Penderton was earmarked for Montgomery Clift, but he died before production could begin. It was then offered to Richard Burton and Lee Marvin, who both declined on account of the uncomfortable subject matter. Huston had to seduce Brando, inviting him over to Ireland, reading from the script before him. Originally, Brando claimed to have taken the role because it afforded him an opportunity to ride horses. But, curiously, when asked to mount on the first day of shooting, he cowered in terror and admitted he was scared of the animals. Penderton has his own fear of horses and it seems that Brando—ever the method man—absorbed the anxieties of his character. Indeed, there is a scene in the film where Brando rides the horse naked into the forest, dismounts and whips it into a bloody mess. (Penderton’s repressed homosexuality has no outlet except violence against the defenseless creature.)
Penderton’s masochism isn’t a lonely sentiment in Reflections. Leonora’s frequent lover and Penderton’s superior, Lt. Colonel Langdon, is oblivious to his wife’s self-mutilation. The details are grisly and unflinching: Alison, Langdon’s wife, cuts off her own nipples with garden shears, after her miscarriage, to claw the attention of her husband. However, it is only Anceleto, the effete Filipino houseboy, who offers any comfort. In fact, it is clear that these two marginalized characters are conducting illicit relations of their own.
The film drew laughs at its recent resurrection at the NFT in London, no doubt the sight of Brando prissily applying cold cream to his face was just too much. I mentioned that this film is miscast, and that is one of its fundamental strengths. Brando is awkward as Penderton, patently unsure of himself trying to fit into the role of a gay man. Taylor, on the other hand, is far too unashamedly glamorous and wonderful for the gutter slut she portrays. However, the discomforted manner of the actors plays on the heavy incredulity of it all. Nothing is more excruciatingly affecting than watching the unlikely transpire.
Comparable to Lumet’s The Fugitive Kind, another looming highpoint of Brando’s career, there is the stink of hate in the air in Reflections, even in the lovemaking and the promises. Like a seedier, morally inverted version of From Here to Eternity, there is an excitement in the dissolution—anyone is capable of anything—and Huston’s gloomy film feeds from this negative energy to create an unlikely but compelling tale of turgid erotica.
Something must be said for the overall, contradictory, beauty of Reflections in a Golden Eye and the richness of its images. Brando never looked sharper or more poised for action. Indeed, so taken was Coppola with Penderton’s upright figure that he used stills from this film in Apocalypse Now to stand-in for a young Colonel Kurtz. A resplendent Elizabeth Taylor, with her bouncing behind, rapacious eyes, and lazy sexuality turns the camera into a leering eye. Huston, too, is on top form, making full use of the small, perfectly designed set—roving, peering into windows, stealing private moments from unsuspecting characters. This is an underhand and unsavory film that peels back the respectability of the base and the lives of its notables, reveling in the morass that writhes beneath.
Directed by John Huston
with Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor and Robert Forser
Screenplay by Carson Mcullers and Chapman Mortimer
This article first appeared in Stylus Magazine (www.stylusmagazine.com)