Reflections in a Golden Eye (John Huston, 1967)

Wow, has Brando’s acting always been this affected and, well, acting-y, and before this I was just blinded and wowed by AFI-esque, undisputable-lest-you-face-the-penalty-of-death all-time great performances?  Really for the first time, a Brando performance just sat wrong with me – too affected, too standout-ish, like he’s going for absolute broke to deliver an incredible performance, when if he just held back a little, settled into his character instead of trying to be the greatest actor on the face of the earth, if you catch what I’m saying, the disconcerting subject matter of “Reflections in a Golden Eye” might just be conducive to a great performance.  I won’t say that the problem with his performance is a lack of realism, ‘cuz this story of repressed sexual desire and the strange goings-on related to that repressed sexual desire on an Army base, and the fact that John Huston, the king of the just-subtly strange, is at the helm, isn’t exactly conducive to realism.  But still, Brando’s performance as the latently homosexual Major Penderton in a miserable marriage, as well as just about everything else in this film from both a technical and a narrative standpoint, just goes a little too over the top in getting its aura of repressed sexuality and the emotional discomfort related to such, and its overall point, across – and frankly I’m not even sure what that point’s supposed to be.

Yeah, I realize this film was made in ’67, just about right at the end of the era where you dare not mention something as taboo as homosexuality overtly in a film, so I give Huston, et al credit for at least trying to be coy about the Major’s attraction to the strange Private Williams (Robert Forster in his first film role) and the subject of repressing one’s latent sexual desires in about as heterosexual a setting you can find in an Army base, but even then Huston and Brando’s strange way of being coy turns into something over the top.  Even more than over the top, the vibe I got from “Reflections in a Golden Eye” was that it was just trying to be oddball for the sake of being oddball, from the silent and creepy private’s hobby of naked horseback riding Equus-style to the decision to envelop the entire film with a gold tint so that you’d think it was a Jerry Bruckheimer production to the subplot involving the neighboring Lt. Colonel’s crazy wife and her beloved effeminate Filipino houseboy that goes nowhere other than making things even more bizarre. 

It’s odd how none of these things really gel together, to the point that the film’s a disjointed mess with the loosely connecting thread of sexual repression, and yet there comes a point where the formula becomes agonizingly predictable and boring: Brando stares longingly at Forster, then takes an earful from his shrill wife Leonora (Elizabeth Taylor), then Leonora flirts with the Lt. Colonel right out in the open (their affair isn’t exactly clandestine), then they all go horseback riding, then Leonora yells at the Major for mistreating her beloved Firebird, then the crazy Alison, sans nipples, complains about the state of the world while her lackey Anacleto waxes philosophical, and repeat.  This all makes for some interesting images and interesting situations involving feelings of base sexuality that through necessity remain unsaid, but otherwise it all just goes in circles of insignificance.  Why should I care when Brando unwisely rides Firebird and that leads to disaster, or when Private Williams night after night stands outside the Penderton house with that frozen face as he watches and obsesses over Leonora, or when Alison and Anacleto plan to go into business together through their crazed ravings?  What’s the significance of Brando breaking down into tears and then beating his horse, other than having a stock scene of unmitigated emotion from the star of the film?  They’re just odd goings-on, weird for the sake of weird, while the actors and John Huston try their hardest to coax us into connecting the dots and finding some grand revelation that I just barely discerned.

I mean, the music score is just laughably overdone and incredibly distracting when every moment of Private Williams sneaking around and in the Penderton house, and Brando’s wild ride on Firebird, and Brando longingly following Private Williams throughout the base has those overly-ominous or overly-thrilling music cues butting in.  The aforementioned gold tint is also more distracting than anything, even though I suppose Huston was trying to show how the world’s a subjective reflection; what results instead is overly-obvious visual symbolism.  And for the most part, the performances grab your attention, sure, but are just too…obvious.  Brando’s Southern accent is a little too overdone, and his long looks of inquisitiveness and desire at Private Williams are over-emphasized, which I suppose is just as much Huston’s fault, overcompensating to really drive home the point that Brando secretly harbors that forbidden desire.  Yeah, we get it, move on.  And Forster…if you’re trying to make an emotionally unsettling film that ponders the relevance of sexual desire, at least try to make a character like Private Williams a little more, umm, real?  I know he’s supposed to be shrouded in mystery and everything, thus the relatively inexplicable yet palpable desire that Brando’s character has for him, but to this extent?  He barely speaks two words in the entire film, instead simply tending to the horses in the stable as if he were painting a Rembrandt, and then riding the horses naked, and then sneaking around the Major’s house and then daring to go in and sit before a sleeping Leonora and sniff her undergarments.  Sure it’s bizarre and contributes to the rather shocking ending that’s more of an exhale of relief than you’d expect (although I found the extreme and quick camera pans that close the film to be really, really funny…), but for god’s sake, he’s a cartoon character!  He’s Private Pyle from “Full Metal Jacket” but with a few more IQ points and a fetish for horses and ladies’ undergarments.  In fact, everyone’s pretty much a cartoon character within this strange, strange army base.

However, against all odds, despite the presence of the great Brando and the young Robert Forster in quiet and allegedly suppressed performances, my favorite performance by far was actually that of the shrill and irritating Elizabeth Taylor as Leonora.  She runs her mouth a mile a minute with that piercing Southern accent and gossips about the dumbest things imaginable, so you can feel why the Major is as unhappy and unfulfilled as he is, and yet I found her character to be more than the one-dimensional ditz she comes off to be.  The way those famous eyes of Elizabeth Taylor stare with disappointment and disgust and malice at Brando as she undresses before him out of spite, this is a woman who I think is far wiser than she lets on and knows exactly what’s going on within the head her unloving husband and knows exactly how to get under his skin.  All at once, she’s the most loathsome and annoying person you can imagine, and at the same time the most sympathetic and empowered, for having to put up with that kind of unenviable living situation and actually having the stones to do something about it.  Either way, I definitely felt like there was more than one side to Leonora, which is more than I can say about Brando and his overdone accent and glances and effeminate disposition and Robert Forster’s Private Williams, who’s more silent and stone-faced and creepy than the Tall Man from “Phantasm.”  There’s some good stuff here, no doubt, but the problem is that Huston and Brando and company try to make it all too good.



5 comments so far

  1. Tom on

    Yeah, strange film, agreed. This is my third time viewing it, and I stopped and did a token ‘Google’ search, and, Walla!, here I am.
    A couple of things worth mentioning: after you stated you understood this was back in ’66, and couldn’t be expected to, well, ‘get it done’ as it might have been able to today, you dismiss the idea entirely in your critique.
    In other words, while you acknowledge an intellectual understanding of ‘different era, different sensibilities’, you clearly watched it through todays sensibilities, ie, I don’t see that you transported yourself back for the viewing.
    Now to the critique itself. This film was really hard for me to finish the first time I saw it (mid-90’s, maybe?) because it is so slow. The characterizations as chosen by the director and the actors is almost monotonous. Not surprising you like Liz’s performance best, as her (and the Filipino) are playing against the tone of all others involved. Every character is ‘depressed’ by their secrets and sexual dysfunctions or excesses. The Taylor character, along with the Private, are exhibitionists. She revels in her sexuality, however. The Private is clearly a fetishist of some sort, not what we would call a ‘normal’ sexuality, therefore, secret and closeted.
    Well, jeez, I’m getting away from my point by analyzing the film itself.
    It seems to me most of your critique lies in the story itself.
    Carson McCullers wrote the story in 1941. The same criticisms you level at the film were raised in the critical reaction to the book itself in 1941. McCullers was a story writer of the same sensibility of Tennessee Williams. No one confuses Williams as being a realist. The same should be noted with McCullers. The characters are bizarre (like Blanche DuBois), the poetry was always in McCullers ’empathy’ for these damaged people.
    It’s not realism, it’s Southern Gothic.
    The scene where Brando beats the horse? It’s the peak of that characters dramatic arc. It’s when he finally ‘kicks back’ at his wifes mocking of his impotency (or actually, his homosexuality, but she just thinks he’s impotent).
    It is anything but gratuitous. He’s metaphorically beating his wife, unleashing his repression.
    No offense, man, but I can’t believe you actually missed that.
    The film, as I’ve said, can be a brutally tedious watch. Never really thought of the acting as over the top, but since you’ve mentioned it, yeah, I can see it, I guess.
    I would call this a big budget art film, and something of a failure.
    But an interesting failure, to be sure.
    A better late 60’s Brando performance can be found in the film “Burn!”. Another tedious watch, but much more active.

  2. matthew david wilder on

    This is the worst kind of “critical” writing ever. I cannot stand people who write like babies stuck in dirty diapers. They wriggle, they writhe, but they just can’t tell you WHY they’re in discomfort or WHAT is bothering them. It’s so kinda-not-goody! Brando’s acting is so acting-y! The filmmaking is so obviously-filmmaker-y! My writing is so retarded-ending-with-a-Y-y!

    • Janis Wells on

      Ha…exactly my feelings. But Brando is so “standout-ish,” Matthew!

  3. deDeurs on

    To start with; McCullen wrote an intriguing novel. She often wrote about lonely people, about misfits. The period full of sexual repression in ‘Reflection’, the apathetic army environment and the league of semi-aristocratic superiors bored to adultery; they exist and they happen. Her novels are less extreme (and more poetic) than T. Williams’s plays, but if the brand ‘Gothic’ has to be applied, I’d prefer ‘Gothic Realism’.

    John Huston made a mess of it for sure, but there are highly effective moments and not only where Julie Harris and her absolutely creepy houseboy shine.
    Brando was visibly not interested in the role (or may not even have understood the major), yet he has magnificent scenes. I never saw a latent homosexual army officer pictured in such a pathetic way. F*ck the over-scoring; it cannot mask how disgusting his personage is, and at the same time Penderton, in his obsession, is immensely pitiful. The way he smooths his hair in front of the mirror, unforgettable. I wonder if this almost panicky gesture was in the script, or Brandon’s idea.

    Anyone also ever wondered why Elizabeth Taylor (who is said to have been behind the idea to film the book) didn’t shove her Richie into the cast? Burton must have been tied to another movie at the time. But I always felt that he would have been perfect to play the Major, and may have done a better job. Thus saving this movie for a great deal.

    Nevertheless the Brandon-Forster scene in the woods I consider one of the classic moments in cinema. It’s gripping, it’s frightening, it’s hallucinating and yes, it’s also undiluted sexual. I doubt if it would work today, we’ve seen on the screen every taboo thinkable by now, but in 1967 it certainly did.

  4. Matt P. on

    This is one of the most unintentionally hilarious films I’ve ever seen.

    Not sure what John Huston was going for here but, it obviously went disastrously awry.

    I agree about Brando’s performance – not terrible but, very affected and over-the-top. And don’t even get me started on the mumbly line delivery – it sounded like he had a mouthful of hot mush the entire film. I don’t think he really understood his character or, had much enthusiasm for the film itself – and it shows.

    Montgomery Clift was the original choice for Brando’s role but, died before filming started. Clift was a much better choice, IMO.

    If you want to see Brando at the top of his game, I would recommend “Streetcar Named Desire”, “On the Waterfront”, “Sayonara” or “The Godfather.”

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