REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE
Director: John Huston
Stars: Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando, Zorro David
Reflections In A Golden Eye is another unmissable stop along the great gay Film Noir-Southern Gothic line, which also takes in Suddenly, Last Summer, and The Deep End. Loopy plotting, deluxe star power and arresting camera work make the film a joy, and it’s tantalising to think what might have been should original casting plans panned out, and an experimental version, tinted entirely in gold, been released.
Claustrophobic bad marriages and sweaty, illicit desire torment the residents of a sleepy peacetime army post. At the centre of the action is Private L.G. Williams (Robert Forster), a brooder who is also quite the horse whisperer, riding not just bareback, but occasionally stark naked! He’s observed by Major Weldon Penderton (Marlon Brando), a latently homosexual introvert who cops many a face-slap from his adulterous wife, Leonora (Elizabeth Taylor). Major Penderton stalks Private Williams, obsessed with his younger charge’s charisma, good-looks, and ease with big animals, but completely unaware of the Private’s secret midnight visits to Leonora’s bedroom.
Next door, Leonora’s lover, Lieutenant Colonel Morris Langdon (Brian Keith) lives with his wife Alison (Julie Harris), who cut off her nipples with garden shears after a failed pregnancy, is hearing voices, seeing things, and hanging out with her theatrical Philippino butler (Zorro David).
As the mercury soars, so does the hysterical drama, as Leonora plans one of her twice-yearly parties, her white stallion canters around symbolically, and a nearby mental institution gets ready to welcome some new patients.
Montgomery Clift was meant to be cast as Major Penderton, but his frail health was a worry for the film’s producers. Taylor went guarantor for her friend, offering her salary as insurance and securing Clift’s casting, but he died of a heart attack shortly before the shoot began. Brando was then cast, bringing his swarthy frame and a quite distracting pebble-chewing accent to the role. This makes for a very different film, as willowy, nervy Clift would have been a very different Major Penderton. It’s interesting to imagine what the stalking scenes may have looked like with the beaten up, spidery Clift lurking behind in the shadows, instead of the menacing and sexy Brando bringing up the rear.
Brando does a great job of isolating himself from his wife and virtually every other character, but there’s something about his demeanour, his size, his Brando-ness, that sets the film into a very Brando rhythm. It would have been easy to see why the stunning Taylor, shackled on screen with the declining Clift, would take up with any man, but it’s a little harder to see why she’s so disinterested in Brando’s Penderton, a sophisticated and lusty man with a body-builder’s physique who’s her perfect psycho-sexual match.
Brando’s casting is good news for Taylor’s performance, though, her maternal nurturing of Clift in Suddenly Last Summer, Raintree County and other films absent as she reads Brando the riot act in every other scene. Storming around the film and tormenting every character in turn, Taylor plays Diva bored out of her brain, planning alcoholic parties and always ready to slap faces hard. In his screen debut, Robert Forster mimics Clift in From Here To Eternity, playing a loner who only interacts with others when he’s goaded into a fistfight. Dark-eyed and athletic, he only has to walk around the place to draw attention, so after he frolics nude one day on horseback, stopping occasionally to sunbathe on a rock in front of everyone, he swiftly becomes the erotic power station of the whole base. For his part, he’s secretly sniffing Leonora’s panties and enslaving her ambi-sexual husband with a breadcrumb trail of his moodily discarded cigarette butts.
Julie Harris doesn’t have quite as much to work with, her half-mad Alison stationed at the bedroom window for most of the film, spying on events next door, or playing with Anacleto, Zorro David’s incredible nurse/butler/confidant/concubine. David’s performance – his one and only big screen appearance – is a wonder to behold. Representing the inverted male, who ignores machismo and responsibility in favour of theatricality and creativity, he’s a Klaxon warning to Pendelton, and a grotesque showcase for asexuality. Anacleto’s the only character in the film whose fate isn’t driven by his sexual desires. Like a eunuch in a brothel, Anacleto is a lame and disabled sexual persona among a half-dozen seething ones, but he’s aware of this, and for the most part navigates a safe path with astute psychological and emotional manipulation (the well-sharpened tools of any excluded observer).
The misfits, madwomen, studs and sluts of Reflections In A Golden Eye hurtle towards a murderous dénouement (the hilarious left-right, right-left filming of which has to be seen to be believed) without stopping to catch breath, or even a little whiff of morality. Up to their eyeballs in sexual confusion and narcissistic longing, their horny adventures make for fabulous, top-shelf Hollywood, pulp.