Tuesday, May 17, 2011


One of the more suspect affectations among the film-school cognoscenti (and there are many) is the lazy, ofttimes wholesale, approbation afforded offbeat, abstruse, or otherwise boring films in an effort to appear possessed of a more discerning aesthetic sense. Though rooted in the not-unfounded notion that the scope of film should encompass more than just mass-market fare, too frequently this democratic ideal gives way to a baseless elitism and a knee-jerk aligning of oneself with the unpopular just because it is unpopular. 
I know whereof I speak, because, as a former film student, I've been guilty of such behavior myself. More hours than I care to think about have been spent in dark theaters pretending to enjoy some execrable, masturbatory piece of self-indulgence merely because it was trashed by mainstream critics. A sophomoric game of "one-upmanship" was common practice with me and my friends at film school (The San Francisco Art Institute), each of us attempting to best the other in professing love for a film more unlikely and unknown than the last. 
"A peacock of a sort of ghastly green. With one immense golden eye. And in it these reflections of something tiny and grotesque."
I mention this as a kind of preemptory self-defense/explanation, noting my awareness that heralding John Huston's arty, much-maligned, Reflections in a Golden Eye may appear more than a little pretentious. That may be the impression, but I really think that this would be a widely-liked film if only more people knew about it. A victim of a transitional era in film that had no idea of how to market such an unusual movie, this is one amazing film that has (in my opinion) withstood the test of time. Distanced from the shock value of its once-taboo theme of homosexuality, and removed from the movie-star tabloid distractions of its two once-controversial stars, Reflections in a Golden Eye can at last be seen for what it is: a searing character piece boasting a host of fine performances and John Huston at his best as director.
 Elizabeth Taylor as Leonora Penderton
  Marlon Brando as Major Weldon Penderton
Julie Harris as Alison Langdon
Brian Keith as Lt. Col. Morris Langdon
Robert Forster as  Pvt.  L.G. Williams
Zorro David as  Anacleto

A last-gasp entry in the beloved (to me, anyway) sub-genre of "Southern Gothic," Reflections in a Golden Eye peels away the placid exterior of life in a peacetime military base to reveal the madness and repressed passions that lie beneath the imposed order of barracks, military protocol, and rigid conformity. 
Its plot is steeped in southern-fried dread: Robert Forster is a sexually repressed soldier who develops a scopophilic fixation on Elizabeth Taylor, the sexually rapacious wife of army officer Marlon Brando. Brando, who tolerates Taylor's affair with fellow officer Brian Keith (whose mentally disturbed wife, Julie Harris, has recently mutilated herself out of grief over the death of a child), is a latent homosexual who becomes sexually obsessed with Forester.  
Houston, rather ingeniously, takes a stylistic cue from the book's title and not only shoots the film in muted tones of gold, but films the events from an emotional remove. We are not invited into the minds of these characters so much as we are entreated to observe their piteously empty and sad behavior as though we are voyeurs ourselves: seeing it all from a distance, reflected and distorted in an immense, all-seeing, golden eye. When the film ends and we have time for the events that have unfolded before us to sink in, it dawns that the reflection has been of ourselves the entire time.
A favorite Elizabeth Taylor screen moment.
Leonora challenges her husband's masculinity:
"Son, have you ever been collared and dragged out into the street and thrashed by a naked woman? Huh?"

It's always a challenge for a movie to ask us to identify with characters which represent, in large part, aspects of ourselves we look to the movies to help us to forget. Reflections in a Golden Eye has much to tell us about pain, compassion, and the fact that everyone harbors within themselves something dark and hidden within themselves that they are certain would render them unworthy of love if revealed. Its a movie that doesn't ask you to approve of its characters, but rather, to merely acknowledge their humanity. Like Thackeray's Vanity Fair, Carson McCullers' Reflections in a Golden Eye is a novel without a hero, and as such, we're deprived of uplift, moral victory, or reassuring messages. What I admire about the film is how it shows, with sensitivity and insight, the ways in which  the bizarre and even perverse, when removed from the accusing eye of moral judgment, often reveals itself to be nothing more or less than just human vulnerability.

Symbols of desire: The  Major, surrounded by the fetish objects of a male physique photo and a silver spoon stolen from a fellow officer, fondles a phallic candy wrapper discarded by the soldier who has become the object of his obsession
Marlon Brando has always been an uneven kind of actor to me, but his performance here is outstanding and my favorite of all of his screen portrayals. Its one of those naked performances that actually makes you uncomfortable because he allows you to see him so emotionally exposed. Jokingly referred to as "Mr. Mumbles" by co-star Taylor (as relayed in the terrific book on the making of the film, "Troubles in a Golden Eye" by William Russo & Jan Merlin), Brando's sometimes garbled line-readings are at last made intelligible thanks to the "subtitles" option on the DVD.
When I young, Elizabeth Taylor was such a gossip magazine staple that it was kind of easy to dismiss her as just a movie star. I always thought she was beautiful, but it was only after I grew up that I came to appreciate what a gifted actress she was. She is wonderful here, playing a kind of sexually self-assured bubblehead (note the scene where she writes out the party invitations) unwittingly leading men to their doom. A vision of perhaps the kind of woman The Day of the Locust's Faye Greener would have grown up to be. Also, special mention has to be made of Brian Keith who surprised the hell out of me. Always an underrated actor, the way in which he takes a macho stereotype role and fashions out of it something genuinely heartbreaking, is nothing short of alchemy.

I'm crazy about cinema images that contain, in mere seconds of screen time, enough acuity, poetry, and beauty to equal a volume of written text or a concert of  music. The scenes wherein it is revealed that the sullenly distant Forester takes regular sojourns into the woods to doff his clothes and blissfully ride the horses he loves so much, are really haunting. Rendered even more so by the golden glow of the beautiful cinematography (reverted back to standard Technicolor a week after the film's release. The DVD edition restored Huston's original vision).

There are many memorable sequences in the film, but the one that seems to stay with me is one that is almost Hitchcockian in its construction. It happens late in the film, at a point in the story when the major has so fully resigned himself to his obsession that he has taken to following the young soldier along the streets at night (something the soldier is not exactly unaware of). One evening, while following on a crowded street, an auto accident occurs behind the major. Everyone on the street, including the soldier, turns to see what has happened or runs to be of assistance. The major doesn't flinch or look behind him at all. Throughout, his eyes remain, fixed and unblinking, exclusively on the soldier. The effect of the scene is so powerful, the first time I saw it I recall feeling my abdominal muscles tense, as if receiving a blow to the stomach.

There's a real poignancy to the pain that must be felt by individuals who cannot, will not, or are unable to, openly express who they are and be true to their natures. To today's audiences, films that deal with  repressed homosexuality may appear dated and perhaps even a little quaint. But I caution those who would think that the broader freedoms of today signal inclusive liberation. They don't. Indeed, one might even argue that our society today has no fewer deeply closeted gay men than in McCullers' time; the only difference is that now they're more apt to manifest as "gay for pay" porn stars; homophobic recording artists; and married, anti-gay legislating politicians.
In a marvelous scene, the major poses the following provocative question to the intolerant lieutenant (and, more importantly, to himself) who has just stated that his wife's effeminate houseboy, Anacleto (the only remotely happy person in the film), would have been unhappy, but better off, had the Army been given a crack at making him into a man.
This question was posed by Carson McCullers 70 years ago and it remains one that should be asked of, say, the anti same-sex marriage proponents of today:
  "You mean that any fulfillment obtained at the expense of normalcy is wrong, and should not be allowed to bring happiness. In short, it is better, because it is morally honorable, for a square peg to keep scraping about the round hole rather than to discover and use the unorthodox square that would fit it?"
Just brilliant.

Leave The Children Home

Copyright © Ken Anderson


  1. such an underrated film. i discovered it a few years back on the special features of Jackie Brown. One of my favorite Brando performances. his character in this film always reminded me of Denis Lavant in 'Beau Travil' (both are military men with repressed homosexual feelings)

    1. Thanks for the comment,Marcus. Of course I agree that "Reflections..." is a woefully under-appreciated film. Brando is amazing. I especially like that you make reference to "Beau Travail", an intriguing-sounding film I'm wholly unfamiliar with. I will definitely be checking out.

    2. I AM A TOTAL FAN OF THIS FILM. It is downright creepy and lurid on almost every level it reaches. You just cannot take your eyes off of it!!

      I have to re-watch this one!

    3. Hi again, PTF
      I think you win the prize for having read the most posts in the shortest amount of time! Maybe prize isn't the right word...maybe medal!
      Happy that you like so many of the same films and that you're sharing your impressions. Your comments confirm how great it can be when one allows oneself to surrender to a film on an emotional level. Films don't have to classic or great to touch us. Even trashy films can be enjoyable and memorable when there are ideas, creativity, and chances taken.
      I'll take a flawed original like this over the calculated, money-making,movies-by-focus group they make today. Thanks again!

  2. Hi Ken ~

    YOU deserve a medal for writing this blog! You have great taste in films and have featured a broad range of films from almost every genre, which I can appreciate. We definitely have the same taste! I am also learning new things as that's always a good thing! Keep up the great work. You keep writing, I'll keep reading! :)

    1. You're very kind. I would say you have good taste in films too, but I guess that would be slipping in a sideways compliment to myself. :-)
      I'll just thanks very much

  3. I trust that in the intervening years since you posted your marvelous reflection on Reflections/Golden Eye you have seen, watched, absorbed Beau Travail, Claire Denis's magnificent response to Melville's Billy Budd (and Huston of course was no stranger to Melville, and has Melville's Moby Dick on his resume. Or at least, Ray Bradbury's version of Ahab's cetaceous obsession.)

    1. Hello Iain!
      Yes, I did finally get to see "Beau Travail" and enjoyed noting the character parallel that early commenter drew my attention to. A fascinating film!
      I have not however, seen either Billy Budd or Moby Dick, but Huston remains one of my favorite filmmakers. Thanks for your kind words and for taking the time to comment! Much appreciated!

  4. Hi Ken,

    Great post! I've long loved this as one of those films Taylor made during her box office slide which was viewed at the time as just another mistake on her part, but which to me comprise a gallery of off-beat and fascinating late career characterizations (X, Y, and Zee, The Driver's Seat, Hammersmith Is Out, etc...).

    And Brando, Harris, and Keith, are all terrific. More people should know this film, and I hope its reputation will improve now that, as you point out, it's possible to judge it for the work rather than the notoriety of the cast.

    What works against the film for me is the complete lack of any period feel, which I find odd for a director who lived through, and made contemporary films during, the period it depicts.

    Pauline Kael argued in her review of The Only Game In Town that Taylor's private life had so eclipsed her screen persona that it had become impossible to believe her as "ordinary," and surely that perception worked against her performances at the time.

    But what lingers now is bafflement at her blatantly contemporary hair, make up and wardrobe. I keep being yanked from the narrative by thinking, "Wait a minute, WHAT year is this supposed to be?" I'd be inclined to think Taylor overrode Huston's attempt at period authenticity by insisting on her own design team (as she often did during this period), were in not for the fact that neither Harris (and the few other females in the film), nor ANY of the set dressing looks remotely period either.

    An oversight, or intentional, do you think? Huston's monochromatic vision was meant to remove us from reality on some level, but to me the film's major flaw is its seeming so completely unmoored in time.

    1. Hi Neely
      You're totally right in that the film has absolutely no period feel at all. None. What has always baffled me is the fact that in most films, something like that bothers me no end. "Reflections..." is odd in that it doesn't distract me in the least, which makes me think that the point you make at the end of your comment (about the dreamy remove the film has as a result of its odd characters and use of color) may be the reason.
      It is puzzling, as you say, that there seems to be absolutely NO effort made to convey period; something that often falls to the women characters in films taking place in environments where there are so many uniforms about.
      Because he's such a thoughtful director, it's easy to assume Huston had something up his sleeve, but Taylor's look is SO 60s it feels careless.
      But as I said, I'm more stunned that it has never bothered me than the fact that (like so many non-period, period films of the 60s) it makes no attempt to establish time in a realistic manner.
      You've made me want to watch this again!
      I like your use of another Kael quote (she was a favorite of mine) which I think is largely true with Taylor. She did make a lot of fascinating choices in films during this time. Films I appreciate more now than when I was younger and was confounded by a "star" of her magnitude seeking such oddball assignments.

  5. There's still the same amount of homophobia now as there was then.

    1. Yes. A sad comment on humanity that this film is nearly 50 years old and we haven't reached the point where the subject matter looks "dated."

  6. On your tip-off Ken, I hunted down the true Technicolor letterboxed Blu-Ray. And boy am I glad I did. What a revelation!!!

    The transfer is absolutely superb in every way...from Aldo Tonti's lensing to rather good sound. I was treated to a hundred nuances missing from the gold-washed version. The lighting is so superb it's hard to tell what's not natural (lighting).

    I've always loved the movie and there's little I can add to your treatment of it - which in my opinion is definitive.

    Except to maybe say that it really is a lost masterpiece. I was just a precocious brat when I first saw it...my parents always encouraging adult entertainments and literature rather than the age-appropriate kids stuff they despised. While I was quite aware that "Reflections" was very much about sexual symbolism and "perversion" of most kinds, it takes lived experience to truly relate to the humanity of it all. And I absolutely love Huston's determination to not manipulate his audience: for me it earns masterpiece status because it's a true tragi-comedy...relecting most of our lives...for better or for worse.

    Many thanks again for the heads-up Ken - truly experiencing this raw but beautiful film in this format just made my week!!!

    1. Yes! Rick, I'm so glad you had the opportunity to see such a beautiful copy of the film. Your response to it is so enthused, it makes me want to watch it again...Now...This Minute! Seeing this as a child must have been quite the experience: some of it going over your head, certain aspects effectively shocking ue to your inexperience.
      In any event, I am in accord with your opinion that it really is a masterpiece. And while I think I still prefer the gold version (having never thought I would EVER see it released that way) the pleasures of the color release are just as you relate.
      I too think it's a beautiful film, and one again your compliments to me make me blush. You're very kind.
      Happy to have steered you to the Blu-ray. Thanks you for sharing your experience of it with us here!

  7. Hi Ken!

    The only good thing about being housebound because of the pandemic is that I’ve had extra time for reading. Earlier this week I had the great good fortune of finding your extraordinarily enlightening and entertaining blog and fully intend to read every beautifully written entry! Your wit and wisdom on one of my favorite subjects is par excellence!

    My parents were big movie fans and recorded hundreds of older movies from the 30’s through the 80’s via cable TV (especially AMC and TCM) on several VCRs that seemed to run constantly around our house. Having seen many, I have formed a great affection for older fiIms, frequently preferring them to much of today’s crap.

    I first saw a taped and grainy version of “Reflections” when I was a freshman in high school way back in 1992. To be frank, I didn’t really understand what was going on but I was drawn to the film by its stars (I had a huge, newly post pubescent crush on Elizabeth Taylor even though she was, at the time, old enough to be my grandmother - how weird was that?) and by the shimmering look of its cinematography, even though the copy was very low res. In college I chose the Carson McCullers novel for a reading assignment, remembering my first impression of the film. Wow, was I awestruck by the eroticism and the inclusion of homosexuality, voyeurism and many other “isms” from a book published in 1941! I wrote a lengthy paper on my impression of the novel and vowed to buy a copy of the DVD.

    After multiple viewings I never cease to be amazed and delighted that the screenplay stuck very close to the book and to McCuller’s warped characters. The cast is uniformly excellent. Brando (whose mumbled dialogue was finally discernable when I used the subtitles) gives one of the best performances of his career; in my opinion there are not all that many. The scene in which he breaks down and begins to cry is a stunning example. (I understand the role was originally planned for Montgomery Clift who died before filming was to begin. I cannot, for the life of me, conjure up an image of him in this role.) Miss Taylor as the slightly slutty man eater is properly emasculating and Julie Harris is convincingly neurotic as hell. I was also impressed by Brian Keith, who had the role of a life time here as the macho yet sympathetic lover. And who knew that Robert Forster would grow up to be nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in “Jackie Brown”?

    I agree with you and your readers that there is no sense of time in the film (Miss Taylor 60’s hairdos look particularly anachronistic) but there is most definitely atmosphere – lots and lots of dream-like atmosphere! I read a rather famous 1960 something Roger Ebert review (I think he was one of the few who praised the film) and followed his suggestion to adjust the saturation level of my flat screen to emulate Mr. Houston's original “golden” look. I get what he was going for but much prefer a full color experience. And speaking of the director, this was an extraordinary example of experimental art film technique released by a major studio with the top stars of their day – bravo to Mr. Huston’s direction and moxie! That it was a flop was due to the studio’s fumbling marketing campaign and audiences too dumb to get it (like me when I was 14!).

    Sorry to go on so long here but reading your fantastic reviews has gotten me all stirred up with enthusiasm at a time when there’s little around me to brighten my day. My only regret is that it took so long to discover your goldmine of movie lore and opinion. I thank you sincerely for sharing your dreams about cinema!

    Your new fan,

    1. Hi George - I'm terribly flattered by your kind comments about the blog. Thank you. And it's I who feel fortunate that someone with such a strong affinity for film happened across this site.
      What forward-thinkers your parents are in creating a library of favorite films they could share with you. Isn't it remarkable how contagious a parent's love for cinema can be? I thoroughly got my movie addiction from my mom, and then later my older sister. The age differences exposed me to and contributed to developing a taste for classic films.
      Reading about your introduction to the film version of REFLECTIONS, and later, the novel, you paint a vivid picture of what movie love is all about. Especially when one's feelings about a film come to inform and influence the way we perceive and feel things in life.
      Like you, I have a hard time seeing Clift in the Brando role. He has the right neurotic quality, and perhaps the role would have harked back to the soldier he played in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, but I can't see him owning that forced macho veneer and military-assisted repression.

      I enjoyed reading your personal (the Taylor crush) and observational (Brando's performance, the preference for the color version) opinions on this enduring and, to me, remarkable film,. You're so right in pointing out how Huston achieves something unique in delivering such a faithful rendering of a very unusual book. And so artfully!
      A pleasure to "meet" you George, and I thank you for the the time invested in reading the post and composing such a thoughtful and personal contribution.

  8. Hi Ken-
    The Taylor fest continues...and the timing is perfect, what with the stellar blu-ray that recently got issued of this film. I watched the gold-tinted version and I found it gorgeous. I look forward to comparing it with the full color one.

    I also find the gold wash to be another potential metaphoric comment on the characters, as in they're stuck in a type of amber from developing further. Just another way to look at it.

    I actually found Taylor's performance to be one of the lesser ones on display, but to her credit that's more the fault of the character being kinda one-note, outside of that 100% fabulous moment on the stairs that you spotlighted. If only the film was THAT good the whole running time! Taylor certainly doesn't embarrass herself outside of her headband-loving styling.

    Brando does a great job in my opinion, although thinking of him as Mr Mumbles is pretty amusing. I especially liked him in the latter classroom scene.

    Keith makes the most interesting arc in the film, which is such a lovely surprise. Harris was the most heartbreaking to me, as I never fully saw her as that lost of a cause...she keeps giving glimpses of being very aware (especially in her last scene at the institution). She just doesn't really want to continue in the 'prison' she's in; one her grief put her into, then compounded by the husband giving up on her after a while, beautifully pointed out during the birth monologue. Two such masculine military types being reduced to emotional messes! In one film! Both women are the stronger of the four leads. Fascinating.

    As a big fan of Jackie Brown I'll always like Forster. I'm surprised and pleased that he was willing to show off his assets so much for his initial role. Might as well make up for a lack of dialog somehow... And speaking of Forster, I spent much of the film wondering how he was able to spend his whole evening at the Brando/Taylor abode (wouldn't the officers be inspecting the barracks for everyone?) but apparently this base does a really half-assed job of it. It seemed like a huge plot hole until they finally showed him leaving.

    Outside of the one shot of the 40's era car that Brando pulls up to the stables in and the dates on Forster's paperwork, nothing else reveals the proper year setting of the film. In addition to Liz's groovy styling, Toshiro Mayuzumi's lovely-yet-harpsichord-heavy music, also makes for a very stylistically 60s choice. No other decade used that instrument so prominently in the forefront.

    Reflections may be a 'misfire' that isn't everyone's cup of tea, but definitely isn't a bad film without merits. Not by a long shot.

    1. Hi Pete
      So perfect that you gave yourself the gold-tint REFLECTION experience first. In case you didn't like it you at least would have the "original" version to remember.
      As usual, see a film just once and arrive at several thoughtful takeaways...your thoughts on the metaphor of the gold, for example.
      Your feeling about the characters and what they meant to you is enlightening; which ones came off as sympathetic, dimensional, etc.
      You're the first I think to mention the music, which is a strong collaborator in creating such an air of unease around that curiously sleepy peacetime army base.
      I'm glad you got so much out of it and were able to add another title to your list of conquered Liz Taylor films. Nicely done!
      I got a kick out of your noticing the headbands! Thanks very much for writing and reading this post, Pete. Cheers!