Reflections in a Golden Eye (John Huston, 1967)
“Any fulfilment attained at the expense of normality is wrong. And should not be allowed to bring happiness. In short it’s… it’s better because it’s morally honorable that the square peg keep scraping about the round hole, rather than to discover and use the unorthodox one that will fit it.”
-Major Weldon Penderton (Marlon Brando)
It’s peacetime at a US army base in the American South, and the above credo pronounced by the deeply (I mean deeply) repressed, Penderton, should give an idea of how neurotic things will play out between this cast of characters in this fascinating and lurid Southern Gothic. The tight-ass Major can barely contain his desires for that strapping young Private Williams who tends to the horses (Robert Forster in his first role), an odd, quiet young man acting out his own hidden proclivities – such as quietly breaking into the Major’s bedroom at night to sniff his sleeping wife and her underwear, as well as sneaking off to the forest to ride around on horseback in the raw (how his testicles didn’t get mashed shooting this is beyond me – and the scene of Brando’s eye-popping, tight-lipped outrage at stumbling across his dreamboat in this state is… priceless), while his aforementioned spoiled army brat wife Leonora (Elizabeth Taylor, who has never been more perfectly vulgar) is having an affair with their neighbor, Colonel Langdon (Brian Keith, performing in a subdued manner against the almost-but-not-quite-camp level pitch the others reach), who is stuck in a situation at home, with a mentally troubled wife Alison (Julie Harris, also great – I mean, seriously, what a cast), a frail woman who had a nervous breakdown three years earlier after suffering a miscarriage and slowly being driven insane by this imprisoning milieu, spending much of her time in bed concocting plans of escape with her faithful flamboyant man-child Filipino servant Anacleto (Zorro David, his only acting performance, who is so aggressively flame-on all the time even I was getting annoyed – though his acts of defiance against the bullying officers who make fun of him, such as ‘mistakenly’ throwing drinks on them as he serves them, are really amusing – though he also gets the thankless job — in the clunkiest scene of both book and film — of delivering the one way-too-obvious note of the narrative, stating the meaning of the title of the film’s metaphor in the form of a painting).
As deeply perverse as it is beautifully written, that quote above (like the rest of the film) is raised to a whole ‘nother level by a tortured performance, this one by Brando, working to beautiful undermine his own macho physical presence and image, delivering these words, as if reciting them for the umpteenth time as a commandment to live by, while harboring a secret that will never allow him the peace of fitting into a round hole. It comes near the end of the film, just before a profound moment in which the Major (he’s a Captain in the fascinatingly literate and leeringly lurid Carson McCullers’ book the film is based on, with also Colonel Langdon being upped to a Major status – perhaps in adapting to film they realized that the author had their military statuses all wrong, not that I would know) allows the briefest glimpse at clarity, an honest assessment acknowledging how trying to rigidly conform to this credo (pretty sure the Kinsey Report ratings scale results on the fluidity of sexuality from the next decade wouldn’t be on the top of the academic lessons for these desperate he-men) has destroyed all their lives (well, not the self-absorbed, clueless Leonora – she’d likely return to as ‘happy as a flitting butterfly’ – or whatever overcooked metaphor she’d use — once she got over the traumatizing murder she witnesses by the end of the film), when immediately asked if he believes those words by his agreeing buddy Colonel, takes a long pause and suddenly finds himself saying ‘No. I don’t.’ Of course, it’s only a momentary reprieve. The institutions they live by don’t allow for thinking outside the box for long.
I took up the McCullers book just before revisiting the film and it’s a fascinating read. Twisted with Tennessee Williams style tragedy and perverse psychology, the female author was a mysterious, tragic (and celebrated) figure, frail and sickly, married a number of times while also a philandering switch-hitting lover, alcoholic, dead by fifty. It’s clear that a lot of the sweaty Southern sexual repression she wrote about were pretty close to home, with her characters, and the cruel and obsessive actions they do – both large and small (such as the Major fondling a candy bar wrapper discarded by the soldier he not-so clandestinely pursues) – vividly jumping off the page.
The evocative golden hue that most of the film is draped in was a bold choice and really works (hard to separate out the impression of that glowing color any time I think of the film now). It’s a classy production, with a well-regarded cast (again, acting brilliantly), for such a surprisingly sensational enterprise (I mean, taken directly from the book, they recount the tale of Alison’s nervous breakdown taking the form of her having come home from one of those parties Leonora is so proud of to cut off both her nipples with garden shears! – dare I say, like a scene straight out of Cutting Moments!).
Director Huston and the performers, however, even as they lean into precariously overwrought terrain that could easily raise a snicker (especially from today’s perspective), are never less than sober and respectful to the material and their respective characters, making it an almost perfect adaption of, as well as companion piece to, the original novel. The film’s addition of Taylor’s furious Leonora coldly and repeatedly whipping the unmoving Major (who in his self-loathing, invites the humiliation and pain) across the face with her horse whip before stunned army attendees at her party after she’s learned he’s brutally beaten her favorite horse is a startling and inspired scene and filmed moments taken straight from the book, such as Leonora defiantly stripping naked before her openly disgusted husband as they’re alone at home (with the leeringly excited voyeur Private Williams – and us viewers with him — watching from outside the windows) to walk up the stairs perfectly capture the antagonistic and queasy feeling of the book.
With all of his well known odd and destructive eccentricities, as well as his sleep-walking through many a part, Brando will be a revelation for anyone who hasn’t seen him in his best work. With a physique and presence the camera has always loved, he gives his all to the part, entirely inhabiting it, clearly committing to every moment and scene, daring to do what few actors do today (with their agents and a desire to conform usually talking them into playing safe), which is to uncompromisingly play a bullying character we can understand, but never like (interesting to note, the much more slight Montgomery Clift, always Brando’s method acting rival, was originally supposed to do the role – it certainly would have been a different portrayal, fascinating to consider). Brian Keith as Colonel Langdon, a dutiful follower of the cause of the army, without any of the emotional depth to understand his wife’s despair – or that dancing, painting queen Anacleto constantly at her side – plays it equally brilliantly, in a much more understated manner. We sense he is someone who cares, and could perhaps even have the capacity to reach further in different circumstances, if only the system around him didn’t enable – and reward him – not to. While they’re all essentially tragic figures (except Taylor’s Leonora — then again, she’s the one whose horrified endless screaming the film ends on), Harris’ frail, suicidal and delusional Alison is the representation of the fragile, unstable core at the center of the rigid, yet cracking forms by which they try and live.
While the final scene of violence in the film might be thought of as expected and perhaps formulaic, the fact that it takes place on an army base, during peace time, between two soldiers filled with repressed sexual desires that cause them to uncontrollably act out, ends up being a perfect violent culmination of all the themes and metaphors the film (and book) are playing with.
I was so taken by the experience of McCullers book and the film together, I just ordered her first breakout novel published in 1940 – another Southern gothic of the depression era, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter – with the goal of reading and eventually comparing against the 1968 adaption with Alan Arkin and Sondra Locke, who both received Academy Award nominations (before Locke, of course, would get blackballed from the movie industry after Cint Eastwood decided he wanted her to go away).