In a career as vast as Elizabeth Taylor’s, you’re bound to find the occasional oddity or strange outlier that doesn’t get mentioned often or is given much attention but is just peculiar enough to invite rediscovery. Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967) is such a film. It started out as a way for Taylor to get her long-time friend and fellow actor Montgomery Clift an acting gig and boost his spirits after surviving a horrific car accident that shattered his good looks and confidence. It eventually became a twisted Southern gothic tale starring Marlon Brando opposite Taylor, directed by none other than John Huston who imposed its distinctive golden filter over every scene.
The film chronicles the dysfunctional marriage of Major Weldon Penderton (Brando) and his wife Leonora (Taylor) who likes riding horses and having an affair with Lieutenant Colonel Morris Langdon (Brian Keith), good friends with her husband. Private Williams (Robert Forster) is a young man that tends to Leonora’s horse and does yard work for the Penderton’s. He becomes obsessed with the couple and in particular Leonora, observing their most private moments from their yard at night.
We are introduced to the three main characters in a way that tells us something important about each one of them. Williams is a gentle soul that enjoys hanging around the stable, taking care of the horses. Weldon is a vain man obsessed with making himself look better as evident by the way he admires himself in a mirror after a workout, flexing his muscles. Leonora is all about what makes her happy, whether it’s making sure all the details for an impending party are just right or her affair with Morris.
Weldon and Leonora have a loveless relationship that borders on the contentious. She likes to have fun and he’s a humorless man, which begs the question, was it always like this? Were they ever happy together? Now, they have an antagonistic relationship as typified when he chastises her for walking around the house in bare feet. She responds by taking off all her clothes and walking around the house, which only infuriates him more. As she heads upstairs, Leonora simply turns, looks over her shoulder and says, “Son, have you ever been collared and dragged out into the street and thrashed by a naked woman?” While Brando seethes and chews up the scenery, Taylor wisely plays it low-key with simmering contempt. If Weldon is repressed then Leonora is the complete opposite, an exhibitionist who has no problem expressing how she feels at given moment.
This is a juicy role for Elizabeth Taylor to sink her teeth into as she vamps it up as a boozy, spoiled housewife with voracious appetites. She relishes her dialogue and delights in Leonora’s rebellious behavior towards Weldon and cheerfully condescends to Alison (Julie Harris). She is blissfully oblivious to everyone else’s problems, going on about her preparations for the party or casually dismissing Alison’s flamboyantly gay houseboy Anacleto’s (Zorro David) obvious disdain for her.
Marlon Brando is terrific playing a tragic figure trapped in a repressive prison and wanting so desperately to escape it. The scene where he is almost killed while riding a runaway horse is a powerful one as it culminates in a complete emotional breakdown. All of Weldon’s suppressed emotions come bubbling to the surface, erupting like a volcano in a powerfully acted moment by the actor. He can’t harm is wife directly so he punishes her in more insidious ways, such as taking out her beloved horse Firebird. When it nearly kills him after he provokes the animal, Weldon viciously whips it with a tree branch. He’s clearly venting his anger at Leonora out on this poor horse. Weldon is doing this as much to punish her as himself, lying to his wife about beating Firebird so that when she finds out and comes back understandably enraged, she begins striking him with a riding crop while he just stands there and takes it.
Williams is an enigmatic figure. Why is he so fascinated with these people? His obsession with them only grows as the film goes on. Robert Forster delivers an intriguing, largely wordless performance as a voyeuristic young man that spends most of his time observing the Penderton’s disintegrating marriage. Williams often stares impassively, his obsession guiding his actions as he increasingly takes more risks to spy on Leonora. He even goes so far as to breaking into their house, going into her bedroom and watching her as she sleeps.
Julie Harris plays Morris’ long-suffering wife, still dealing with the death of her child three years ago. The only comfort she finds is with Anacleto, a colorful character with a flair for the dramatic as he cuts loose while Morris looks on disdainfully. Zorro David delivers a wonderful monologue about a dream he had in such an odd way that anticipates similar showstopping moments in David Lynch films. His character would not be out of place in one of them. It's a shame David never made another film after this one as his onscreen presence is absolutely riveting.
Everyone in the cast is going for it, playing their respective roles to the hilt, be it Brando’s repressed major, Taylor’s lusty housewife, Forster’s stoic voyeur or Harris’ tragic wife.
Reflections in a Golden Eye is a beautiful shot film by Aldo Tonti with a golden filter that saturates the entire film with one object in a given scene naturally colored. This is in reference to Anacleto’s drawing of a golden peacock whose eye reflects the world. The film also features excellent use of shadows during night-time scenes where Williams spies on the Penderton’s, creeping around the outside of their house. There is another stand-out shot of a train, enshrouded in smoke, leaving the station at dawn.
After saving Montgomery Clift’s life in a horrendous nearly fatal automobile accident, Elizabeth Taylor had been trying to find a project for them work together on. The accident not only physically disfigured him but also had a huge psychological impact and his subsequent reliance on drugs and alcohol made him almost unemployable. In 1964, his agent suggested that they star in an adaptation of Carson McCuller’s novel, Reflections in a Golden Eye, a Southern gothic story about sexual repression. Clift was to play a latent homosexual army officer that becomes fixated on a young private. Taylor was to play opposite Clift as his wife and object of the private’s obsession.
Producer Ray Stark was understandably worried about insuring Clift and told the actor he’d have to put up his beloved brownstone as collateral. He was so desperate for work he considered but Taylor wouldn’t hear it and announced to the press that she and Clift were making the film together – their first since Suddenly, Last Summer (1959). When Stark asked her to reconsider, she offered to give up her salary to pay for his insurance.
Complications arose when Taylor told Clift that her husband Richard Burton wanted to co-star and direct the film. Not only did Clift not consider Burton a serious actor but also felt uncomfortable in the presence of the Welsh alpha male. Burton eventually decided not to do the film and John Huston was hired to direct. Unfortunately, Clift died in July 1966 and was subsequently replaced by Marlon Brando at the suggestion of Taylor.
Production on the film began in October 1966 in Rome where Burton and Taylor had been filming the play Doctor Faustus. It was a ten-week shoot with Brando often going out to dinner with Burton and Taylor. The film’s distinctive golden amber look was a result of extensive experimentation for a specific effect as Huston remarked, “This served to separate the audience somewhat from the characters, who were in various ways withdrawn from reality, and to make their story a bit more remote and erotic.”
An executive at Warner Brothers objected to the look of the film and Huston was able to convince the studio to release his version in select cities. Reflections in a Golden Eye received poor reviews and did not perform well at the box office. Variety said, “Brando struts about and mugs as the stuffy officer whose Dixie dialect is often incoherent.” Newsweek said that the film was “devoid of style and grace,” and called it “perverted.” The New York Times criticized the film’s “odd and pretentious use of color to convey the notion of reflections in a golden eye, I suppose that is, the suffusion of the whole thing in a fluctuating golden wash or monotone.” Finally, Pauline Kael gave it one of its more merciful reviews, stating, “Despite everything that is laboriously wrong with Reflections, the visual style – like paintings made from photographs – is interesting and the director, John Huston, and the actors are able to do some extraordinary things with Carson McCuller’s conceptions.” Technicolor prints had been struck at the same time as Huston’s version and replace them when the film was given a wider release.
The Penderton’s are a tragic couple that shouldn’t be married as he’s gay but unable to come out of the closet as a result of the repressed times and the environment in which he lives in. She, on the other hand, can’t empathize with other people as she’s so concerned with herself. Reflections in a Golden Eye is about damaged people, from the repressed Weldon to the selfish Leonora to the unhappy Alison to the obsessed Williams.
The film is also about perception – how people perceive others and themselves, from Weldon admiring himself in the mirror to Williams obsessively gazing at Leonora while she sleeps. It is an unhealthy, destructive gaze that Anacleto observes more succinctly when he shows Alison his watercolor of a peacock, explaining that in its eye are “reflections of something tiny, and tiny and…” upon struggling to find the right word, settles on “grotesque,” contorting his face. This film features grotesque caricatures of human beings doing horrible things to each other with often tragic results.
Kashner, Sam and Nancy Schoenberger. Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and the Marriage of the Century. itbooks. 2011.
Phillips, Gene D. “Talking with John Huston.” Film Comment. May/June 1973.
Spoto, Donald. A Passion for Life: The Biography of Elizabeth Taylor. Harper Collins. 1995.