For the past two weeks, I’ve been reviewing, in chronological order, 126 cinematic melodramas. I started in the 1920s with Sunrise and Wings and now, 33 reviews later, we have finally reached the end of the 1960s. And what better way to end the 60s than by taking a mercifully brief look at the 1969 film, Reflections in a Golden Eye.
Now, before I get too critical of this film, I should acknowledge that there are some critics who absolutely love Reflections in a Golden Eye. They think very highly of Marlon Brando’s performance as Maj. Weldon Penderton, a closeted homosexual who is stationed at a military base in the South. They think that Elizabeth Taylor’s performance as Brando’s wife isn’t somewhat embarrassing. And they think that the script isn’t overwritten and that director John Huston doesn’t try way too hard to prove himself worthy of the title auteur. They feel that Reflections in a Golden Eye is a secret masterpiece that does not deserve to be known as an infamous flop.
I’m definitely not one of those people but they do exist. There are some very respectable and intelligent critics who happen to love Reflections in a Golden Eye.
Well — vive la différence!
Earlier in this series, I pointed out that the 60s were not a great time for old school Hollywood directors trying to compete with both American television and European film. It was a time when talented directors found themselves trying to keep up with the times and appeal to new audiences. As a result, Joseph L. Mankiewicz ended up making Cleopatra. Edward Dmytryk did The Carpetbaggers. Elia Kazan directed The Arrangement. William Wyler did The Liberation of L.B. Jones. Stanley Kramer made RPM.
And John Huston made Reflections in a Golden Eye.
This painfully slow film follows the affairs of six people on that Southern army base. Brando is emotionally repressed and spend most of the movie mumbling in one of the worst Southern accents ever. Taylor is obsessed with horses and spends most of the movie yelling in one of the worst Southern accents ever. Robert Forster is the object of Brando’s repressed desire, a soldier who likes to ride horses while naked and who is obsessed with sniffing Elizabeth Taylor’s underwear. Brian Keith is in charge of the army base and is having an affair with Taylor. Julie Harris is Keith’s suicidal wife. Zorro David is Harris’s houseboy who, at one point, is nice enough to give this film a title by mentioning something about a golden eye.
What’s particularly insane is that Huston took the idea of making this film a reflection in a golden eye literally. The entire film is tinted a sickly gold color. Whenever the characters step outside, the sky looks like the sun has just exploded. Whenever the characters are inside, they all look like they have jaundice. On the one hand, you have to respect the fact that Huston so committed himself to potentially alienating the audience. On the other hand, the yellow-tinting renders almost every image so grotesque that I actually found myself growing physically ill as I watched the film.
Watching Reflections in a Golden Eye, I could understand why The Godfather was such a huge comeback for Marlon Brando. I wouldn’t necessarily say that Brando gives a bad performance here. He’s watchable throughout the entire film. But it’s still a performance that’s so strangely modulated (and which features a Southern accent that is just amazingly bad) that it ultimately distracts from the film itself. If anything, Brando gives a performance that suggests what happens when a talented and eccentric man gets bored with what he’s doing.
(If you want to see a good Brando performance from 1969, see Burn.)
Reflections in a Golden Eye is a pretentious mess but fortunately, both Huston and American film would make a comeback in the 1970s. We’ll start on that decade tomorrow.
(Yes, this video is a spoiler but it’ll allow you to see the gold tinting.)
(The film was also released in an untinted version.)