May 30, 2012

Reflections in a Golden Eye

In the Hollywood Southern Gothic classic Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), Paul Newman’s character Brick Pollitt expresses his undying love for his deceased friend Skipper over the brazen erotic yearnings of his feisty wife Maggie "the Cat" played by Elizabeth Taylor. Almost ten years later, Marlon Brando, as sexually repressed homophile and military man Maj. Weldon Penderton, would also chose a young man over would-be-Queen Elizabeth in John Huston’s underrated film Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967); a plentifully peculiar and perverse Southern Gothic work set in a military training camp during the homo-hating 1940s based on the Carson McCullers novel of the same name. As hinted at by its curious title, Reflections in a Golden Eye is an aesthetically magnetic work that shimmers a golden tone (or a “golden haze” as Huston described it) throughout, but protagonist Weldon Penderton has his gaze on a young recruit's brown-eye; whether he wants to admit it to himself or not. Major Penderton’s wife Leonora (Taylor) is a luscious and loose woman who gets her kicks by mocking her husband’s pathetic passivity and sexual impotence by forthrightly flaunting her hypnotic naked body and having a steamy love affair with his married friend Lt. Col. Morris Langdon (Brian Keith). Needless to say, Major Penderton is an internally conflicted fellow who wears the sort of fixed stoic mask of deceit that only a seasoned military man of the 1940s could have pulled off. Of course, when the Major sees Pvt. Williams (played by then-newcomer Robert Forster), his unspeakable love interest, riding a white horse while au naturel, he begins to lose his cold-cock cool, thus eventually culminating into a calamitous climax that reminds the viewer why AIDS-ridden S&M leather bars exist. Unfortunately for Mr. Penderton, Williams – who is not exactly the most mentally stable young man – has a fetish for sneaking into Leonora’s bedroom and ritualistically inhaling the pussycat pheromones from her panties and lingerie.

Before Brando obtained the lead role in Reflections in a Golden Eye, Elizabeth Taylor's good friend Montgomery Clift was cast to play Maj. Weldon Penderton, but instead died of a much anticipated heart attack before a single frame of film was shot. Lee Marvin was also considered for the role, yet he turned it down, probably because he was too hard-featured and unrepentantly manly, but one can only speculate. Brando – who although masculine in his own right but also a pugnacious pretty boy – was indubitably the right man for the job as further testified by a statement he made in 1976, “Homosexuality is so much in fashion it no longer makes news. Like a large number of men, I, too, have had homosexual experiences and I am not ashamed. I have never paid much attention to what people think about me.” Of course, his character in Reflections in a Golden Eye certainly cares about what people think about him, so much so that he rather stay with a woman that unceasingly repels him than become a full-fledgling patriotic member of the pink army brotherhood. In terms of theme, aesthetics, and overall atmosphere, Reflections in a Golden Eye is essentially the total antipodean to the ultra-campy comedy The Gay Deceivers (1969); a silly fag romp were two straight friends pretend to be queer lovers so they can avoid being drafted into the military. After initially watching Reflections in a Golden Eye for the first time, it was quite apparent to me as to why the film failed at the box office. On top of featuring diacritic homoerotic themes set in the sort of period and place that most individuals would regard as a man-molding testosterone factory of inborn anti-fagdom, Reflections in a Golden Eye alienated many mainstream viewers due to its puissant gold tint, so much so that the film was subsequently re-released in a normal color format (thankfully, the "golden haze" was later reinstated when the film was released on dvd) so as to appease the typically mundane tastes of unadventurous mainstream filmgoers. Ultimately, Reflections in a Golden Eye is a tragic tale were not a single quandary is resolved, let alone properly addressed, but I guess one cannot expect much optimism from a film where a man unabashedly commits serial adultery against his sick suicidal wife (who cut off her own nipples after having a miscarriage during childbirth) with the spoiled, over-sexed spouse of one of his best friends. Despite its many poignant moments of human despondency, duplicity, and contretemps, Reflections in a Golden Eye has a few instances of (seemingly unintentional) comic relief in the form of an effete Filipino houseboy who has a queer eye for the golden eye as exhibited by his drawing of gold peacock whose ogle acts as a reflection of the world, hence the title of the film.

 Reflections in a Golden Eye is very possibly the greatest example of a semi-subconscious bizarre love triangle and one of John Huston’s most artistically ambitious and uncompromising efforts, as it is a work that was destined to be a commercial failure due to its terribly taboo themes and iridescent gold imagery. The fact that Mr. Huston made such an audience-antagonistic and emotionally-draining work with an all-star cast featuring Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor only adds to the case for the filmmaker’s artistic integrity. At the very worst, Reflections in a Golden Eye is work that eclipses its Southern Gothic predecessors A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), and The Fugitive Kind (1959) in terms of ever seething starkness, domestic social dysfunction, and psycho-sexual derangement. Out of all the characters featured in Reflections in a Golden Eye, it is hard to designate which one is the most mentally unsound and abhorrent, but somewhat queerly, Brando’s character Weldon Penderton eventually seems to be keenly cognizant of his affliction by the end of the film, even if he blows something other than his load as a result of it. Aside from being a latent homosexual, I think many male viewers, especially older ones, can identify with Penderton’s plight and impasse with life. On reflection, it is not the honor and prestige that comes with being a decorated officer that the Major nostalgically ponders on, but his youthful days of impassioned brotherhood as a new recruit. In a sense, Penderton’s sexual longings for the stark-naked peeping tom on the horse seem to be a rather perverse way for him to recapture the sprightliness of his long lost salad days.  Although expressive in tone and sometimes even phantasmagorical in imagery, Reflections in a Golden Eye is in consummation a very realistic portrayal about self-imposed (and sometimes subconscious) prisons and the self-annihilating misery that such preternatural constructs sow. Next to Sidney Lumet’s Equus (1977), you won’t find a more penetrating and historic film about hysterical homos and horses than Reflections in a Golden Eye.

-Ty E

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