It was considered a critical and commercial failure upon its release in 1967, but I love the film Reflections in a Golden Eye. Directed by the legendary John Huston and set on a military base in the 1940s, Marlon Brando stars as an Army Major trying to come to terms with his repressed homosexuality and Elizabeth Taylor is his unhappy, adulterous wife.
When I heard of Taylor’s passing yesterday, what immediately came to mind was a moment in that film that lasts only a few seconds long, but for me, perfectly embodies the qualities that made Taylor the movie star that she was.
In this scene, Brando and Taylor are at a cocktail party. It’s already been established that Taylor’s character’s great love is her horse and earlier in the movie, we witnessed Brando angrily beat that horse with a riding crop after the animal threw him and dragged him. Taylor finds out and she is pissed. So this is what she does:
In just a few seconds and with such economy of words and action, Taylor is able to convey the ferocity of her character’s emotional state, her defiance and her strength and do something that very few actors would have been able to do—stand up to an actor of Brando’s stature and make him look weak. What other actress could’ve taken a riding crop, whipped Brando into submission and do it so convincingly that the audience would buy it without question?
And that’s what made Taylor the star that she was. She didn’t just possess the requisite charisma and the talent, she also possessed a presence of strength that very few actors—male or female—had. Taylor acted opposite some of the most imposing screen legends of all time—James Dean, Montgomery Clift, Richard Burton, Paul Newman—and not only held her own, but usually forced her co-stars to amp up their testosterone just to keep up with her.
This isn’t to say she was solely a ball-buster. Somehow her strength brought out the sensitive side of her (usually) very macho leading men. Was Clift ever more vulnerable than in his scenes opposite Taylor in A Place in the Sun? Or Burton in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfe? Or Newman in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof?
Which brings me back to Reflections in a Golden Eye. I think this is one of Brando’s finest performances—definitely underrated and all but forgotten today—but this may be his most emotionally naked work with the exception of Last Tango in Paris.
My theory is that’s largely the reason why this movie bombed with audiences and critics. People at that time weren’t used to seeing someone as masculine as Brando displaying the raw emotions the way he does here. There’s one moment when Brando completely breaks down—one of the actor’s rare celluloid “crying” scenes—and audiences allegedly reacted with laughter. It’s not a funny moment, in fact, it’s the opposite of that, but I think it made 1967 moviegoers extremely uncomfortable and they could only react by laughing.
However, watching that moment now, and in the context of the whole movie, I was surprised at how moving it was—how much of Brando’s own hurt and vulnerability was on the screen. It was extremely uncomfortable because it was so brutally honest and shocking. In many ways, Brando was ahead of his time.
But I also realized watching the film again recently that what allowed Brando to give such an emotional performance was Taylor. Because of that strength she possessed, Brando had the support he needed to go to that difficult place. It’s an incredibly generous performance on Taylor’s part.
She had the charisma to easily swallow up everyone else on screen with her, but if you look at her films, she always made her co-stars look good. She helped coax the best performances out of them; allowing them to display different colors in their palate. She used her natural power not to steamroll over them, but to be the anchor or rock they could lean on so they could feel safe to dive into uncharted territory. You could see that quality in her regular life too as she passionately devoted her resources to causes like AIDs education and research. The lady had style. I don’t think there will ever be anyone else like her. She will be missed.