LOLITA took me years of delay and two aborts around the half-hour point before I finally sat through until minute 152 closed. I always like James Mason, Peter Sellers and director Stanley Kubrick and I knew Sue Lyon was sexy from The Night Of The Iguana. I’m a regular bloke, so while abhorring pedophilia in any form, I am not so dead to Lust that I don’t acknowledge the tease factor of nymphets. So what was the hangup? Simple prejudice: I have always had a hard time with Shelley Winters. Guilty. (Quilty?) *
Vladimir Nabokov’s scandalous 1955 novel was adapted by the author himself, in a gargantuan 400-page treatment that would have run seven hours. Determined (to say the least) director Stanley Kubrick threw out most of it, dropped what didn’t suit, softened for the inevitable censorship, re-arranged in general and let Peter Sellers improvise like a fiend for much of his part.
I’m glad I stuck with it, because of the altogether superb playing from James Mason as the tormented fool Humbert Humbert (his best role of the decade), the wickedly convincing naughtiness of a lovely and quite impressive Sue Lyon as the title creature**, and most (not all) of the inspired antics of Peter Sellers, who warms up for his coming triumph as Kubrick’s Dr.Strangelove by concocting a bizarre array of weirdos-wrapped-in-one as the corrupt Quilty. And Miss Winters is very good in her gad-awful irritating fashion (plus, her screeching, pathetic character is mercifully summoned by a rainy highway).
Lots of sly winks in the script. I do recall as a child seeing this advertised in the newspaper with the admonition “Adults Only”, spoken of as though it was something so foul it would stunt your growth (leaving us to such other devices as were handy).
It is a strange story and a strange movie, start to end, with some hilarity, some pathos, some overkill (Sellers takes the bit as the nervous guy at the hotel and runs it into the ground). The screenplay was nominated for an Oscar, which I imagine came out of left field to the more uptight members of the Academy, who chose To Kill A Mockingbird as winner.
Kubrick’s direction is shrewd, the b&w camera work from Oswald Morris works well with the suffocating spiral of Mr.Humbert. Mason was worried that Seller’s wildness would steal all the attention and show him up, but by wisely playing it straight he not only nails the moral quandary angle so that it’s fully believable but serves to make the comedy that much more excruciatingly sharp. Far from floundering, the inexperienced Lyon goes fearlessly toe-to-toe with the daunting pros. There’s a funny freak bit from a silent Marianne Stone as Sellers’ Vampira-like companion, and quick passes from the future Miss Moneypenny, Lois Maxwell, and Canadian actor Cec Linder, who would later be known to Bond fans as Felix Leiter in Goldfinger.
Costing $2,000,000, it stirred up a voyeuristic $9,900,000, coming in an eye-opening #12 for the year. With Gary Cockrell, Jerry Stovin and Diana Decker.
- * Never got her appeal– vocally, visually, chemically. Didn’t like her on talk shows, didn’t like what I heard from people who were in the know. So, I, like so many of us, let my Ick Factor flail at my Fairness File. She was a good actress, good at what she played and how she did it. There, said it. I still can’t deal. I’m glad the ‘Poseidon’ sank. Life goes on….
- ** Fifteen-year old Sue Lyon was chosen over 800 hopefuls, including Tuesday Weld. Hayley Mills (!) turned it down, likely at the vehement pleading/demand of Walt Disney, who could no doubt envision the Magic Kingdom in flames if Hayley boinked James Mason in front of God and everybody. Joey Heatherton’s dad kiboshed her (Kubrick’s first choice) as he did not want his daughter typecast as a sex-kitten—good luck with that, daddio. Lyon’s life took its own bizarre turn: seek and ye shall know.