Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Lolita Makes the Grade as a Kubrick Classic


         Helping to usher in a more permissive era in America films, Stanley Kubrick’s smart, richly entertaining 1962 adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, the legendary and controversial 1955 bestseller, provides a fascinating example of how far a mainstream studio film could go during the pre-ratings board era in offering heretofore forbidden adult themes to the public in a manner deemed acceptable. Nabokov’s ingenious screenplay suggestively manages to address the novel’s primary plot points involving sexual obsession and murder without falling into a distasteful realm. The top-flight, perfectly chosen lineup of James Mason, Shelley Winters, Peter Sellers and Sue Lyon fully invest their considerable talents to bring off performances of style and wit. One of the few Kubrick films to fall mainly in the comedy genre, the director’s skillful, remarkable work in crafting an engrossing Lolita for the masses suggests Kubrick could have excelled more often in lighter fare with the same success he found in other genres. 

           Although some of the novel’s racier aspects had to be toned down in the film adaptation, Kubrick and Nabokov were able to keep matters remarkably adult for 1962, incorporating sly, skillful methods to address mature themes in the unfolding of the story. The audience might have to read between the lines regarding the more salacious content, but (for example) when Lolita inaudibly whispers in Humbert’s ear about a game she played with a boy during summer at “Camp Climax,” anyone who read or didn’t read the book knows the score. Armed with Nabokov’s crafty script, Kubrick turned the censorship which prevented sexual matters from being overtly presented on film into an asset, by having characters address desires in an indirect, funny manner, such as Clare Quilty, with a Cherise cat grin, suggestively saying “Did I do that? Did I?” after information involving a tryst is whispered in his ear by a former flame, or during the in-disguise Quilty’s provocative-yet-indirect discussions with an increasingly unhinged Humbert Humbert. Over the lengthy 2.5 hour running time, Kubrick shows a deft touch in combining these entertaining lighter scenes with more profoundly dramatic ones, without ever losing a consistent overall tone. It makes for a fascinating watch, and Kubrick respects and trusts the audience, never playing down to them or trying to over-emphasize points for fear viewers won’t “get it” otherwise.  

           Kubrick is greatly assisted in his endeavors by a remarkable quartet of stars. The always-compelling James Mason adds another impressive portrait to his many fine screen characterizations. Humbert Humbert, the professor with a yen for pubescent girls, is a tricky role to bring off but Mason, with his cultured, melodic voice, manages to believably blend a great deal of style, humor and class with a darker emotional resonance fitting for a man torn by his desires. Mason could go as deep into a character as any actor of his era, as witnessed by his Norman Maine for-the-ages turn in A Star is Born and his conflicted Captain Nemo 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954 was a good year for Mason) or his drug-addicted, delusional father in 1956’s Bigger Than Life, wherein Mason greatly aided director Nicholas Ray in lending a horrific twist to the image of an ideal 1950’s suburban family. In Lolita Mason also gets a chance to show his comic adeptness, such as the scene wherein Humbert’s nonplussed, inebriated  demeanor in a bathtub shows how little he is shaken up by a dire turn of events, when a crestfallen reaction appears more apropos. The manner in which Mason is able to seamlessly switch from farcical to tragic moments is acting of the most proficient caliber, and Mason never puts a foot wrong while appearing in virtually every scene of the film, keeping the audience on his side throughout; it’s hard to picture another actor pulling off Humbert as memorably and endearingly as what Mason accomplishes in the role.

          For Shelley Winters the role of Charlotte Haze, an affluent widow who firmly sets her sights on Humbert once he takes up lodgings with her and her daughter Dolores (a.k.a. "Lo"), provided her with one of her best opportunities to shine. She plays Charlotte in a florid manner, yet her richly overt playing is far from one-dimensional, as Winters reveals the many facets (desperation, good-humor, jealously, lustiness, rage) that comprise Charlotte’s personality. This woman is full of life, and Winters has no problem playing Charlotte’s pretentiousness with a glorious abandon that somehow doesn’t cross over the line into the ridiculous, nicely tempering the character’s general joie de vivre with some touching moments wherein Charlotte reveals a more sensitive nature. Humbert may view Charlotte as obvious and silly, but Charlotte believes in her romantic convictions, ultimately showing Humbert (and the audience) she possesses a level of pride and intelligence far beyond his lowly assessment. Winters was always great at illustrating domineering behavior with a comic twist and admirable liveliness, such as in her old-fashioned-yet-sage Jewish mother in Next Stop, Greenwich Village, and in her iconic role as the former “underwater swimming champ” in The Poseidon Adventure, who in the eleventh hour becomes a force of nature to match any tidal wave, thereby saving Gene Hackman and the day. In Lolita Winters tackles Charlotte’s many colorful, forceful actions with aplomb and conviction (such as teaching Humbert to Cha-Cha-Cha, or attempting to barrel through the generation gap during her conflicts with her mature, independent-minded daughter); with Winters in the part, it just seems natural Charlotte possesses such free-spirited vigor, and you believe Winters throughout, where another performer might give one pause during some of Charlotte’s more flamboyant scenes (such as Charlotte’s discussion with her dead husband, which Winters manages to make both pathetic and funny).

          Peter Sellers as Clare Quilty, the mysterious writer who proves to be a constantly ominous and evasive presence during Humbert’s travels and travails, gives one of his most original, daring performances. Sellers’ confidence as an actor must have been peaking as shooting commenced, as he portrays Quilty in a fearless, spontaneous fashion that is riveting to watch. From the sensational opening showdown scene between Humbert and Quilty, Sellers makes it clear he is not going to be risk-adverse concerning character choices, as he switches voices and attitudes seemingly at random while Quilty attempts to distract the purposeful Humbert, finishing off the scene with a weirdly comical “ooh, that hurt!” exit line for the ages. It’s admirable to watch a major talent run like this with a role without worrying about the possible disastrous results if wrong choices win the day. Sellers somehow manages to keeps the characterization whole and on track though, making his irregular playing an intrinsic part of Quilty’s quirky demeanor. Sellers’ greatest moment in the film is perhaps the bizarre monologue Quilty delivers at a hotel to Humbert containing references to his “normal face” and the “lovely little girl” with Humbert. Sellers adopts a nervous, rambling manner as he races through the dialogue, leaving the awe-struck audience to wonder just what the hell this guy is up to. Sellers gleefully offers the same can’t-take-your-eyes-off-him-type of surprising behavior in all his scenes and, similar to Winters, it’s a constant pleasure to see just how far Sellers will go in vividly enacting Quilty’s every perverse move.                 

          With her simultaneously placid, alert and amused demeanor Sue Lyon proves ideal casting in the title role. Although it was mentioned upon the film’s release Lyon appeared a lot older than the book’s 12-year-old heroine (Lyon was 14 during filming) her knowing gaze and nonchalant, coolly detached air not only allowed her to perfectly blend in with her more experienced co-stars, but also made the film more accessible to the masses (and censors) in 1962, who could handle a more mature Lolita, wherein a pre-teen would have possibly been too unsettlingly provocative. Lyon manages to walk a fine line between adolescence and sensuality and she keeps her balance all the way, instilling both a youthful freshness and a sage world-weariness into the role that is suitable for this Lolita. Kubrick works extremely well in bringing out Lyon’s natural, intuitive approach to acting, and she handles the character’s development with impressively unforced style. Watching Lyon in her high-profile follow-up, 1964’s the Night of the Iguana, she appears well-cast as far as age and looks are concerned, but gives a more uneven, conventional performance. In Lolita, she easily holds her own among some major players, and is consistently interesting to watch (one example: I love the way Lyon, as the older Lolita, spits out the line “. . . you know, an ‘Art’ movie” to Humbert, making it clear to him and us exactly what kind of film she didn’t star in). Lyon is especially good at projecting slyness, such as her reaction shots as Lolita listens to Humbert and Charlotte discuss his moving in, wherein she shows this nymphet clearly gets what Humbert’s intentions are at first sight, or the self-possessed manner Lolita saunters in to say goodnight (backed by Bob Harris’s unforgettable theme, lively conducted by Nelson Riddle) and pecks Humbert on the cheek with a bold look and suggestive “goodnight” beyond her years. Lyon may never again have made the same impact onscreen, but her assured, composed work in Lolita guarantees her a place in cinema history among the most indelible coming-of-age performances.

        The sophistication, intelligence and creativity in evidence throughout Lolita has allowed the film to remain fresh and intriguing for contemporary audiences, just as it proved enthralling to cinemagoers over 50 years ago, wherein it gained healthy grosses (4.5 million in U.S./Canada film rentals, placing it 12th for the year, according to Variety) and a measure of critical acclaim, with several major Golden Globe nominations (including a win for Lyon as Most Promising Newcomer), and a well-earned British Academy Award nom for Mason and Oscar nom for Nabokov’s screenplay. With its fusion of ace direction, perfect cast, and clever, trenchant screenplay, Lolita serves as a quality example of how inventively and entertainingly adult matters could be presented on-screen in a less-permissive era, and offers a template to modern filmmakers of how to memorably depict questionable material with class, humor and skill. 


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