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Lingering 'Lolita'

Lolita
Hoop Dream: Sue Lyon's Lolita spins a spell that James Mason's Humbert Humbert is helpless to resist in the screen version of Nabokov's racy classic.

Thirty-five years after director Stanley Kubrick dared to film 'Lolita,' Vladimir Nabokov's tale of obsession is still a scandal

By Richard von Busack

'HOW DID they ever make a movie out of Lolita?" was the irresistible tagline in the ad campaign for the 1962 film version of Vladimir Nabokov's scandalous novel about a middle-aged man's obsession with a nymphet. The question isn't any easier to answer in 1997. Consider Shirley Temple dressed in a diaper and halter top, undulating like Mae West, in the short film Polly Tix in Washington, from 1933. It's early evidence that the movie business has been providing young flesh for old men for a long time.

Director Adrian Lyne's new adaptation of Lolita, starring 15-year-old Dominique Swain, still doesn't have an opening date, but when it reaches the big screen or the little one (HBO might air it), expect some moral thundering. Lyne's previous films, including Flashdance, Indecent Proposal, 9 1/2 Weeks and Fatal Attraction, are fired up by technology, coarse shocks and misogyny. In a recent Esquire interview, Lyne complains that his reputation as a maker of commercials "gets endlessly thrown at you ... though I haven't done a commercial in 10 years."

It's an astonishing statement when you consider the array of merchandise his films have sold: everything from CD players to sweatshirts torn at the neck. One can't be sure that Lyne's Lolita won't be soft-core pornography: Saddle Shoes Diaries. Lyne does have a fine Humbert in the form of ironic Jeremy Irons. I'll go, hoping against hope. Admitting I was wrong to be prejudiced takes but a minute--sitting through a wretched movie, on the other hand, takes two hours.

In the meantime, the 1962 version, by Stanley Kubrick, is back in a new 35mm print, with an extra minute of footage. Some risqué exchanges previously deleted have been retrieved. The 1962 Lolita may not corrupt any 1997 minors, but who knows if it needed an extra minute. It's plenty risqué already.

Times have changed, but the novel preserves its own shock. Nabokov's Lolita was written in 1953 and published by a small French press, like its only rival as the masterpiece of 20th-century English literature: James Joyce's Ulysses. Also like Ulysses, Lolita was banned, even in Paris. The book was brought to America in 1958, and it became a publishing phenomenon, eventually selling some 14 million copies. At the end of his life Nabokov claimed he was "being kept by a 12-year-old girl."

Twelve and a half, actually. The novel is narrated by Humbert Humbert, an upper-class Swiss bachelor in reduced circumstances. He loved a young girl when he was 12 and has never gotten over the loss. Years later, after time in a sanitarium, he comes to the U.S. to write and recuperate.

At the private home in New Hampshire where he takes a room, Humbert sights Dolores Haze, nicknamed Lolita, who is the image of his childhood imago. He falls desperately in love with the girl, and she is curious herself. But he is blocked in his unlawful courtship by the figure of her mother, Charlotte--as acid a portrait of an American mom as was ever conceived.

"I am not, and never was, and never could have been, a brutal scoundrel," Humbert writes. He also describes himself as "Humbert the Hound, the sad-eyed degenerate cur clasping the boot that would presently kick him away." What he had in mind for Lolita was some discreet rubbing. But she initiates sex between them, having already lost her virginity at summer camp. "I was a daisy-fresh girl, and you raped me," she taunts him after a night during which she had taken the lead.

Humbert the Hound discovers himself outgunned. Lolita is not an 18th-century child bride, not Poe's Annabel Lee, not Petrarch's Laura, but a very raspy American teen who is more than a match for him. The roles switch and switch back--"two slaves and two masters," as Ambrose Bierce described marriage, and Humbert debases himself as he debases Lolita.

Lolita is a tale of love that fades, is corrupted and finally kills. The heroine is destroyed by the so-called happy ending (by finding a nice, unthreatening man and settling down); the antihero dies in jail.

Nabokov often related a sad story to explain how he came up with this hideo-comic novel. Before the war, he had read in the newspaper about an ape in the zoo that, "after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal. This sketch showed the bars of the poor creature's cage."

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Lolita Online:

An extensive page devoted to author Vladimir Nabokov.

Information about director Stanley Kubrick.

A fan page devoted to actor James Mason, star of the first 'Lolita.'

Interview with Stephen Schiff, screenwriter for new 'Lolita' movie.

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'LLET THEM find a dwarfess," Nabokov wrote about the casting problem in the movie of Lolita. The 1962 film made the title character 14 and used a physically mature actress (15-year-old Sue Lyon, the Alicia Silverstone of her era, who was, despite what partisans of the Lyne film are implying, nobody's hag). Kubrick's theme isn't the seduction of the innocent as much as the ferocity of the laws against dating the underaged. The humor is in the situation--a comedy of bad manners--and the pathos of the story follows naturally in the wake of Humbert's answered prayers.

Humbert is played by James Mason, that handsome Celt with the most mellifluous accent ever heard in the movies. He's hilariously undignified being tied in knots by his love object and by the slippery Clare Quilty, a fellow pedophile who senses Humbert's guilty secret and pursues the illicit couple.

As Quilty, Peter Sellers enjoys one of his prime roles, switching identities from the supercool author of The Enchanted Hunters to a German shrink (the model for Dr. Strangelove) to a priceless caricature as a crashing bore of a cop whom Humbert doesn't dare snub. Shelley Winters plays Lolita's mother, who has her own designs on Humbert; the comedy of being cornered by an amorous Shelley Winters needs no explanation.

Lolita was made in England instead of New England; but the gentility helps it in one respect. The Haze household, a lot cleaner than the banged-up dump in the book, is antiseptic, colonially furnished and white-picket-fenced. It could double for the sets of shows like Father Knows Best. And the black-and-white cinematography suits the film--after all, Lolita includes some film noir devices: lots of road trips, double identity, a man with a gun, danger in the form of a beautiful (little) woman.

LIKE THE BOOK, the movie is not especially sexy. In his recent analysis (British Film Institute; 1994), critic Richard Corliss calls the circumspection of Kubrick's movie "childish." Irons also objects to the lack of explicitness. "Nabokov writes by deflection, but we're really doing it," he was quoted as saying about Lyne's film in the November Vogue--so, a perfumed guide to the flesh of the underaged!

But the fact that Humbert and Lolita don't really do it in Kubrick's version (actually, they do, in a fade-out, which is good enough for me) is part of the film's appeal. Kubrick's Lolita shows the pleasures of indirection and deflection; it displays the last great flowering of a whole cinematic language of the unsaid--the last triumph right before the gates opened and censorship ended.

I'm glad the gates opened. They can open further, as far as I'm concerned. But there are pleasures in delicacy, in watching movies in which everything has been cut but the hinting. I love the explicit, but I love suggestiveness too. And in this case, the repression helps the say Lolita didn't have a good time, when it's apparent she did at first. Lolita enjoys the horsing around with Humbert when it's a game, but then the game ends right at the end of the first half of the book, with the sentence "You see, she had absolutely nowhere to go." The special shame of incest victims is that the molested ones sometimes might have enjoyed it a little--which is why they turn the guilt upon themselves afterward.

And Nabokov--decades before incest victims by the legions trouped into the studios of Jenny Jones or started writing memoirs--understood what sex with an adult usually does to a child. It's not the sex itself, not the robbery of some sort of vague innocence. In a soaring passage in which he remembers watching children play, Humbert laments as his final, bitterest regret that he took Lolita's childhood away. Through the misuse of his power over her, Humbert really is a monster who has to live with his shame until the day he dies. Moral enough for William Bennett, really.

Still, by taking on Lolita, Lyne should have known there is no surer path to terrible legal trouble and censorship than to discuss the sexual relations of children and adults. His detractors are worried about his subject matter, not his aesthetics.

There will be those looking to a new film of Lolita as further evidence of our moral decline--the same sort who seek our collective guilt for the JonBenét Ramsey case. Legislating against pigtailed nude models on the Internet is easier than dealing with deeply underfunded schools and the lack of medical care or nutrition. It's easier to attack the symbolic degradation of children than it is to do something about the real world--a world that children must try to fight their way through every day.


Lolita (1962; unrated; 153 min.), directed by Stanley Kubrick and starring James Mason, Sue Lyon and Peter Sellers.

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From the March 27-April 2, 1997 issue of Metro

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