Friday, October 16, 2009


Release Date: June 13, 1962
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Written by Vladimir Nabokov, based on his novel 'Lolita'
Stanley Kubrick (uncredited)

Cast: James Mason, Sue Lyon, Peter Sellers, Shelley Winters, Lois Maxwell (later played Miss Moneypenny), Marianne Stone

Nabokov's apparently unfilmable novel of 'Lolita' is blessed with the most exquisite opening paragraph of any classic novel I can recall:

"Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita. Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, an initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for fancy prose style. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns."

Kubrick's film of 'Lolita' fades in on a baroque New Hampshirean mansion haunted by Peter Sellers' severely affected performance as Clare Quilty, a playwright and seducer of Humbert Humbert's beloved little girl-child. I've always found Kubrick's casting of Sellers a fun choice but distracting as all hell. While watching any movie he's in, I'm always struck by Sellers shape-shifting quality or more specifically that queer, rakish grin or those Elvis Costello glasses or his side-splitting Teutonic accent or even how his beefeater pudge fills out a suit. Basically, I don't quite 'get' Clare Quilty or why this boor gets to be inhabited by the great Peter Sellers. The film doesn't go far enough in establishing him as the kind of pedestrian academic that Nabokov so obviously loathes. So all the while he's dodging Humberts' bullets I find myself wishing I was watching "Return of The Pink Panther", while at the same time marveling at the genius casting of James Mason as Humbert.

It seems Quilty only vaguely remembers the fire of Humbert Humbert's loins, this Delores Haze that Mason keeps going on and on about. This galling disregard for the hottest 12 year-old ever really gives HH a red rump so shots are fired and Sellers, crouching behind a bullet-riddled painting of a rosy-cheeked French-looking girl says "gee, that hurt me...". We're not really feeling HH at this point but that's fine because HH is one of cinema's all-time great self-loathers. Still, 152 minutes is a long time to spend with such an insufferable pedophile no matter how much the asshole hates himself.

If ever a movie cried out for 'Sunset Boulevard'-esque narration, "Lolita" is the one. HH's riffs on the revulsion he feels at the lengths to which his sinful lust drives him and the humbling vulgarities he encounters along the way is what gives the novel its richly deserved LOLs. Shelley Winters is the perfect foil for Mason's foppish twatisms. Her Charlotte Haze, Lolita's "cow" of a mother, is Shelley Winters' definitive tragic frump role. Her pretentious motormouth and those watery, hungry eyes brand her as a pathetic slattern from the instant HH lays on her as she shows her rooms to let. This line pretty much sums up her situation as she describes just how stimulating of a lecturer Clare Quilty is:

"He gave us a talk on, hmm, uh, Dr. Schweitzer and Doctor Zhivago."

Mason earns some laughs as he slyly mocks the poor woman's hopeless intellectual shortfall and all the while Humbert and Charlotte endure their cock-up of a marriage, HH makes sense as a character. But once the pervy professor encounters Lo sunbathing, our "hero" all at once drops his snarkey raconteur charm and then transforms into a tiresome lustbot.

"Lolita" is absolutely Shelley Winters' show. Once the marriage is revealed to be the sham that it is and soon thereafter Charlotte gets her comeuppance for being The Anti-Lolita (delirious from grief, she runs out into the rain-swept West Ramsdale street and gets rammed by a car), "Lolita" The Movie becomes a long, dire getaway - stuck in the car with two glowery gits who quite frankly deserve each other. It's no wonder Warren Beatty considered Sue Lyon for the Bonnie Parker role in 'Bonnie and Clyde': She pouts like a champ in the passenger seat. As portrayed by Lyon, Lolita's motives for humoring Humbert 's love jones are perfectly inscrutable but then again they were just as vague on the page so maybe she nailed the part, who can tell. Teenage girls have been buggin' since, like, forever. James Mason wuz robbed - sabotaged by Kubrick's rewrite geared toward the visual, I'm sure. All those withering asides fingering American mediocrity - gone! By the way, all of Kubrick's films have been adaptations (yes, even 'Dr. Strangelove' which was adapted from Peter George's straight-faced cautionary tale, "Red Alert"). I don't have anything to add to that, I'm just sayin' is all.

I love Kubrick's boundless spaces and I love the camera he sets free to explore these boundless spaces but there are times when his anti-hero isn't allowed to go far enough and is left to occupy frames as sort of a vessel. I'm guessing he was a bit of a tyrant and not-so-much a writer's director.

Did I Like This Movie? It was probably the best "Lolita" that could have been made given the year and the moral climate of the times. ***

Memorable Performance: I can't shake Shelley Winter's sad, sad Charlotte Haze.

WTF Moment: Nelson Riddle's stab at the rock n' roll the kids seem to enjoy: "Lolita Ya Ya". Which actually works. I pretty much dig it.

Oscars: A big fat zero. Shelley Winters should have snagged a nomination for Supporting Actress, at the very least. Vladimir Nabokov was nominated for adapting his own novel. I'm sure he had something snotty to say about that, too. Didn't win however.

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