CHERRY PIE

Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita is better than ever. When first released in 1962, the movie got slammed by many because it supposedly wasn’t Nabokov’s novel, because Sue Lyon was too mature or “practiced” to be a 12 year old nymphet, because the sexual obsession of Humbert-Humbert couldn’t be all that comic for fear of censorship. Nonsense, it turns out. Using according to Nabokov a “preponderating portion of my script,” Kubrick gets to Charlotte’s “award-winning dessert.” In this era of explicit sex, there’s nothing so appreciative than actors imparting by entendre, and thanks to James Mason, the constant state of sexual agony is revelation, a mod update of Aschenbach in Mann’s Death in Venice tormented to his own demise, finally getting to paint Lolita’s toenails only to lose his tenuous sanity. Shelley Winters worried that when working with Mason, he wasn’t responding. Seeing the rushes she realized she better do whatever possible to keep him from stealing every minute they had together. That suggests Winters opted to do her usual braying, but Nabokov and Kubrick changed the book’s mousy Charlotte into an oversexed “brainless bah bah” who’s without shame in displaying her Woolworth replicas of “van Guck.” Pushing to rent Humbert a room, she says it’s $200 a month “including meals and late snacks.” He might have declined, until he takes a gander at little morsel Lolita in two piece bathing suit and shades stretched out on the lawn. (The famous heart-shaped sunglasses and lollipop used in the ads never show up in the movie but the glasses appear on Hope Holiday in Billy Wilder’s Irma la Douce.) After Humbert acceps the room, Charlotte asks, “What was the decisive factor?” He responds, “Your cherry pies.” Lyon got a lot of grief from some snob critics that she wasn’t their or what they assumed was Nabokov’s conception of Lolita, but, even by today’s “loosiest” standards, she’s more than adequate; she’s what she has to be—calculating jailbait. (Tuesday Weld was in the running, as were Haley Mills and Joey Heatherton until their daddies said no.) The few more years added onto Lolita’s age a safety valve—to keep moralists from flipping their lids and the chief reason the movie was made in England, where Kubrick could film without too much busybody interference. As for lispy Peter Sellers, my prejudices come to the surface; a little of him goes a long way. Except for his dancing at the school gym, he stretches his “acts” too long. The best I can offer is that I recognize his gifts. A lot of carping that Lolita lacked an American tone—indeed this isn’t New Hampshire—and even Nabokov, who liked the end product, was unhappy that the “facilitating” motels weren’t stressed. But Mason’s glory isn’t dependent on locales, it is in reminding us that even intellectuals can make not only dumb lovers but also the clumsiest deviants in the danger zone of succulent fresh flesh.

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Text COPYRIGHT © 2001 RALPH BENNER  All Rights Reserved.