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 old to be the nymphet, because the sexual obsession of Humbert-Humbert couldn’t be all that comicly realistic for fear of censorship. Nonsense, it turns out. Kubrick, using according to Nabokov a “preponderating portion of my script,” gets to Charlotte’s “award-winning dessert.” In this era of over-explicit sex, there’s nothing so appreciative than actors imparting by entendre, and thanks to James Mason, the virtually constant state of sexual agony has rarely been played so well. Mason is revelation; he is the mod update of Aschenbach in Mann’s Death in Venice—tormented to his own demise, Mason’s Humbert finally gets to paint Lolita’s toenails only to lose his tenuous sanity. The performance is funny yet tragic, contained but equally whacked, a marvel about the dangers inherent in youth obsession. Shelley Winters, in Shelley II, worried that when working with Mason, he wasn’t responding. Seeing the rushes she realized she better do whatever she could to keep him from stealing every minute they had together. That might suggest Winters opted to do her usual braying, but it was Nabokov and Kubrick who changed the book’s mousy Charlotte into the oversexed “brainless bah bah” bitch 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 sucking on a lollipop. (Accepting the offer, Charlotte asks, “What was the decisive factor?” Humbert responds, “Your cherry pies.”) Lyon is more than adequate; she’s what she has to be—calculating bitch jailbait. (Tuesday Weld was in the running, though Haley Mills and Joey Heatherton were more seriously considered until their daddies said no.) The two years added onto Lolita’s age a safety valve—to keep hypocritical moralists from blowing their tops (and the chief reason the movie was made in England, where Kubrick could film without too much busybody interference). As for lispy Peter Sellers, well, 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. Okay, it’s a failure in me; he sends me into boredom so fast that I can’t put up the fairness guards quickly enough to halt my intolerance. The best I can offer is that I recognize his gifts. (I much prefer him in something like Only Two Can Play.) There’s carping Lolita lacks a real American tone—indeed this is not 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 often make not only the dumbest of lovers but also the clumsiest exponents of the sweet exploits of jeunesse dorée. OTOH, there’s not an adult alive who hasn’t felt the flush of the fever that is succulent fresh flesh. The famous heart-shaped sunglasses used for the ads never show up in the movie, but they do appear on Hope Holiday’s Lolita in Billy Wilder’s Irma la Douce.


Text COPYRIGHT © 2001 RALPH BENNER  All Rights Reserved.