Classic Film Talk: ‘Lolita’ (1962)

Today we reminisce about

Lolita (1962)

Directed by Stanley Kubrick

Starring: James Mason, Shelley Winters, Sue Lyon, Peter Sellers

 

* Published for the James Mason Blogathon hosted by Maddy Loves Her Classic Films. *

Synopsis

Humbert Humbert (Mason), a French-born literary professor, arrives at the mansion of playwright Clare Quilty (Sellers) with the prospect of killing him. The exact reasons are not given except that it involves a girl by the name of Dolores Haze (Lyon). With Quilty being held in front of him by gunpoint, Humbert takes us four years in the past to his arrival in the United States.

Humbert holding a gun to Quilty

After being offered a faculty position by Beardsley College in Ohio, Humbert decides to take the opportunity to visit the Northeast. He chooses to stay in the sleepy town of Ramsdale, New Hampshire, and ends up renting a room from Mrs. Charlotte Haze (Winters), a widow who has a precocious teenage daughter nicknamed Lolita. Humbert immediately takes a sexual interest in the girl, flirting with her at any given opportunity all the while Lolita plays along. To make matters more complicated, Charlotte sets her sights on Humbert and tries her hardest to seduce him, seemingly blind to his disdain for her and his lust for Lolita. As Lolita’s behaviour becomes increasingly difficult for Charlotte to bear, she decides to send her to a summer camp. Before leaving, Charlotte writes a note to Humbert confessing her love for him and asking that he move out of the house before she returns in the case that he does not want them to be married. Though Humbert has no affection for Charlotte, he realizes that marrying her will give him direct and unquestionable access to Lolita. The choice is obvious.

Mr. and Mrs. Humbert give the impression of being blissfully wed but Humbert has only Lolita on his mind. Still unaware of his desire for her daughter, Charlotte becomes an unbearable and emotionally needy weight on Humbert and he fantasises about killing her. Eventually, Charlotte is taken out of the picture and Humbert is left to “raise” Lolita on his own. In the meantime, the two consummate a union and they embark on a road trip towards Beardsley College where Humbert will start teaching for the upcoming Fall semester.

For how long will this go on? What really happened to Charlotte? Who is Quilty and what is his role in all of this?

To complete this fascinating narrative in medias res, I would highly recommend that you watch Lolita. I do try not to spoil the fun. 🙂

 

Background

It was long ago when I first heard of Lolita, a sexually-charged film by Stanley Kubrick that was so renowned it could have been thought to be on a blacklist. The sheer commotion around its subject material was enough to stir my interest even though my teenage mind had yet to understand some of the themes presented. My story is not unlike those of many others, particularly those who were initially familiarised with the novel. Tales of book nabbing and secret readings spread amongst adolescents who were eager to satisfy their curiosity.

Released in 1955, Vladimir Nabokov’s literary masterpiece shocked post-World War II societies. During a time of reconstruction that focused upon instilling morals, Lolita disrupted attempts to sanitise human behaviour by decomposing the nuclear family as well as descriptively addressing taboo – even criminal – practises like paedophilia and nymphomania. On the surface, Nabokov’s work seems slightly preposterous not to mention perverted though in reality, Lolita neither defaces modern civilisation nor celebrates these psychological disorders.

The film remains relatively faithful to the novel and the screenplay was initially prepared by Nabokov. Unsatisfied with his long script and his failure to omit/re-write certain scenes, director Kubrick and producer James Harris re-worked Nabokov’s version and turned it into the screen gem we know today. Although their modifications were not overly intrusive, not to mention the fact that they had to adhere to the strict Hays Code, Nabokov was not happy with the final cut and no longer recognised it as his work. In fact, so many concessions had to be made that Kubrick himself later went on to say that he would never have made the film had he known he would be so heavily censored. Despite the initial setbacks, the film went onto earn a respectable amount of box-office receipts though critical acclaim remained mixed.

An Atypical Love Triangle

Prof. Humbert Humbert

An intellectual and reserved man in his mid-40s, Humbert became fixated on nymphets after falling in love with a young girl by the name of Annabel. At the time, they were both around the same age and had been intimate with one another though never to the point of full intercourse. When Annabel died unexpectedly, Humbert was left heartbroken and his sexual desire permanently attached to the image of his prepubescent lover. Although he was able to have successful sexual relations with adult women, his full satisfaction was never reached. He truly loves Lolita although much of that appreciation was made in the image of Annabel.

(These details are shared in the novel but not in the film, which does not address Humbert’s past.)

James Mason

Playing a role like this undoubtedly brings one attention due to the controversial nature of the novel. In our modern times, such a role could make or break a career, even for an established and highly respected star like James Mason. Mason dropped out of a stage production to play the role and from his own recollections really enjoyed making the film. He became lifelong friends with Stanley Kubrick despite not working together again. According to Sue Lyon, he was extremely gentle with her and would volunteer to practise their lines together even though he had long since memorised his own. Mason was nominated for both a Golden Globe and a BAFTA for lead actor in a dramatic motion picture.

I honestly cannot see anyone else play this rendition of Humbert Humbert other than James Mason. He brings the exact qualities one could find in the literary Humbert: good looks, good education, worldliness, and mystery. His imperfections are equally as important in complimenting his personality: lack of discretion, clumsiness, paranoia, and verbal rambling. Whilst reading the novel, it allowed me to better understand not only the character of Humbert but also the influences that Mason exuded in his performance. Mason was generally known for more serious roles, often playing (in his own words) a “sinister foreigner”. One would think that his Humbert was headed in that same direction at the start of the film but quite quickly we see a more vulnerable side to him where Lolita is concerned. There are moments when Humbert gets quick tempered just as there are times when he is light-hearted. The scene where Humbert is taking a bath after Charlotte’s accident shows Mason’s humorous side as he takes a drink from a glass that he has resting on his chest while most of his body is submersed in a hot bath. This is hardly the image of a man in mourning. Perhaps the most brilliant demonstration of Mason’s talent is in the scene when he reads Charlotte’s letter out-loud, showing an exquisite range of emotions that is a tragedia / comedia within itself.

It has been said that Mason was extremely self-conscious of his scenes with Peter Sellers, a known comedian who had no improvisational boundaries. For someone as studious and traditional as Mason, it is no doubt that putting these two men together would be less than harmonious at times. If it is indeed true that Mason did not feel up to par with Sellers then that is very much of a shame. I felt that Mason was phenomenal in his scenes with Sellers for two very good reasons: 1) It must have been extremely difficult to stay serious and in-character while facing an actor who would likely do anything beyond the script to get you to crack up; 2) Mason was generally not the main focus of their shared scenes so he had to continue giving a dignified performance knowing that someone else was getting most of the limelight. How James Mason could have felt beneath anyone is beyond me.

Charlotte Haze

Generally regarded as obnoxious and sometimes labelled as one of the film’s villains, Charlotte’s character seems to have a worse reputation than Humbert. The literary version of the character is told from the vantage point of Humbert himself and, quite frankly, I would not quite regard his opinion as entirely reliable. If there was anyone to play the Charlotte Haze with dignity and spice, it was Shelley Winters. In my opinion, it is she who steals the show and makes Lolita all the better.

Having been a widow for going on eight years, Charlotte is a lonely woman deprived of physical love and under the strain of being a single mother to a complicated child. She does her best to give Lolita a good home but has little authority over her, eventually giving in to her every demand until Humbert comes along and reminds Charlotte that she has other things to live for than being a doormat. (Or, so she thinks.) In reality, Lolita is neither appreciative nor kind to her mother who she sees as a romantic adversary. I do not get the feeling that Lolita is envious of her mother but rather enjoys playing psychological games with her. Charlotte confided in Humbert that Lolita has “always been a spiteful little pest” and that as a toddler, she would continuously throw her toys all over the place for her mother to pick-up. This last remark can be translated as either Lolita indeed being spiteful or Charlotte not having the patience for a non-stop young child. It is my feeling that Charlotte is simply tired and in need of a change of pace in life. She can be nagging but she is overall genuine and honest. There is a part of her that is aloof that clearly shows in her lack of clarity in regard to Humbert and Lolita’s proximity as well as to the people with whom she surrounds herself. A couple of close friends, John and Jean Farlow, brand themselves as open-minded (i.e. – swingers) and openly proposition Humbert while Charlotte is only a few steps away. Her lack of visibility allows Lolita to fall into a wayward crowd that thrives on deviant conduct.

Dolores “Lolita” Haze

A candid shot of Sue Lyon

In the novel, Lolita was written as being 12 years old though it was changed to 14 years old for the film. In reality, Sue Lyon was 15 when shooting took place and was hired partially because she had a more mature look that would be more acceptable to censors. The character of Lolita is living through early teenage rebellion which is exacerbated by the fact that she has serious emotional issues surrounding abandonment. Her father passed away when she was around 6 years old, leaving a huge hole in her life and manifesting an unconscious longing to replace him. This would explain her attraction to much older men. Her premature sexual awakening can be linked to this and to exposure to people like Clare Quilty, who is an innately bad human being. Sue Lyon had a lot to cope with in taking such a demanding role but she displayed a great deal of maturity in the role as well as high quality acting for a newcomer. It had been rumoured that her participation in Lolita wrecked havoc on her personal life and drove her to make poor life choices. Though I do not know the extent of this, I can say that she appeared healthy and happy in an interview recorded in the late 1980’s. In fact, she held very good memories of her experience and said that those years were amongst the best in her entire career.

It is not easy to analyse or label Lolita mostly because of her young age. She cannot be held entirely responsible for her behaviour because she is not yet an adult, therefore she is considered not being capable of making certain decisions. The issue of her consenting to sexual relations with a man over three times her age is legally a closed book. The idea of a 12 year old being ready and willing for that sort of thing is morally challenging even for the most tolerant of people.

Additional Thoughts

Kubrick was obliged to tone-down the erotic aspects of the novel in order to get the film made but was criticised by Nabokov who felt that those very elements were an important part of the appeal. Nabokov was largely correct in his assessment as most people bought the book for the sordid details rather than for the entirety of the story. He noted that readers impatiently scoured the text until Humbert finally succeeds in bedding Lolita. After that point, they simply stopped reading and ignored the second half of the novel. It has been said the second half loses momentum, a statement which is on par with the natural dynamics of a sexual encounter. After climax occurs, a period of euphoric relaxation sets-in and it takes some time before an eventual rebound of passion takes place. For Humbert and Lolita, having slowly climbed a forbidden mountain makes the rapid decent far less enjoyable. Their outcome may have been slightly different had she not received the news about her mother which I feel changed her overall feelings for Humbert. Though he was in love with her, she was not in love with him and started becoming disinterested once her mother was out of the picture. Charlotte provided a challenge but also a firm authoritative boundary whenever Lolita decided to move on to something, or someone, different than Humbert.

This film is about more than the obvious controversial aspects. It is beautifully filmed, brilliantly cast, and well acted. You do not have to agree with the subject matter in order to enjoy it or appreciate all it has to offer. After all, it is just a story. The soundtrack is limited but very nice. Composer Nelson Riddle came up with a very catchy tune called “Lolita Ya-Ya” that fills in as background music in many of the scenes in the first half of the film. I consider this a definitive masterpiece of a film.

A colorised candid photo of James Mason & Sue Lyon with director Stanley Kubrick. Photo credit: deviantart.com/ecolorcollaboration