Based on the infamous novel by Vladimir Naboov, Lolita (1962) is a highly controversial film directed by Stanley Kubrick. Although many changes had to be made from the original text in order to comply with the Hays Code, the film is still a shocking depiction of such an inappropriate romance between a middle aged man and a teen aged girl.
As the film open, we see Humbert Humbert (James Mason) as he walks into the home of writer Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers). After Humbert questions Quilty for a few minutes to verify his identity, he shoot the unarmed man multiple times.
The story then jumps back four years, and a much more sane looking Humbert is looking for a room to rent for the summer, before beginning his new job at Beardsley College. He arrives at the home of Charlotte Haze (Shelly Winters), and from the moment he steps into her house, Humbert becomes irritated with everything about Charlotte. His desire to bolt for the door is overwhelming, but to be polite he continues the entire tour of the home, that ends in the backyard garden. Once outside, Humbert sees Charlotte’s teenage daughter, Dolores (Sue Lyon), or Lolita, as she is often called, sunbathing in the grass. Humbert is instantly drawn to Lolita, and decides to stay and rent the available room just to spend time with Lolita, even if it means putting up with Charlotte.
As things continue, Humbert is drawn more and more toward his new love, while seeming more and more aggravated by Charlotte. In complete contrast, Charlotte falls in love with Humbert and is extremely frustrated with Lolita and her constant interruptions. Charlotte takes Lolita away to a summer camp and leaves a note for Humbert, admitting her undying love and admiration for him. She explains that she can no longer live in a home with him if she cannot have him to herself, completely. Although Humbert laughs rousingly while reading Charlotte’s loving confession, Humbert chooses to stay and marry Charlotte just to remain an important part of Lolita ‘s life. His obsession with Lolita is so great that he is willing to be perfectly miserable in order to stay close with her.
After they are married, Humbert seems more disgusted than ever by Charlotte and her infernal ridiculousness. He even has thoughts of murdering her, but can’t bring himself to be that violent and cruel. Charlotte does however find Humbert’s secret diary that tells of his love for the young Lolita, as well as explaining his true feeling for Charlotte (or the “fat cow” as he frequently refers to her). Charlotte is of course devastated, runs out of the house and is struck dead by a passing car.
Although Humbert is visibly upset by Charlotte’s death, he now sees that he has Lolita all to himself, and after picking her up at summer camp, he takes her on a road trip where they can be alone. Almost instantly, Humbert and Lolita begin a sexual relationship, and although it is just fun and games for Lolita, Humbert is fully engrossed by the girl and becomes tremendously jealous and protective of her. No matter where they go, or with whom they interact, Humbert is always becoming vocally upset by the carefree attitude that Lolita takes. To gain her freedom from Humbret, Lolita enlists the help of Clare Quilty (making a number of reoccurring appearances throughout the film). As Quilty begins to scare Humbert into allowing Lolita to have some more freedom in her life, her attentions lean toward Quilty, thus frustrating Humbert even more.
Lolita is a marvelously made film, but what surprises me the most is that Stanley Kubrick was able to release this movie at all. The Hays Code, that is so full of restrictions and limitations, allowed a teenage girl and a middle-aged man to have a sexual relationship on the screen, as long as they didn’t say or show anything inappropriate. This is the whole problem with the Hays Code, and one of the major reasons for its collapse. Insinuations are allowed, as long as nothing is shown. When our unlikely couple begins their physical relationship, there is a moment where Lolita seductively whispers into Humbert’s ear and then smiles as she begins to lay down (above the cover) on the bed next to him, while the screen fades to black. This is the same time period where you can’t show a husband and wife in the same bed, yet because they didn’t show both characters under the covers (or doing anything sexual), but rather implied that they were about to engage in a sexual act, somehow this was acceptable; thus it was allowed.
I know that Stanley Kubrick spent his entire career pushing the limitations that were set before him, but in many ways, Lolita was his greatest accomplishment, in this respect. By the time he got around to shocking people with A Clockwork Orange (1971), he was already a professional at making everyone stand up and pay attention. Lolita shows that even at this much earlier stage in his career, Stanley Kubrick was going to be a rule breaker; thus, a pioneer in the filmmaking world.
Kubrick later stated that he doesn’t think he would have attempted this film, had he understood how much trouble and controversy he would in turn be dealing with on a regular basis. Many directors in the early 1960’s wanted to find ways around the Hays Code, and after the release of Lolita, they had all been shown the flaws in the system. It became an open market for cleverly sneaking “adult themes” into a film, and the floodgates have been open ever since.
Lolita is a wonderfully entertaining film that is filled with fascinating performances for the entire cast. James Mason is once again brilliant, but by this point in his career we have begun to just accept his professionalism and undeniable screen charisma, without even questioning how difficult each of his individual roles could have been for him. Similarly, Shelly Winters, in a supporting role, is completely irritating and obnoxious; exactly how her character was written. Even Peters Sellers, who has very little screen time, shows how funny he can be without even seeming to try. His various scenes, that all have him with a slightly different attitude and demeanor, enable him to show off his talents and diversity as an actor. Obviously, Kubrick felt the same way, as he would cast him as three different roles in his next film, Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb (1964). Sue Lyon, as Lolita, is an interesting performance to study because although she was just 14 at the time of filming, she seems so much more mature and established as an actress. When I think of great child performances, I would often overlook this particular role because she seems like such a woman. It is amazing to see how well she maintains herself in scenes with much more established and experienced actors.
When I sat down to watch Lolita, my wife asked me what kind of movie we were watching. I started to say a drama, but quickly backpedaled and said a comedy. About halfway through the first scene I retreated once again and called it a drama. I continued flipping back and forth through most of the first 20 or 30 minutes before finally giving up and saying that it is in a category all by itself. I don’t know what kind of movie it is because it has so much of everything included; therefore it doesn’t fit into just one category. Lolita stands in a category alone because it is so unlike everything else.
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