Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Lolita (1962)

US (1962): Drama/Dark Comedy
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Produced by James B. Harris
Written by Vladimir Nabokov (and an uncredited Stanley Kubrick)
From Nabokov's novel of the same name
With James Mason//Shelley Winters//Sue Lyon//and Peter Sellers

"How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?"

The poster for Lolita poses this very important question. The novel by Vladimir Nabokov is among the most controversial of the 20th Century. It's subject matter was considered taboo during the time of its publication (and remained so for years after). The story concerns a British scholar, unfortunately named Humbert Humbert, who falls in love with a twelve year old girl he affectionately calls Lolita. He goes as far as marrying her obnoxious mother to be close to her. After her mother finds his diary, which holds the secret of his love for her daughter, she is humiliated and plans to send her to a reform school. In her frenzied state, she is killed while crossing the street in front of her house. Humbert is free to have Lolita and wastes no time in dominating her completely, using sexual favors as a bargaining tool. As their relationship grows, however, it becomes clear that someone knows their secret.

The first ten minutes of this film is probably one of the greatest opening scenes ever. It begins at the end, with a determined Humbert (played by James Mason) entering the cluttered and messy home of drunkard Clare Quilty (played by the hilarious Peter Sellers). The latter fails quite comically to cheer Humbert up with a game of ping-pong. Humbert is in no playing mood; he pulls a gun on Quilty, who just about laughs in his face. Humbert hands him a paper and declares it his death sentence. In these moments, between Quilty's humorous, drunken stammering we nearly forget that James Mason is aiming a gun at him. It's openings like this that make the film experience great. The scene is overwhelming and it ends, inevitably, with Quilty's execution. The whole sequence leaves you wanting more and for the next two and a half hours, you're completely enthralled.

James Mason creates a character who is manipulative and calculating, but can still have some of our sympathy. As he tries to dominate Lolita, he also attempts to be a father to her. The dimensions of their relationship are incredibly strange and Kubrick is great at bringing this out in his actors. Lolita (played by Sue Lyon) is a child and, even though she is Humbert's lover, still behaves like a child. Mason, at times, just seems like a regular dad struggling to raise a spoiled teenager.

There is always something peculiar about Kubrick's films. This one, while keeping dramatic themes and plot points intact, is a black comedy. Peter Sellers, no matter how disgusting his character is, brings a comical tone to his scenes from his pretentious dancing to his drunken stammering in the film's opening. The way he and Mason interact gives the feeling that the two are acting in separate films. It's brilliant and incredibly unsettling.

Shelley Winters is golden as Lolita's obnoxious mother, Charlotte. She makes that pitiful character and her desperation for a man so painful to watch. Her attempt at seeming cultured and artistic come off as desperate acts to lure Mason into her web. He can't help but be appalled at the spectacle. What really sold the performance for me was the point at which she discovers his attraction to her daughter. Instead of being a mother disgusted at the man, she is angry at her daughter for stealing him away.

is a must-see. It's one of Kubrick's very best. His ability to treat the film as a comedy and a drama in the same breath creates a terrific atmosphere. Even going as far as adding a wonderful slapstick scene in a hotel room with Mason and a bellhop fussing over a cot while Sue Lyon's Lolita sleeps comfortably on the bed.

Many contemporary reviewers complained over the missing passion that is so prominent in the novel. In retrospect, Kubrick must have known that the audiences (let alone the censors) of the time would not accept such steamy scenes between Mason and his fourteen year old co-star. He bypasses this with subtle background details and shots that give off more heat than any sex scene. No Rating, 152 Minutes. A-

One Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. The Golden Globes were the only major awards that took notice of the superb acting and gave nominations to both Shelley Winters and Peter Sellers.

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