Nine Weeks of Kubrick, Week Five – Andy Burns on Lolita

Another week, another delve into the incredible legacy that director Stanley Kubrick left the world (you can also check out previous entries on 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut). I’m really glad that I set this Nine Weeks project up for the site, since it ensures that I continue to make my way through the Stanley Kubrick Limited Edition Blu-Ray box set. If you’re any sort of collector, I’m sure you’ve got lots of DVDs and books that you own but, for one reason or another, you just haven’t watched them all (I’m still finish Season 1 of the X-Files Complete Series set I have). Watching Kubrick’s work, it boggles my mind to see just how consistent the man was in his career. Five movies in and I haven’t watched a dud. On that note, here’s my take on the man’s controversial adaptation of that famous book by Nabokov.

LOLITA:

What the film is about: Lolita is the story of the title character, a 14 years old girl (Sue Lyon) who becomes the obsession of Professor Humbert Humbert (James Mason), a lodger living with the girl and her mother (Shelly Winters). When left in Humbert’s care, the duo eventually wind up in a relationship, part paternal/part sexual.

What I liked about Lolita: It’s been years since I read the original book and saw the purposely titillating Adrien Lynne adaptation, so I wasn’t entirely sure what I was going to be getting with this 1962 film. However, from the very first moment, Lolita knocked my socks off, all because of Peter Sellers as Claire Quilty, the writer who ultimately steals Lolita from Humbert. Sellers immediately owns the screen, veering from accents and stumbling around drunk as he is confronted by Mason’s Humbert. If you’re not ready for the scene, much like myself, you’re in for a real treat.

While Sellers is brilliant, the same goes for all the actors. Mason gives depth to Humbert, and manages to make a truly sick man somewhat sympathetic. Shelly Winters is perfect as Lolita’s mother, Charlotte, a great mix of desperation and loneliness. I’m most familiar with Winters from her role on Roseanne back in the late 80’s and 90’s so it was certainly interesting seeing her in a more serious (not too mention, younger) role.

As for the title character, Sue Lyon is quite amazing in her debut performance. It’s hard to believe that she was 14 at the time. She manages to be both sexual and naive; one moment sunbathing and giving come hither looks beneath her sunglasses, the next sipping a soda and chomping away at a bag of chips. While you never question Humbert’s lack of moral values, Lyon’s Lolita is hard for anybody to get out of there head.

Unlike later Kubrick films, Lolita isn’t particularly visually stunning. Instead, the strength is in the script and the performances from all involved.

What I didn’t like about the film: For the second week in a row, I have nothing negative to say about a Kubrick film. I tried to think of something just so that it wouldn’t appear that I’m pandering the man’s memory, but really, as far as dramas go, Lolita is one of the best I’ve ever seen.  

Should you watch Lolita: That’s a tough question to answer. It really depends on how well you can digest the subject matter of what essentially amounts to a movie about a pedophile. While it’s not blatant and there’s nothing titillating when it comes to images, this is still a dark story (with a few comedic moments thrown in). Back in 1962, the film’s trailer was sold with the blatant tag line “How did they make a movie of Lolita?” – well, Kubrick managed to do it brilliantly.

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