50 Years on, Still an Object of Desire


There have been many, many films featuring flirty little girls and madly obsessed middle-aged men. But nothing has come close to the original Lolita, directed by Stanley Kubrick. It is said Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita's author, wrote the script. But it is also said that very little of it was used. Kubrick was dismissive of the novel's flabby middle; Nabokov remained polite about the film.

Another version of Lolita was filmed much later. This one was truer to the novel. But there's nothing to beat that imbued-with-nymphet-glow original film, which turns 50 this year. Its black-and-whiteness speaks of its age. So do a few of its overdone passages. But it remains a masterpiece, which could only have been done by Kubrick.

James Mason plays Humbert, the professor of French poetry who comes looking for a house in New Hampshire. He is about to wiggle out of Shelley Winters' too-eager widow's clutches, but changes his mind when he sets eyes upon her daughter, the 14-year-old Lolita. She is disporting herself in the garden, in a bikini and dark glasses, looking much older than her years. In one glance, she reads the man more clearly than her mother ever will. She, the young girl who was perhaps born a seductress, knows he will never be able to leave.

Nabokov's classic novel stirred much outrage. How could anyone write such a novel about a 12-year-old girl? Keeping conservative audiences in mind, the film made Lolita a young teen, and the way Sue Lyon plays her — precocious, aware, deeply sexual — no one is kept in any doubt that this is not a child. It is a woman who knows her power. Any male looking at Lyon and not wanting to drag her off into a dark cave would have been either blind, or gay, a word not in currency when the film came out.

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