By the time Stanley Kubrick directed “Lolita” in 1962, he was an experienced and fairly well-known filmmaker. Though he had already made four feature films, they didn’t illustrate an artistically independent Kubrick. In fact, his earlier “Spartacus” (1960) shows a Kubrick held hostage by popular tastes and Hollywood Studios. It was with “Lolita” that he made his first bold artistic statement and skillfully employed his sardonic tone and dark humor.
The infusing of the serious into the absurdly comic is characteristic of Kubrick, who is known to wider audiences for films like “The Shining” and “Full Metal Jacket.” “Lolita,” based on the controversial novel of the same name by Vladimir Nabokov, is perhaps Kubrick’s most overlooked work. While it doesn’t have the striking imagery found in his later, better-known films, it is no less powerful.
The story begins with Humbert Humbert’s (James Mason) arrival in America. Humbert rents a room in the house of the coarse, sexually frustrated Charlotte Haze (Shelley Winters) and grows close to her sensual 12-year old daughter, Dolores “Lolita” Haze (Sue Lyon), with whom—against all common decency—he becomes intensely infatuated. He marries Charlotte to become closer with Lolita, while barely tolerating Charlotte’s constant company and evading the bombastic playwright Clare Quilty’s (Peter Sellers) insidious trickery—Quilty desires Lolita for himself.
What drives the film is its masterful acting. Mason and Sellers use their opposing acting styles to contrast their characters. Mason plays the old-fashioned and serious Humbert in an understated and traditional manner, while Sellers outlandishly improvises many of his lines to bring the theatrical Quilty, a philandering playwright, to life. In one scene, Quilty follows Humbert and Lolita to their hotel, posing as a policeman at a convention taking place there. In the lobby, he strikes up an awkward conversation with Humbert, complimenting him on his “normal” face. Sellers, possibly improvising, nervously stutters as his character uneasily chats, while Mason keeps his composure, staring perplexedly at him.
Mason’s performance, however, stands strongly on its own. Mason knows how to gain his audience’s support, as in the opening scene when he questions Quilty as to whether or not he recalls Lolita, some years after the actual plot. His voice falters ever so slightly as he mentions her, revealing his sorrow over having lost his true love. He also knows, though, how to play Humbert as the overprotective tyrant of the stepfather he is, cruelly prohibiting Lolita from experiencing a normal adolescence, such as preventing her from going on dates with boys after school, among other activities.
Winters plays her supporting role with complete mastery of her character, which she displays in a scene in which she and Humbert are alone at home while Lolita is out with friends. She takes advantage of the occasion to hit on Humbert, pathetically trying to act cultured by teaching him to dance the “cha-cha-cha” over dinner and pink champagne, throwing in bits of her limited French vocabulary here and there. Her performance, annoying in its shallow grasps for attention, annoys the audience as much as it does Humbert.
Since “Lolita” was made in the 1960s, all of the sex is implied. Fans of the novel complain that the film diminishes the novel’s erotic aspects and makes Humber appear to be an amiable person, despite his being a manipulative pedophile in the novel. However, Kubrick’s decision to do so adds to the film’s power—his characters often blur the line between good and evil, having allowed their darker sides to run amok. What makes “Lolita” fascinating is that we are well aware that Humbert’s pedophilic lust for Lolita is wrong, but Kubrick makes us empathize with him; we share Humbert’s irritation when Charlotte tries to woo him, and pity him when Lolita finally rejects him.
After “Lolita,” Kubrick went on to make films such as “Dr. Strangelove” and “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The huge success of his later films has caused “Lolita” to be overlooked, but it’s important that “Lolita” be recognized as a prime example of Kubrick’s genius: his blackly comic way of exploring the gritty underside of human nature.