“When my darling mother finds out she’s going to divorce you and strangle me.”
Stanley Kubrick . 1960
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul… She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.”
That’s some of the most amous lijnes in the novel. And yet there were those who never understood that what Vladimir Nabokov had written – to much praise in the literary world, one of the greatest books of the 20th Century, etc – was the story of a paedophile hungering after a 12-year-old girl.
Long before director Stanley Kubrick acquired the rights, French New Wave icon Jean-Luc Godard kept rhapsodising about his version. He planned to have Michel Piccoli as Humbert Humbert and the blonde pop star Sylvie Vartan as his downfall, Lo-lee-tah. The book was also filmed by Adrien Lyne, with Jeremy Irons and Dominque Swain, in 1995. It has bred songs, parodies, a stage musical, two stage plays (starring Brian Cox and Donald Suitherland as Humbert), two ballets, even an opera.
Back in 1960, Stanley Kubrick – not yet the overall lord and master of his domain – had to succumb to MGM pressure to avoid paedophilia being even hiunted at in any portion of the script. That was somewhat difficult as it was Nabokov, himself, who penned the scenario. All 700 pages of it! (Later published it as Lolita: A Screenplay).
“You couldn’t make it,” said producer James Harris. “You couldn’t lift it!”
Kubrick threw most of it out and and wrote (an uncredited) script with Harris. What’s more, they managed to turn what was, basically, seemed about child abuse into a comedy. Only one critic to notice this. The venerable Bosley Crowther in the equally venerable New York Times, suggested the story was less Nabokovian than a re-run of That Touch of Mink with Cary Grant and Doris Day. Grant did not seem to appreciate this during his indignation at being invited to asked to play Dolly’s lover, Humbert Humbert.
Dolores Haze . Stanley Kubrick supposedly saw about 800 nymphets… Including… Sandra Dee, 15 (Mom said no). Jill Haworth (another Mom said no; so did producer-director-ogre Otto Preminger, who had Jill under contract from 15 for Exodus, The Cardinal and In Harm’s Way), Joey Heatherton, 16 (Dad said no, wary of a sex-kitten career… which she would have, anyway), New Yorker Jenny Maxwell, 19 (Elvis spanked her in Blue Hawaii the following year), San Franciscan Victoria Vetri, 16, who also lost West Side Story’s Maria but won Hammer’s When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth in 1968. And, of course, Hollywood’s favourite enfant terrible, Tuesday Weld, 17, who stated her case with great vim and vigour
“I didn’t have to play Lolita,”
famously said Tuesday. “I am Lolita!”
Stephen Schiff, scenarist of the 1997 version, felt that Tuesday “could have passed for a 20-year-old porn star.” And, indeed, her “porny allure” did become the identikit for future hardcore queens from America’s Traci Lords to Marilyn Jess in France.
One parent who actually suggested a daughter for the part was James Mason. Kubrick asked him to be Humbert Humbert, but Mason had a Broadway gig lined up. He told the director all about his famously precocious daughter, Portland, then aged 12. “Too young,” said Kubrick. (She was exactly Lolita’s age!). Mason later cancelled his New York booking in order to to make Lolita.
Imagine Mason, pere et fille, co-starring in Lolita. Thankfully, Mason never actually suggested that. Because that would have been too much like the implied incest between French singer-composer-actor-director Serge Gainabourg, 58, and his daughter, Charlotte, 15, in the French Charlotte Forever in 1986. Nauseating!
Three other candidates were
– or would soon be – living the role…
Germany’s Christine Kaufman, 15 at the time, would wed the 20-year-older Tony Curtis three years later. Walt Disney’s UK moppet, Hayley Mills, 14, was sorry to miss the film (on Dad and Uncle Walt’s orders); eleven years later she married her lover-mentor-director, Roy Boulting… 33 years her senior.
And then, there was the unknown Beverly Aadland… Deflowered at 15 during an “audition by the 48-year-old Errol Flynn – The Walking Penis – Beverly became his final lover. He calmed her mother down by promising to make her an actress. In 1959, he dutifully put her in his movie, if such Cuban Rebel Girlscan can be called. He also took her to meet Kubrick, who he was more interested in Flynn for Humbert, than Beverly as Lolita Haze. After his death at 50 in October 1959 (when she was 17), she said they would have been perfect for the movie. ”We both had the physique du rôle.“
(Incidentally, Melanie Griffith who was Lo’s mother in the Adrian Lyne version, had begun her relationship with Don Jojnson at 14, when he was 22. They later married. Twice).
Furthermore, when his first choice, James Mason, was committed to Broadway, Stanley Kubrick was furious when his agent, who also represented Laurence Olivier, warned the great man off the paedophile role. With reason… Larry was also – secretly – playing the role for real… “Did you want to do it?” asked Sarah Miles, hours before becoming his mistress. “I suppose so, but I’d sooner live it. I never ever dreamt I’d be tempted by anyone so young.” He was 55 to her 21 when their Term of Trial lost out to Lolita at the 1963 Venice festival. Their affair was hushed up during its six year run.
Author Vladimir Nabokov vetoed any idea of Brigitte Bardot – far too far from his ”creature.” He’d obviously never seen her as a youthful 26, opposite veteran Jean Gabin. twice her age, in En cas de malheur/Love Is My Profession. 1957. (James Mason was the same age, 53, in the film).
Instead of BB, Nabokov voted for Louis Malle’s Zazie dans le métro, 1960, Catherine Demongeot… aged ten! In 1977, Malle made his own under-age sex study, Pretty Baby – Brooke Shields at 12… the actual age of the book’s Lo.
Hollywood and MGM censors had no wish for the film to appear paedophiliac. Which is why Kubrick fell for Iowa’s Sue Lyon. Or, her breasts. (Large from age 13). He caught her on TV’’s Loretta Young Show. (Yds, the sanctimonious “:Saint Loretta” found Lolita!). Dolly was officially 14 in the script – and bnow, and life, while resembling a good 16-year-old Sue’s age when the film was released. She went on to work with other such older men as Richard Burton, John Ford, George Hamilton, Fernando Rey and Frank Sinatra,
However well-intentioned, Kubrick’s film was not poor Sue’s best experience. “My destruction as a person dates from that movie,” she declared in 1996.
“Lolita exposed me to temptations no girl of that age should undergo. I defy any pretty girl who is rocketed to stardom at 14 in a sex nymphet role to stay on a level path thereafter.“ She suffered decades of mental instability, five marriages and abandoned a child – though all of that had less to do with the actual film than with Kubrick’s producer, James B Harris (32), making her his mistress at age 14.
Humbert Humbert . So, 800 nymphets seen for the title role. Just ten guys for the narrator – described by Nabokov as “a vain and cruel wretch… a hateful person.” Kubrick’s choices comprised… Six Brits: Cary Grant, Rex Harrison, James Mason, David Niven, Laurence Oliver, Peter Ustinov. Two Americans: Marlon Brando and Errol Flynn. Ustinov was the youngest notion at 39 – the French Charles Boyer being the oldest at 61.
Boyer accepted the role in 1958, then changed his mind a fortnight later – he must have read the book! No, he quit for the same reason as David Niven. They happened to be partners (with Joel McCrea and Dick Powell) in the 50s’ Four Star TV production company. And they were worried that if either one joined such a scandalous endeavour, the networks and/or sponsors would withdraw their support from their output: The Big Valley, Burke’s Law, Four Star Playhouse, The Rogues, Wanted: Dead Alive, etc. The Catholic Legion of Decency, for example, was already proclaiming it a sin to see the film! (Didn’t notice that one among the Ten Commandments).
Brando was 36. After playing Marc Antony to his Brutus in Julius Caesar, 1952, Brando remained wary of competing with Mason (as well, he might), letting him play Noman Maine in A Star Is Born, 1953, and avoiding working with him in A Child’s Play, 1972, and Humbert here.
Grant was 56. And furious about being asked. The MGM suits tried buttering him up by saying they’d also offered the part to Laurence Olivier, 53. Didn’t work. Larry refused it, as well!
They must all have understood that, as Quilty – Humbert’s rival for “Lo. Lee. Ta.” – Peter Sellers would steal the whole shebang.
Delighted with his work in The Battle of the Sexes, 1959, his comedy album, The Best of Sellers and his improv abilities, Kubrick kept two, sometimes three cameras on him as they increased the Quilty role (reduced again in tLyne’s takje, much closer to the book).
In fact, Mason was overheard mutering: “I should have insisted on playing played Quilty, myself.”
Except, the role had no cause to be extended until Peter Sellers got to grips with it. Which is why he won Kubrick’s next triumph, Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stoop Worrying and Love the Bomb in 1963.
“Which part?” asked Sellers.
“All of them,” said Kubrick.