September 5, 2012

Revisiting Stanley Kubrick’s “Lolita” at 50: “You Gasp as You Laugh”

The most hysterical high-profile response to the literary timebomb called Lolita came, predictably, from the New York Times’s Orville Prescott, whose August 18, 1958 tirade (“dull, dull, dull” “repulsive,” “disgusting,” “fatuous,” “tiresome”) ends by suggesting that Humbert Humbert’s “ravaged brain belongs to the psychiatrists and psychoanalysts, not to novelists.”

Four years later, the Stanley Kubrick film made from Vladimir Nabokov’s novel received a relatively polite, if no less clueless, response from film critic Bosley Crowther, Prescott’s colleague at the Times during the same mid-forties to mid-sixties time period. Crowther had to show some respect since by 1962 Lolita was on its way to achieving its current somewhat inflated literary stature (ranked No. 4 on the Modern Library’s list of 100 Best Novels while a poll of 125 writers ranked it No. 1 in the Top Ten Works of the 20th Century, No. 4 in the Top Ten Books of All Time). What most likely prevented the sort of moralistic venting that eventually cost Crowther his job (following his 1967 hissy fit over Bonnie and Clyde) was the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) production code, which forced Kubrick to dilute the story’s eroticism by turning Nabokov’s word-drunk pedophile Humbert Humbert into a brooding academic played by James Mason. More important, Lolita was transformed from a 12-year-old child into a blonde beauty (15-year-old Sue Lyon) likely to awaken lustful urges in any red-blooded male on the planet, including brooding academics and a certain 57-year-old New York Times film critic who admits that Kubrick’s Lolita “looks to be a good 17 years old” and is “possessed of a striking figure,” which makes the “passion of the hero … more normal and understandable.”

The N-Word

When Crowther brings “normal” into the conversation, he’s using a word with which both Nabokov and Kubrick have a love-hate relationship. In Nabokov’s prose universe the n-word is synonymous with the post-war American nightmare in which Humbert Humbert is fated to live, lust, love, murder, and die. For Kubrick, “normal” becomes the foil for a black comedy of banal interiors and situations (with one magnificent exception) not so much taken from Nabokov’s novel as inspired by it; “normal” is also the nature of the approved behavioral objective forced upon the director by the MPAA. Which means no under-the-radar sex on the sofa leading to “the last throb of the longest ecstasy man or monster had ever known” and no drugging of the monster’s prey when her mother is conveniently dead and Humbert finally has the child in his clutches.

The not so secret weapon Kubrick uses to liberate the film from normalcy is Peter Sellers, whose performance as the one-man-theatre-of-the-absurd Clare Quilty explodes conventional expectations and creates chaos in what would be an otherwise conventional arrangement of set pieces featuring pseudo-American interiors in a film that was shot in England. It’s when Sellers is improvising in the Nabokovian mode that you get reactions like  Pauline Kael’s “it’s so far out that you gasp as you laugh.”

Missing the Point

Crowther’s inability to comprehend what Sellers and Nabokov and Kubrick are up to becomes most apparent when he refers to the film’s “strange confusions of thought and mood” and faults Kubrick for “scenes in which Mr. Sellers does various comical impersonations as the sneaky villain who dogs Mr. Mason’s trail.” The late Andrew Sarris had the same issues, dismissing Sellers in a July 5, 1962 Village Voice review as “an accurate mimic without physical presence or discernible personality” and, suggesting that Kubrick was not “in tune with Nabokov’s delirious approach to his subject.” In fact, it’s Sellers performance as the mercurial Quilty that sustains the harmony between Kubrick’s cinema and Nabokov’s prose.

Besides perceiving the film’s capacity to amuse and amaze, Pauline Kael calls Lolita “the first new American comedy since those great days in the forties when Preston Sturges recreated comedy with verbal slapstick.” In Sullivan’s Travels and The Lady Eve, Sturges also seasons the comedy with romance, but in neither instance does he accomplish what Kubrick does when he brings together what Kael calls “black slapstick” with a love story. Crowther at least shows a fumbling awareness of this feat when he refers to the “hauntingly poignant hospital scene,” the film’s “rare power,” and the “garbled, but often moving push toward an off-beat communication.”

What he means by “moving” is Humbert’s profound love for Lolita, a development Nabokov intended, except that in the novel it’s not revealed until the end when Humbert, finding that his nymphet has become a bespectacled, slovenly, pregnant housewife, tearfully pleads with her to come away with him, and when she refuses, gives her and her deaf young husband all his money. In the film the reality of Humbert’s love for Lolita becomes clear early on because, as Kubrick has pointed out in several interviews, unrelenting pressure from the MPAA required the removal of anything that could be perceived as overtly perverse or depraved in Humbert. According to Vincent Lobrutto’s biography Stanley Kubrick, what Kubrick and producer James Harris wanted from Nelson Riddle’s lush score was “a straightforward romantic sound” rather than “any form of dissonance” that “might disparage Humbert” and his love “in the audience’s eyes.”

More important than the music in bringing off this difficult black comedy-romance dynamic is the power of James Mason’s sympathetic performance, arguably the finest of his long career. Because of the MPAA strictures, it’s not with Lo but with her mother Charlotte Haze, memorably played by Shelly Winters, that Mason is allowed to become the darkly and diabolically Humbertian character who bursts into satanic laughter after reading his “landlady’s” ludicrous letter proposing marriage, who seriously contemplates murdering her, and who, when fate does the job for him, luxuriates in the bathtub drinking Scotch immediately afterward.

Beginning at the End

The most obvious example of what Pauline Kael means by “you gasp as you laugh” is the bravura opening scene, a movie in itself set in the party-shattered shambles of Clare Quilty’s elaborately cluttered and chaotic labyrinth of statuary, kitsch and bric-a-brac, with here and there amid the chaos a bust of Shakespeare, a harp, a piano, a ping-pong table. Though Nabokov ultimately had mixed feelings about the film, he told Alvin Toffler in a Playboy interview from 1964 that “the killing of Quilty is a masterpiece.” While working on the screenplay, of which only a fraction was used (Kubrick wisely mined the novel itself), he came to appreciate what the director was up against. For one thing, it was Nabokov who realized that the film had to begin at the end of the story.

Projected in Nabokov’s screenplay as “a silent shadowy sequence which should last not more than one minute,” the murder of Quilty becomes a painfully funny ten-minute-long nightmare in which the straight man kills the clown, who “jigs and ambles” to the end. It begins when Humbert asks, “Are you Quilty?” At which Sellers wraps himself in a sheet as if it were a toga and says he’s Spartacus, a sly reference to Kubrick’s previous picture.

Then, as Mason stands grimly behind the ping-pong table, ready to commit a literary crime of passion (he’s written a poem to explain his motive, the abduction and debauching of Lolita), Quilty shuffles and sashays over to the table in his toga and suggests they have a game of Roman ping-pong “like two civilized senators.” At this point, as Quilty begins the game with a serve (“Roman ping!”) that the appalled Humbert does not return (“You’re supposed to say ‘Roman pong!’”), the audience is giddy. When Humbert asks Quilty if he wants die standing or sitting, Sellers dons a pair of boxing gloves: “I wanna die like a champion!” He’s still clowning even as the first shot hits the glove. Finally showing signs of panic, he flounces over to the piano and begins playing Chopin’s Grand Polonaise (“Nice sort of opening, that. We could dream up some lyrics maybe”). At this point, the audience is, as they say, in hysterics.

A minute later Quilty, still bantering, will be shot dead behind a Gainsborough. So you laugh and catch your breath. Or gasp. A man is being murdered and you’re laughing.

That’s not normal. But this was not the time for the n-word.

Kubrick’s Lolita was being made during the Kennedy inauguration and the building of the Berlin wall. It hit American movie screens the summer before the Cuban missile crisis. The nuclear brinksmanship of the Cold War would send Kubrick and Sellers into the endgame black comedy of Dr. Strangelove. Meanwhile the Beatles and Stones were tuning up. Here come the sixties.

Lolita will be shown on TCM on September 21 at 5:15 p.m. The DVD is available at the Princeton Public Library.

—Stuart Mitchner