June 29, 2022

“You Can Still Hear Him” — Remembering “Lolita” and James Mason

By Stuart Mitchner

The ‘watering down,’ if any, did not come from my aspergillum.

—Vladimir Nabokov, in the Playboy interview

Who else but a high priest of language could anoint the tired old term “watered down” with an implement for sprinkling holy water? Would the average Playboy reader of January 1964 reach for the nearest dictionary or keep reading? In the easy access world of June 2022, I unmasked the elusive aspergillum with a click of an iMac mouse.

This was Nabokov’s way of elaborately denying responsibility for “watering down” the central relationship in Stanley Kubrick’s film of Lolita (1962), the novel’s 12-year-old nymphet having been transformed into a 15-year-old blonde who looked 17. Asked if he was satisfied with the final product, Nabokov deemed the movie “absolutely first-rate,” adding that the “four main actors deserve the very highest praise,” and pointing out that he’d had “nothing to do with the actual production.”

The Voice

In his foreword to Lolita: A Screenplay (McGraw-Hill), dated Montreux, December 1973, Nabokov admits  his first reaction to the picture was “a mixture of aggravation, regret, and reluctant pleasure,” but “aggravation and regret soon subsided” as “I told myself that nothing had been wasted after all, that my scenario remained intact in its folder, and that one day I might publish it — not in pettish refutation of a munificent film but purely as a vivacious variant of an old novel.”

If you’ve seen Kubrick’s Lolita as many times as I have (I lost count at six), you’ll hear Nabokov pronouncing “vivacious variant” in the rich, suavely melodious voice of the film’s Humbert Humbert, James Mason (1909-1984), who lived his last two decades just around the proverbial corner from Nabokov (1899-1977). When Mason’s neighbor and close friend Charlie Chaplin died in January 1977, his remains were buried in the cemetery where Mason’s would be interred in 1984, just down the road from Nabokov’s grave in Montreux.

“You Can Hear Him”

Nabokov and Chaplin are legends, thus the monuments to Nabokov in Montreux (depicted slouched in a chair) and to Chaplin in Vevey (sculpted in his Tramp costume of derby and walking stick). If Nabokov lives on in his world of words and Chaplin in his world of gestures, Mason lives on in his legendary “languid but impassioned” voice, as film historian David Thomson describes it in a May 2009 piece on Mason’s centenary. After mentioning some  memorable roles, Thomson writes, “I know you can see Mason in these parts, but it’s just as evident that you can hear him.” Pondering the phenomenon of Mason’s voice, Thomson wonders about the mysterious  “something” that “allowed the actor to become his true self just once, as the voice of Humbert Humbert … a scholar of comparative literature, as well as a judge of nymphets,” who may be “the purest-spoken scoundrel in all movies,” delivering “Nabokovian prose” as if it were “the most normal and sensible way of speaking the English language yet invented.”

Not being a full-fledged legend, Mason has no monument, an oversight I can hear him treating as a trivial jest, the way Humbert does when asked by Lolita’s mother if he believes in God: “The question is does God believe in me?” Thanks to Mason’s voice, Humbert’s narration is one of the abiding pleasures of the film, as he purrs lines like “Queer how I misinterpreted the designation of doom,” or as heartsick Humbert tells a married, pregnant Lo, at the end, when all is lost, “I want you to live with me and die with me and everything with me.” Then there’s the moment Humbert shares a sample of “the Divine Edgar” with Lolita: “And we passed to the end of the vista, / But were stopped by the door of a tomb, / And I said, ‘What is written, sweet sister?’ / She replied, ‘Ulalume, Ulalume.”’


Lolita came to us the summer before the Cuban Missile crisis. You had to be there at that point in time to feel the excitement of witnessing “something new under the sun.” Among numerous reviews from earlier this month marking the film’s 60th anniversary, the notice in the Guardian refers to the novel as “troubling” and the film as “strange and unnerving,” which is understandable since the review was written in “a world that is gradually becoming more attuned to sexual abuse.” What’s truly strange is the reviewer’s failure to appreciate the free-flowing comic spirit that makes the film so exhilarating. Kubrick is scolded for “repeatedly” letting Peter Sellers “run free,” his scenes with Mason seeming “to stretch on forever, a filibuster of shtick.”

A pastemagazine.com review from June 10 mentions the challenge of the “distressing subject matter” and “the dangerously convincing, even likable, voice of the narrator,” along with the consequence of straying too far from the novel that “might explain committing such atrocities.” Lose touch with Nabokov’s book and you risk losing yourself “in the horrifying ethical void of it all.” A June 13 Tilt Magazine review (tilt.goombastomp.com) sees Lolita “in control throughout. Her hunger is insatiable,”  she’s “the alpha in the relationship.” Faroutmagazine.co.uk suggests that “audiences in the early 1960s were likely no more accepting of child abuse but may have been less sensitive to details of language and portrayal,” and worries that Humbert, “might well be mistakenly taken for the hero of the story.” Which of course he is, unless you cast your lot with Quilty.

Assuming he reads reviews in the afterlife, Nabokov might shake his cosmic aspergillum at the wordjam of paste, tilt, goombastomp, and far out, while sneering at the BBC’s comments on “the troubling legacy of the Lolita story …. We knew we must make her a sex object.” But “is it fair to blame the film for the role of Lolita in the cultural conversation? Whether the web was spun by Kubrick … or by Nabokov himself” is “open to argument.” In the end, the “one salient voice” was that of Sue Lyon as Lolita. (Lyon, who died at 73 in December 2019, won a 1963 Golden Globe as Most Promising Newcomer.)   

The Tyranny of the Normal

The “troubling” novel was slammed by the New York Times’ Orville Prescott in 1958, as “dull, dull, dull,” “repulsive,” “disgusting,” “fatuous,” “tiresome.” Four years later the Times film critic Bosley Crowther, the Tweedledum to Prescott’s Tweedledee, observed that Sue Lyon’s Lolita is “possessed of a striking figure,” which makes the “passion of the hero … more normal and understandable.”

In Nabokov’s prose universe the word “normal” 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 repellently banal interiors and situations; “normal” 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.

One of the film’s triumphs is the blending of black comedy and romance made possible by Mason’s sympathetic performance, which he considered the finest of his long career. 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.”

Because of the MPAA [Motion Picture Association of America] strictures, it’s not with Lo but with her mother, memorably played by Shelley Winters, that Mason is allowed to become darkly and diabolically Humbertian, the swarthy cad who bursts into satanic laughter after reading her letter proposing marriage and contemplates murdering her, and who, when fate does the job for him, basks in the bathtub drinking scotch.

Taken straight, without benefit of art, literary or performative, Mason’s Humbert could be denounced for his predatory treatment of both mother and daughter. But Kubrick saw the “central relationship” as a unique love story. Humbert’s undying love for Lolita abides, even when he finds that his nymphet has become a slovenly, pregnant housewife; still he tearfully pleads with her to come away with him, and when she refuses, gives her and her deaf young husband all his money, and drives off to execute Quilty.

Murder’s Masterpiece

The film’s bravura opening scene is set in the party-shattered shambles of Quilty’s rented mansion, a fantastically 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. Whatever Nabokov ultimately thought of the film, he considered the killing of Quilty “a masterpiece,” as he told Toffler in the Playboy interview. It was while working on the screenplay that he came to appreciate what Kubrick was up against. In fact, it was Nabokov who realized that the film had to begin at the end of the story.

Proposed in Nabokov’s screenplay as “a silent shadowy sequence which should last not more than one minute,” Humbert’s murder of Quilty is actually worthy of the version in the novel, arguably the greatest single sequence in all of Nabokov. Driven by Kubrick’s direction and the comic genius of Peter Sellers, it’s a hilarious nightmare in which the straight man kills the clown, who “jigs and ambles” to the end. When Humbert asks Quilty if he wants to die standing or sitting, Sellers dons a pair of boxing gloves: “I wanna die like a champion!” He’s still clowning as the first bullet hits the glove. Finally revealing signs of mortal 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”). A minute later Quilty, still bantering, is shot dead behind a Gainsborough.

A Monument for Mason

James Mason’s innumerable monument-worthy roles other than Humbert Humbert include Johnny, the wounded fugitive in Carol Reed’s masterpiece Odd Man Out; Brutus in MGM’s Julius Caesar; and the fading star in George Cukor’s A Star Is Born, for which he won a Golden Globe. It was Mason’s Norman Maine who witnessed Judy Garland’s mesmerizing performance of “The Man That Got Away,” a revelation that sets the whole falling star–rising star plot in motion. And it was Mason who would deliver the eulogy at Garland’s funeral 15 years later: “Judy’s great gift was that she could wring tears out of hearts of rock.” Close your eyes and you can almost hear that extraordinary voice.