The Set of 400: #245 – My Favorite Toenail Polish

Today! Because I’m really sorry that I cheated so much. But I guess that’s just the way things are –

Lolita (1962)

Directed by Stanley Kubrick

Starring James Mason (x2), Peter Sellers, Sue Lyon, Shelley Winters, Gary Cockrell, Terry Kilburn (x2), Shirley Douglas, Marianne Stone, Jerry Stovin, Diana Decker, Lois Maxwell, Cec Linder

Finally we get to some Kubrick! I guess you’ll have to wait and see – checklist of the great man’s thirteen features in hand – what got left off the list (spoiler: Killer’s Kiss and Fear and Desire had no chance!), but don’t worry, film nerds, there is plenty of Stanley’s greatest hits to come. Many of his works feature an insane degree of difficulty, but none higher than the romantic drama adaptation of Vladimir Nobokov’s unconventional/disgusting relationship at the center of Lolita. Seriously, the above poster is no lie – in 1962, how the hell did they make a movie of Lolita? This question was also posed in the trailers for the film – it was considered impossible, by the standards of the day, still ruled by the Hayes Code, which was a far more strict and unforgiving system than the MPAA ratings that would follow a few years later.

Gah!

Kubrick would say that if he knew the level of censorship he would run into, he probably wouldn’t have bothered with Lolita. However, not unlike the best horror films, what you don’t see on screen if often more interesting, and this functioned as the neat workaround in creating this movie. The book – while an unquestioned masterpiece – is a bit more explicit in what is going on between professor Humbert Humbert and his landlady Charlotte’s 12-year-old daughter Dolores. Obviously, this wouldn’t have worked on screen, and shit, I guess we’re all better off for that (see the interesting-if-lackluster 1997 Jeremy Irons remake to be exceptionally grossed out), but the plot isn’t dramatically changed either. Some characters are larger in the film – Peter Sellers’ Quilty becomes a major part of the story, where he’s largely operating in the background of the novel – and plenty of assumption and interpretation is necessary to really follow along.

So, all this being said, Lolita is a tremendous achievement. The acting across the board is first rate – none better than Mason as Humbert, portraying his conflicted, depraved desires without the movie being able to fully expound on what they even are. Winters would get nominated for a Globe as Charlotte, the depressed, aging, jealous widow at the center of the bizarre set up. And Sellers is magnificent, playing Quilty through his various disguises and trickery, in a precursor to his next multi-performance Kubrick project, Dr. Strangelove. 

This was Kubrick’s first film after Spartacus, so it makes some sense that he’d take on the challenge. Spartacus was his last real foray into big Hollywood filmmaking, and all the meddling connected with that sort of picture, disrupting his vision for the project. Sure, it still comes off well, and even skirts some tricky 1960 taboos in the process, but it disillusioned Kubrick enough that he would break off and do his own thing from then on (You’ve got some time to go out and stretch your legs, Kubrick fans – his next film doesn’t appear on this list until New Year’s Eve!).

While boycotted lustily in its day, Lolita nonetheless didn’t totally fly under the awards radar. Nabokov was nominated for a screenplay Oscar (how much of his screenplay was actually used is up for debate), while Winters, Mason, and Sellers were all nominated for Golden Globes, alongside Kubrick in the second of his four Globe directing nods. It did not, however, win for Best Boxing Glove Marksmanship, for Humbert’s gun play in the first scene of the film.

#316 North by Northwest’s Mason joins the Two-Timers today, alongside Tiny Tim from #298, the 1938 A Christmas Carol, Terry Kilburn, in his last big screen role before retiring. Spotlight!

Easily the best Tiny Tim ever, hands down

Coming tomorrow! It’s not like any mission is gonna be rougher than the last one, is it?

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