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FILM : Flawed 'Lolita' Remains Temptress

January 30, 1992|MARK CHALON SMITH | Mark Chalon Smith is a free-lance writer who regularly covers film for The Times Orange County Edition.

I can remember the ad campaign for "Lolita" clearly. It was 1962, I was 9, and the advertising suggestively screamed "How did they ever make a movie out of 'Lolita'?"

Then there was Sue Lyon, the 14-year-old unknown chosen to play novelist Vladimir Nabokov's most famous erotic symbol. Her pretty adolescent features were the top of beauty to a kid just beginning to sense the links between aura and sex appeal. I loved it when the commercials pandered to my curiosity by lingering on that scene of her, sunglasses perched just so, licking a lollipop while James Mason grew weak.

Of course, director Stanley Kubrick was never able to do what the ads barked about and fretted over, which was create an unimpeachably faithful interpretation of the novel. But no matter. His "Lolita" (screening Friday night at UC Irvine) may be a flawed adaptation, but it's still a great movie. While the film fails to capture the compulsive, microscopically detailed obsession of Nabokov's antihero, Humbert Humbert, it does explore (sometimes shockingly, even now) a kind of sexual destruction in frank (and often hilarious) ways.

The project must have boggled Kubrick at the start. The challenge of Nabokov's masterpiece about an introspective and perverse scholar reducing his entire life to one vision, that of an "eerily vulgar" nymphet, would seem impossible, especially considering the censorship of the early '60s.

But Kubrick, not known for timidity, pounded ahead, cleverly devising the means to retain something of Nabokov's serious intent while satisfying the "standards" people along the way. His first inspiration was to begin the movie where the book ends, with the murder of Clare Quilty, the Hollywood screenwriter who also has a thing for Lolita, by Humbert.

Kubrick then jumps in reverse four years, to where the novel starts; from there he brings us back to the murder. That, at least initially, puts the emphasis on the killing and the mystery of it. The more provocative elements of "Lolita" are revealed and played with as components of a farcical mystery, which was apparently more palatable to censors.

The rest of the film, at least in plotting and event, follows the book fairly closely. Humbert marries the sex-hungry, widowed Charlotte to be near Lolita, her daughter. When Charlotte is run over by a car, Humbert seduces Lolita and they begin a nomadic life, always shadowed by the weird and enigmatic Quilty, played by Peter Sellers.

Sellers, in what seems like preparation for his numerous roles in Kubrick's next film, "Dr. Strangelove" (1964), is an adroit comic chameleon. Mason, with his respectable veneer (even his quiet, delicately syllabled speech is respectable) is perfectly cast as Humbert.

Shelley Winters offered one of her best performances as Charlotte; her natural coarseness is suited for this suburban harridan. Lyon is often a cipher, but it's remarkable that Kubrick was able to coax so much knowing slyness out of the young actress.

Even though many critics, especially in America, brought out the long knives for this one (the knock that "Lolita" was superficial and didn't do justice to Nabokov was too tempting), it's revealing that the author himself loved the movie.

His praise was steady, even though his original screenplay (delivered to Kubrick at 400 pages, which would have required seven hours of film) was drastically revised by the director and producer James B. Harris. When asked about the brutality movie-making had inflicted on his novel, Nabokov reportedly answered: "There is no worry. It is a first-rate film with magnificent actors."

What: Stanley Kubrick's "Lolita."

When: Friday, Jan. 31, at 7 and 9:30 p.m.

Where: UC Irvine's Student Center Crystal Cove Auditorium.

Whereabouts: Take the San Diego (405) Freeway to Jamboree Road and head south. Go east on Campus Drive and take Bridge Road into the campus.

Wherewithal: $2 and $4.

Where to Call: (714) 856-6379.

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