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Kubrick's 'Lolita': An Acting Showcase

The director's 1962 film highlights the talents of James Mason, Shelley Winters and Peter Sellers.

January 17, 2002|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The American Cinematheque's "Grand Master: The Films of Stanley Kubrick" continues at the Egyptian tonight at 7:30 with the presentation of "Lolita" (1962). When Kubrick brought the controversial Vladimir Nabokov novel to the screen, he cast 15-year-old newcomer Sue Lyon in the title role without specifying her age, which in the book was only 12. Most critics said that Lyon looked closer to 17, thus undercutting the impact of the exquisite torture Nabokov's middle-aged Humbert Humbert endured in his fixation on what the novelist described famously as a "nymphet."

Kubrick did not make things easier for himself by shooting much of the film in England, even though it is in part a road movie. He thus denied himself access to roadside Americana--always a ripe target for satire--which could have counterpointed Nabokov's consideration of the deadly, darkly humorous absurdities of unrequited passion, heightened by puritanical American mores.

Even so, "Lolita" is worth a look on the big screen, just as it was when first released, thanks to its sophisticated sensibility and James Mason's heroic portrayal of Humbert and the impressive work of Shelley Winters and Peter Sellers. Lyon is pretty good as the "older" revised Lolita, but at 153 minutes, the film is too long.

Mason's Humbert is a professor of French literature who's a visiting lecturer at a New England college. He checks out a room for rent in the large, tasteless home of Charlotte Haze (Winters), a vulgar, man-hungry widow with literary pretensions.

In the film's signature shot, Humbert sees Lolita lounging in a two-piece bathing suit in the backyard, and Charlotte asks innocently, "What was the deciding factor?" when he abruptly agrees to take the room--and thus commences his tormented odyssey.

"Lolita" reminds us what a remarkable actor Mason was in his range and insight into the characters he played, and Winters is hilarious yet oddly touching as the impossibly shrill, foolish and possessive Charlotte, as dense as Humbert is perceptive. Early on, Sellers' Quilty, an eccentric writer, also a guest of the college, becomes Humbert's determined nemesis for reasons of his own. Quilty's various disguises allow Sellers to show off his wondrous way with accents. (323) 466-FILM.

"Paths of Glory" (1957) and "Full Metal Jacket" (1987), Kubrick's two antiwar classics, screen Friday at 7:30 p.m., and Jan Harlan's documentary "Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures" screens Saturday at 5 p.m., with "Eyes Wide Shut" (1999) screening at 8:30 p.m. (323) 466-FILM.

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Just as the amusing but wry and substantial "The Fluffer," about the perils of gay porn stardom, has gone into release, its co-director Richard Glatzer's "Grief" (1993) screens Wednesday as an Outfest presentation. Glatzer and cast members are scheduled to attend the 7:30 p.m. screening at the Village at Ed Gould Plaza, 1125 N. McCadden Place, L.A.

"Grief" may be an unlikely title for a comedy, but a large part of its appeal lies in its willingness to take its people seriously amid much laughter. In a nifty feature debut, writer-director Glatzer makes hilarious use of his experiences as a producer of "Divorce Court" as he takes us into the crazed world of the writers for a lurid daytime courtroom TV show. The staff runs the gamut of sexual orientation from gay to uncertain to straight to another of indeterminate gender.

Glatzer picks a particularly tumultuous week in the production office of "The Love Judge," headquartered in the Art Deco Montecito apartment building on Franklin Avenue in Hollywood. Central among six key characters is Craig Chester's Mark, a pleasant, preppie-looking story editor considered to be among the most gifted of the series' writers and one of the operation's more mature presences.

However, he's facing the first anniversary of the death of his lover from AIDS.

Meanwhile, Jo (Jackie Beat), the show's producer, announces that she's leaving to get married. This doesn't mean she still isn't thrown into a tizzy every time she discovers evidence that her office's couch has been used for some off-duty hanky-panky. Other key figures are Jo's man-crazy assistant Leslie (Illeana Douglas), who's eager to break into writing; Bill (Alexis Arquette), who's just broken up with his girlfriend; the muscular Jeremy (Carlton Wilborn), as wise as he is sexy; and the ambitious Paula (Lucy Gutteridge).

Drawing upon personal as well as professional experiences--like Mark, he has also lost a lover--the insightful Glatzer is a filmmaker of humor and compassion. He also brings a sure sense of structure and makes the most of an opportunity to display a gift for sharp, witty dialogue.

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