Lyon, Sue

Lyon, Sue
(1946– )
   Born in Davenport, Iowa, Sue Lyon began modeling at age 12 and took to acting in TV commercials at 13. A year later, in 1960 she appeared in an episode of the Loretta Young Show drama series, which STANLEY KUBRICK happened to see. He was looking for a young actress to play Lolita, the nymphet who is obsessively pursued by a middleaged professor, Humbert Humbert (JAMES MASON). Lolita is 12 when she first encounters Humbert in VLADIMIR NABOKOV’s novel, but Kubrick was well aware that the film industry’s censor would never stand for Lolita being played by a 12-year-old actress. Moreover, Nabokov told Kubrick that, while it was all right for him to picture Lolita as 12 in the book, because she existed only in his imagination, it would be sinful to exploit a real 12-year-old by casting her in the role. As it happened, Sue Lyon was 14 when Kubrick considered her for the part.
   Kubrick placed Lyon’s photograph in a stack of pictures of young hopefuls who wanted to play Lolita and showed them to Nabokov. In his study of LOLITA, Richard Corliss notes that Nabokov singled out Lyon’s photo, saying, “No doubt about it; she is the one. ”When principal photography commenced, Sue Lyon was 14 years and four months old; when the film wrapped, she was 14 years and nine months old. Several critics have questioned the casting of Sue Lyon in the title role, saying that she looked too old for the part and accusing Kubrick of copping out by giving the impression that Humbert was infatuated, not with a 12-year-old nymphet, but with a teenager. “She was actually the right age for the part,”Kubrick told Gene Phillips. “Lolita was twelve-and-a-half in the novel and Sue was fourteen. I suspect that many people who read the book had a mental image of a nine-year-old. ”
   Pauline Kael laid this objection definitively to rest in her review of the film:“Have reviewers looked at the schoolgirls of America lately? The classmates of my fourteen-year old daughter are not merely nubile; some of them look badly used. ” She complimented Kubrick and company for not dolling up Sue Lyon in childish clothes and pigtails, since “the facts of American life are that adolescents and even pre-adolescents wear nylons and make-up and twopiece strapless bathing suits and have figures. ” In effect Kubrick opted for accuracy over the filmgoer’s preconception of how Lolita should look.
   Sue Kerr Lyon, the young actress’s mother, was aware that her family of five children could use the earnings that young Sue would glean from making the film. Nevertheless, she consulted her parish priest about her daughter’s acting the part of a notorious young vixen. The priest assured her that playing the part in the film was merely work and thus would not harm her daughter psychologically.
   James Mason writes in his autobiography, Before I Forget (1982), that, during the rehearsals that preceded the filming of each sequence, Stanley Kubrick discovered that Lyon “had so conscientiously memorized all her lines that they were inclined to come out parrot-fashion. ” She “needed to be induced to think of the lines in a particular scene as something that came out of the feeling of the character in that scene. ” So, at Kubrick’s suggestion, “we started improvising—during rehearsals—forgot the lines we’d learned and got to grips with the situation instead. . . . Sue Lyon made a considerable contribution to many of the scenes because she spoke the same language as the character she was playing. ” Kubrick observed in JAMES HOWARD’s book on his films that it was interesting to watch Sue Lyon work on the set. She did not play Lolita as a giggly teenager; rather, she was cool. “She could keep people guessing about how much Lolita knew about life,” he recalled.
   Humbert sees Lolita for the first time while Charlotte Haze, her widowed mother (SHELLEY WINTERS), is giving him a tour of her home with a view to coaxing him to move in as a lodger. When Charlotte leads Humbert into the garden, he spies Lolita in her flowered bikini, feathered hat, and harlequin sunglasses, striking an attitude that radiates a sex appeal belying her tender age. Humbert takes one look at her and decides on the spot to move in. This scene would not have worked so well “without Lyon’s slow sizzle,” comments critic Richard Corliss. “Lyons’s Lolita is interested in Humbert the way a tigress is interested in a gazelle: as pretty prey. ”
   By the next scene, Humbert, Lolita, and Charlotte have taken to going out together. Charlotte is as interested in pursuing Humbert as an eligible bachelor as Humbert is in pursuing her nubile daughter. They are watching a horror film at a drive-in theater. The domineering Charlotte is behind the wheel of the car, an indication of how she always seeks to be in the driver’s seat when dealing with others, especially her daughter and her would-be lover. Humbert, significantly, is sitting between the two females. Registering fright, Charlotte shrewdly grabs Humbert’s hand. He in turn just as shrewdly takes Lolita’s hand and slips his first hand out of Charlotte’s grip to scratch his nose. Lolita, absorbed in the horror picture, puts her other hand on top of his. He places his remaining hand over hers, and Charlotte, not to be outdone, slaps her hand on top of them all. Humbert’s obsession for Lolita is growing, we infer from a montage of images, such as the one in which Lolita twirls a hula hoop around her hips and Humbert slyly leers at her across the top of the book he is pretending to read. As the film unreels, Humbert marries Charlotte in order to stay near Lolita, and Charlotte is later killed in a traffic accident while Lolita is away at a summer camp for girls. Humbert drives to the camp to bring Lolita home; he has told her in advance only that her mother is ill and in the hospital, not that she is dead. As he drives the Haze station wagon into the campgrounds he passes a huge sign that welcomes him to Camp Climax. The place is aptly named, we later learn, when Lolita tells Humbert that Charlie, an employee, initiated her into the mysteries of sex. On their return trip, Humbert decides that they should stay overnight in a hotel. He arranges to have a roll-away bed placed in their room, in order to give the decidedly false impression that he has no intention of sleeping with his stepdaughter. Nevertheless, when Humbert hears that the hotel is hosting a police convention, he decides to sleep on the cot. But Humbert’s troubles for the night are not yet over. A hilarious slapstick sequence follows, which Kubrick inserted for comic relief in this grim tale of sexual obsession. In it, Humbert, with the aid of a bumbling bellboy, attempts to set up the recalcitrant roll-away bed. Their grappling with the cot represents one of the incidents in a Kubrick movie of a mechanical apparatus refusing to submit to man’s presumed dominion over it. As Humbert wearily climbs into the apparently vanquished bed, it once more collapses, signaling the total collapse of Humbert’s plans to possess Lolita that night.
   In the morning Lolita awakens Humbert and asks him coquettishly if he would like to play a game that she learned from Charlie at camp. As she whispers the details in his ear, a look of lecherous anticipation steals across Humbert’s face and the scene discreetly fades. Very tactfully, Kubrick has managed to get across to the audience that, in spite of all of Humbert’s intricate plans to seduce Lolita, she has in effect finally seduced him.
   Geoffrey Shurlock, the industry censor at the time,was particularly concerned about this seduction scene. Kubrick and JAMES B. HARRIS, his coproducer on the picture, promised that Lolita would be attired in a heavy flannel nightgown and Humbert would be wearing pajamas and a bathrobe—there would be no suggestion of nudity between the underage girl and her stepfather in the scene as filmed. They also agreed to have Lolita whisper her solicitation in Humbert’s ear, rather than state it, just before the fade-out. Beyond these concessions, however, Kubrick insisted that the scene could not be altered further, because it represented a turning point in the story. Afterward, as they continue their trip in the station wagon, Lolita insists on stopping to call her mother in the hospital. Just before shooting the scene, Kubrick called for a Coke and a bag of potato chips for Sue Lyon, in order to add just the right flavor of incongruity to the scene in which Humbert is forced to tell Lolita that her mother is deceased. When Humbert finally convinces the girl that he is not fooling about her mother’s death, she stops munching and bursts into tears.
   “Accompany us now to Beardsley College,” says Humbert, who narrates the film in a voice-over on the sound track,“where my poetry class is in its second semester. ” By this time the relationship of stepfather and stepdaughter has become increasingly stormy. He is jealous of her male contemporaries, whom he has observed her with at the Frigid Queen ice cream parlor. He accordingly refuses to allow her to be in the school play. “You don’t love me,” she screams. “You just want to keep me locked up with you in this filthy house. ”
   In the course of the movie, Clare Quilty (a TV personality who had an affair with Charlotte Haze) assumes various disguises in his determined efforts to badger Humbert by a series of clever impersonations into releasing his grip on Lolita. As one critic put it, actor PETER SELLERS turned these masquerades into episodes of unsavory innuendo and crafty, leechlike persistence.
   When Humbert returns from class he finds an uninvited visitor awaiting him in his dark study. When he switches on the light, Quilty, disguised as Dr. Zempf, the school psychiatrist, materializes like an apparition. He is wearing thick glasses and a mustache, and speaks with a heavy German accent. Dr. Zempf informs Humbert in no uncertain terms that the school board is growing suspicious of his relationship with his stepdaughter; for example, he will not even allow her out of the house to participate in the school play.
   The viewer can see through Quilty’s disguise, though Humbert is too upset by the veiled threats implied in his visitor’s remarks about further investigating Lolita’s “home situation” to catch on. The clues are beginning to mount up for the filmgoer, if not for Humbert, that Lolita is involved with another older man.
   Lolita gets a part in the annual school play, in the wake of Dr. Zempf’s visit to her stepfather. On the night of the play’s performance, she stands backstage waiting to go on and exchanges knowing smiles with Quilty, who is also in the wings. He later observes Humbert dragging Lolita out of the auditorium after the play is over. Humbert has discovered in the course of a conversation with Lolita’s music teacher that she has not appeared for a lesson for weeks. Humbert assumes that she has been seeing one of her male classmates, but we suspect by this time that it may be Quilty.
   Still wearing her stage makeup and gaudy costume, Lolita looks like a garishly dressed kept woman as she sulks on the couch and argues with Humbert. Fed up with the strain of trying to conceal his sordid relationship with his stepdaughter, Humbert proposes that he and Lolita go away for a long trip around the country “so we can get back the way we were before. ” Lolita screams at Humbert the way she used to yell at her mother, “No! I hate you! Why don’t you leave me alone?!” After making a phone call, however, she sweetly agrees to the extended journey. Humbert is so relieved that it does not occur to him, as it does to the viewer, that she has probably gotten advice from Quilty to string along with Humbert for a while, until she can break away from him.
   Our suspicions are confirmed when Lolita is hospitalized shortly after they take off on their trip; when Humbert goes to release her from the hospital, he finds to his great consternation that she has already been released in the custody of her “uncle. ” The novel chronicles Humbert’s fruitless efforts to track down Lolita, but Kubrick wisely bypasses this episode and cuts immediately to an unseen Lolita laboriously typing a note to Humbert asking him for money to help her and her husband prepare for the coming of their baby. Following this lead, Humbert drives through a big city slum and stops at a dead end in front of a shabby little house. The ensuing scene is discussed from Humbert’s point of view in the entry in this volume on James Mason; here it is presented from Lolita’s perspective. Wearing horn-rimmed glasses, her hair askew, and looking every day of her six months’ pregnancy, Lolita is no longer the sleek, sensual girl that Humbert had enshrined in his memory. As she escorts Humbert into her sloppy kitchen, she says laconically, “You’ll have to excuse my appearance, you caught me on ironing day. ”
   Lolita then explains why she disappeared from the hospital. “Do you remember Dr. Zempf? Mother’s old flame,” who showed up at the school play? She also refers to the various threatening phone calls which Humbert received from anonymous callers. “All of them were Clare Quilty. I had had a crush on him ever since he used to visit Mother. He wasn’t like you and me; he was a genius. He had a kind of beautiful Oriental philosophy. I guess he was the only guy I was ever crazy about. ” Humbert is visibly hurt by this; but, characteristically, Lolita does not notice. “Oh,my husband Dick is very sweet, but it’s not the same. Quilty took me to a dude ranch near Santa Fe. He had a bunch of weird friends staying with him: painters, writers, nudists, weight lifters. But I figured I could take anything for a couple of weeks because I loved him. He promised to get me a movie contract, but it never turned out that way. Instead, he wanted me to cooperate with the others in making some kind of art movie. No, I didn’t do it,” she snaps, flaring up for a second like the old Lolita, not to say like her mother, whom she is beginning to resemble more and more. Indeed, Lolita, paunchy with pregnancy and wearing a seedy maternity dress, is already becoming a slatternly matron very much like her dead mother. Humbert realizes regretfully that he has helped to rob her of her youth.
   Her husband, Dick, now enters this domestic scene. He is a friendly young man, not particularly handsome, who wears a hearing aid. She had met him in Phoenix, where she was working as a waitress after Quilty abandoned her. He invites his stepfatherin-law to stay with them for a few days. Humbert winces slightly as Dick smilingly addresses Humbert as “Professor Haze. ” “He can’t stay, Dick,” says Lolita emphatically in the direction of his hearing aid. After Dick leaves the room, Humbert makes his final, desperate plea to Lolita to allow him to rescue her from what he sees as her present squalid circumstances. “Lolita, between here and that old station wagon is twenty-five paces. Come with me now, just the two of us. ” Lolita assumes she is still dealing with the same lust-driven Humbert of old: “Oh, you’ll give us something if I’ll go to a hotel with you. ” Hurt by her crude remark, Humbert replies in a husky voice, “No, you’ve got it all wrong. I want you to leave your husband and this awful house and live with me, do everything with me. We’ll start fresh. It’s not too late. ”
   Lolita begins to understand that Humbert’s sexual obsession with her has at last turned into genuine love. “It is in this encounter,” Kubrick told Gene Phillips, “in which Humbert expresses his love for Lolita, who is no longer a nymphet but a pregnant housewife, that is one of the most poignant elements of the story. ” Lolita also understands that she must decline Humbert’s invitation. She has wrecked too many lives and she will not hurt Dick. Humbert turns over to her the money from her mother’s estate and makes for his car.
   He takes to the highway, driving straight to Quilty’s dilapidated mansion to shoot him dead—not for robbing Humbert himself of Lolita, but for callously abandoning her after he had grown tired of her. A printed epilogue states that Humbert died in prison of a heart attack, while awaiting trial for killing Quilty. In the novel Lolita likewise dies—in childbirth, while delivering a stillborn daughter, but Kubrick does not mention this in the film. Concerning Lolita, Sue Lyons says in Corliss’s book, “I feel sorry for her. She’s neurotic and pathetic, and she is only interested in herself. ” Adds Corliss,“Yet as an actress Lyon never editorializes; . . . she never lets you see her disapproval of the character. She shows imagination and authenticity in all of Lolita’s gestations: temptress, dominatrix, and brat. ” He concludes, “Once she knows she has Humbert’s undivided obsession, she tunes out and pursues a more elusive male. It is a wonderful portrayal of the banality of lust. ”
   Sue Lyon’s notoriety for playing the title role in Lolita did not result in a successful career in pictures. As Charlotte Goodall in John Huston’s film of Tennessee Williams’s Night of the Iguana (1964), she played a teenager once more pursuing an older man (Richard Burton); in John Ford’s last film, Seven Women (1966), she was one of the seven missionaries staffing a Chinese mission in 1935 when it was overrun by bandits; and she played opposite Frank Sinatra in the thriller Tony Rome (1967). After that, good parts gradually ceased to come her way, and Lyon lost interest in making movies. Her last film of consequence was Alligator (1980), a spoof of monster pictures, with Robert Forster and other stars of the second magnitude.
   In a 1997 interview, cited by Howard, she opined, in the wake of three failed marriages and a moribund film career, “I defy any girl rocketed to fame at fifteen in a sex-nymphet role to stay on an even keel. ” It goes without saying that Sue Lyon’s Lolita overshadowed Dominique Swain’s drab performance in the same role in Adrian Lyne’s 1997 remake. For his part, Nabokov never forgot Lyon’s performance. “Sue Lyon is marvelous,” he says in Howard’s book;“she is Lolita. ”
   ■ Corliss, Richard, Lolita (London: British Film Institute, 1994);
   ■ Howard, James, Stanley Kubrick Companion (London: Batsford, 1999), pp. 73–85;
   ■ Kael, Pauline, I Lost It at the Movies (New York: Marion Boyars, 1994), pp. 203–209;
   ■ Leff, Leonard, and Jerold Simmons, “Lolita,” in The Dame in the Kimono: Hollywood and Censorship (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001), pp. 219–246;
   ■ Mason, James, Before I Forget (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1981);
   ■ Phillips, Gene, Stanley Kubrick:A Film Odyssey (New York: Popular Library, 1977), pp. 83–102.

The Encyclopedia of Stanley Kubrick. . 2002.

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