by Andrew Sarris
Most of the reviews of Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic treatment of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita emphasized the novel’s awesome difficulties rather than its glorious opportunities. Lolita is, after all, a “road” novel. A director with a flair for cars and roadside Americana could have taken off with this material. As it is, Nabokov’s literary wit has not been translated into visual wit, with the result that the film is leaden where it should be light. Kubrick has a fatal weakness for long scenes in which everything is explained and then explained again. Yet Nabokov’s reverse-Jamesian conception of the European intellectual corrupted by American vitality is never adequately realized, and the sex is so discreetly handled that an unsophisticated spectator may be completely mystified.
To compound the felony, the acting never meshes. Shelley Winters is hilarious as the voracious matron drinking and lusting her way out of her slightly Europeanized shell. When her character is killed off, the film dies with her. James Mason, a serious actor with no flair for comedy, cannot take up the slack. In at least two of Mason’s most deliciously written scenes, one longs for the dark humor of an Olivier. Peter Sellers is an accurate mimic without physical presence or discernible personality. Sue Lyon almost justifies her being “discovered” for Lolita, but not quite. Her sullen presence is effective at first, but increasing demands on her acting ability eventually destroy the illusion. In short, Lolita is a film that runs steadily downhill at too slow a pace for a needless two and a half hours.
There is something to be said for the director’s accepting Lionel Trilling’s interpretation of Lolita as a love story concerned, like all great love stories, with forbidden love. However, I suspect that Kubrick lost his nerve and wound up underestimating his audience. People are not so easily shocked nowadays as they used to be. Anyway, there are far more shocking perversions of propriety than falling in love with a twelve-year-old girl or a twelve-year-old what-have-you, as the French would say. I suppose almost every male has momentarily lost his heart to a nymphet devouring a banana split at Howard Johnson’s, and there is nothing new about nymphet-worship on the screen. Mary Pickford’s appeal was that of a pseudonymphet, and Shirley Temple’s, even more shockingly, that of a prenymphet. (Adults always liked Shirley more than children did, anyway.) Ginger Rogers charmingly impersonated a wartime Lolita in The Major and the Minor, and Brigitte Bardot first exploded on the American scene as a daughter-substitute for repressed fathers.
What Lolita needed more than anything else was a director in tune with Nabokov’s delirious approach to his subject. We are never shown the inspiringly unconscious gestures and movements that transform the most emotionally impoverished nymphet into a creature of fantasy and desire. Kubrick goes through the motions with a hula hoop and the munching of potato chips, but there is nothing intuitive or abandoned about the man-nymphet relationship. The director’s heart is apparently elsewhere. Consequently, we face the problem without the passion, the badness without the beauty, the agony without the ecstasy.
Village Voice, July 5, 1962