It’s interesting how every major filmmaker seems to have at least one film that, over time, gets over-shadowed by his or her other work. Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Nabokov’s novel Lolita may suffer because it is clearly a transitional film between his early virtuosic, but somewhat superficial work and his later, mature period. Nor is it helped by immediately preceding Dr. Strangelove, which probably casts a long shadow. Still, given the loaded subject matter, the presence of stars like James Mason, Shelley Winters and especially Peter Sellers, you would think Lolita should be able to hold its own.
Part of the problem may be that Kubrick seems unable to decide whether the story is a comedy or something more serious. That indecision is most obvious in Sellers’s performance. The fact that Clare Quilty is meant to be an actor and writer may give Sellers the excuse to be all over the behavioral map, but his turns never quite come together as anything more than brilliant impersonations.
Similarly, while Shelley Winters’s grotesque Charlotte Hayes is calculated to make the otherwise repellent Humbert Humbert at least somewhat sympathetic, there is also an undercurrent of real pathos in what the actress does with the part. Kubrick was too much of a control freak for it to be likely she sneaked that past him. Unfortunately, those relatively sympathetic moments don’t mix very well with the satirical pitch of the rest.
Ironically, the most potentially contentious aspect of the story, the pedophilia, is de-emphasized to the point of barely figuring at all. While it is tempting to attribute that lack of emphasis to Kubrick and company gingerly stepping around the censors, doing so is probably a mistake. Rather, it is almost as if Kubrick chose the material to concentrate solely on how Humbert turns himself into a hypocritical clown. (The common comment about the film, “Think what he could have done if he had made it later,” is rather banal. The results would probably be more explicit, and thus far less interesting.)
Mason ably demonstrates Humbert’s smugness, snobbery and self-deception, without completely alienating the viewer. Viewed objectively, it is difficult to see Humbert as much better than a worm. Mason makes that point, while never entirely losing his humanity. We don’t quite sympathize with Humbert, even in those later moments when Lolita deserts him. Yet he’s never despicable either, a significant accomplishment under the circumstances. Whether we attribute that to the actor, Kubrick, Nabokov or a combination of the three, Humbert Humbert lives and breathes as a flawed human being, neither markedly worse nor better than anyone else.
Brilliant in patches, perhaps the best word to describe Lolita is “uneven.” It is hardly the only film to proceed in fits and starts. Coming from the maniacally fussy Kubrick, however, it demonstrates how even the most obsessive of artists have to learn where their skills lie before they can polish them to perfection.