Thursday, April 23, 2015

Birthday Take: Vladimir Nabokov in "Lolita" (1962)

Sue Lyon in Lolita
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Vladimir Nabokov
Born: April 23, 1899
Died: July 2, 1977 (78 years old)
Nomination: Best Adapted Screenplay - Lolita (nominated)

The Take

There have been few romantic novels as controversial or as immediately distinct as "Lolita" was upon its release. Following the relationship of the elderly Humbert Humbert and a little girl named Lolita, it was a tale that continues to create discomfort and Lolita has become shorthand in pop culture for attractive underage women. The one interesting note is that the book is still revered and often considered one of the most honest romances in contemporary literature. Where it would seem opportune nowadays for writers to go pulpy and erotic in a 50 Shades of Grey fashion for romance, Vladimir Nabokov was a Russian author who made his English debut with a story that was eloquent and full of richer subtext. It didn't embrace pedophilia nor did it chastise its protagonist. Instead it explored the relationship as it related to his damaged past.

Which makes the original 1962 filmed adaptation an interesting pursuit. Much like the tagline reads "How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?" It would seem criminal to be loyal to the subject matter entirely. Even with Nabokov turning in a script, there was a strong interference from the studio to tone down some of the racier elements. Along with the fact that director Stanley Kubrick often made great uncredited alterations to the story, it was a fascinating transition for a future auteur filmmaker who took the project because of its edginess. While it didn't reach its full edgy potential, it was probably for the best considering that what resulted was a minor classic in the arguably flawless Kubrick filmography. It may not be as revered as his later book adaptation films A Clockwork Orange or The Shining, but he definitely crafted something unique.

While many would contest that the 1997 adaptation was more faithful, that was also 35 years later and didn't have the hand of Nabokov on the script. What Kubrick ended up creating was a black comedy with a conflicting Humbert (James Mason) still in tow doing creepy things with Sue Lyon providing an excellent performance as the titular lead. Together they had chemistry that wasn't specifically sexual. There were complexities that spoke more to the human condition than any lustful desires. It was also shot almost noirish, with the story faithfully following the book's wraparound of Humbert confessing his romance to an assailant. Everything in between almost plays as the most in depth femme fatale story of its kind mostly because where the book is insular, the film takes place in the moment, only occasionally being bombarded by Humbert's passionate pleas.

It doesn't seem likely that anyone would forget Lolita after reading or watching it. For starters, Nabokov as an author sought to make something more complicated than basic desires. He made psychological tales that were enviously literate and made everything seem more honest. It isn't likely however that one will immediately associate the film or its script with him, even if it remains Lolita's sole Oscar nomination. For the most part, it is Kubrick's vision and one that is unnervingly beautiful in his familiar cold style. Yes, the film couldn't exist without Nabokov or his script, but much like every other film - most of which were adaptations - Kubrick overshadows them as the genius because his visuals are immediately iconic and the performances so uniformed that they dazzle.

In terms of controversial stories, this is one of the few films that turns a lowly theme into art. It is something that has been too taboo to explore in pop culture and yet bravely explores it. While the 1997 version has been considered more faithful, it remains a second tier film that has been forgotten in favor of this tale. Much like romance in general, these are complicated subjects that aren't always immediately easy to figure out. Lolita at least tries to make sense of one case that may be a little unnerving for most, but comes across more sanely than one could hope. Nabokov's work is rather extraordinary and unique in ways that are impossible to fit entirely on the screen. However, what was left of his vision was still really powerful.

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