Wednesday, June 13, 2012

'Lolita' Wasn't Funny

Lolita: I'm really sorry that I cheated so much. But I guess that's just the way things are.

Just about every summary that you will read of "Lolita," the film that made its theatrical debut 50 years ago today, describes it as a comedy/drama.

I've never thought of it as a comedy.

Certainly, it is a drama. And, I suppose, there is an element of comedy in the story. To be honest, though, I never found anything particularly amusing about it, not even the lines that were clearly intended to be humorous or ironic.

The characters, all of them, were more to be pitied. And there was something about each of the characters to which everyone could relate in some way.

Like the character of Humbert Humbert (played by James Mason), for example, I have been a college professor — although not of literature, which, I suppose, accounts for some of the ironies of the plot. But Humbert had had an obsession with young girls for a long time. Thus, his attraction to the underage Lolita was hardly surprising.

I've never known a male college professor yet who didn't notice the finer figures of the female students, but few ever acted on it. A few, like Humbert, yielded to the temptation, but most did not.

When I read the book (which I did before I saw the original movie), I felt a sadness for Humbert, and I continued to feel it when I saw the film. He was trapped by his obsession, and Lolita played that for all it was worth to her.

She was a conniving, manipulative woman–child who learned early, as the Eagles so aptly sang, "how to open doors with just a smile." And anyone who has ever been on the receiving end of something like that knows there is nothing remotely funny about the feeling of being a chump.

Again, most people probably knew conniving girls when they were young, but few had the audacity to act when faced with the opportunity. Lolita was an extreme exception to the rule; the readers (and, later, the movie audience) knew that Humbert and the slimy playwright Clare Quilty (played convincingly by Peter Sellers) had been among her lovers — but how many lovers the 12–year–old had had was never really clear.

I suppose that was regarded, at the time the book was published and, a few years later, when the movie made its premiere, as part of the story's erotic appeal. (But perhaps I am an exception to the rule because there is nothing about a 12–year–old — no matter how well developed she may be — that I find erotic.)

The saddest character of the story, I thought, was Shelley Winters' role as Lolita's sexually frustrated mother. She so clearly craved a man's touch, but it was denied to her while her child needed to do nothing, really, to acquire it.

She was the real victim of the story. She was the one who was betrayed. She did none of the betraying. But she paid for it.

To be sure, Lolita was a tragic figure. Sue Lyon may have been cast in the part because director Stanley Kubrick thought she would lend the proper comic element to the role and the story, but I saw in her many girls I knew when I was growing up, and it made me wonder how many of them may have been sexually abused.

Lolita's activity could be explained as a survival mechanism. After all, she had been orphaned and left in the hands of an acknowledged pedophile. There isn't much a 12–year–old girl can do under such circumstances.

There is little — if any — humor to be found in such a situation.

And there is nothing funny about pedophiles.