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Really the real Lolita?
by Joe Morgenstern

Lollipop lovers of the world may feel that defacing a treasure like Lolita would be no less heinous an offense than painting a mustache on Rembrandt's Aristotle. Stanley Kubrick knew that when he took on the job of directing the screen version of Vladimir Nabokov's novel, which opens here Wednesday. But he never doubted that the job could be done properly. All it involved was finding the right girl and surrounding her with the right movie.

The reputation that precedes Mr. Kubrick is that of a remarkably self-confident fellow, a former magazine photographer whose technical talents were turned to movie making before he was old enough to vote and a man with a shock of black hair, a black suit and an obsessive interest in films. Quite true, some of it. Mr. Kubrick does have a lot of black hair, and he was wearing a black suit when he turned up for lunch the other day. But there the resemblances to his public image, if you'll pardon the expression, ended.

At 33 the director is no longer a slip of a lad, as a burbling lady writer put it in 1955 when his Killer's Kiss was released. And he can no longer qualify as a boy wonder, although Mr. Kubrick's followers, who have followed him through films like The Killing, Paths of Glory and Spartacus seem to think he's a man wonder.

He is self-confident only in the sense of being an accomplished professional who knows he is accomplished. At lunch, Mr. Kubrick was downright diffident for a good while until he warmed up to a political discussion. And that brings up another matter. He knows his movies, and the knowledge may amount to an obsession, but he also knows literature and music and public affairs and who knows what else he didn't have time to discuss in an hour, all of which leads one to assume that his real obsession is learning.

His next movie concerns an intriguing aspect of the arms race, and he spoke of disarmament with such a detailed knowledge of the subject that he could sign on as an understudy for Arthur Dean at Geneva. In short, he does his homework, and a complex undertaking like Lolita, a novel which was many things to many reviewers and readers, required a lot of homework.

"The novel is so rich in themes, point of view and character," Mr. Kubrick said. "It's absolutely brilliant, this discovery of what things are. Nobody changes. It's reality that changes as the reader makes his own discovery of it along with Humbert. The book is told through Humbert's point of view, but he's a very imperfect observer. The dramatic swing of the book is that you forget the cynical veneer that Nabokov uses to keep you, and Humbert, from realizing at first that Humbert loves the girl."

Sue Lyon, whom Mr. Kubrick chose to play Lolita, is and looks two or three years older than the pubescent paramour of the novel. Does that change the substance of the tale? Mr. Kubrick didn't think so. "The Humbert-Lolita story would be a great one even if Lolita were 21, all give and all take. Keeping the girl's age low, as Nabokov did, you would, of course, accomplish what Lionel Trilling attributed to the novel, putting the story 'beyond the pale.'

"What's essential, in any case, is a growth of sympathy for Humbert, a sharing of his heartbreak. If not for that, the story would be nothing but a series of grueling experiences for an aging man."

Mr. Kubrick puts a premium on intelligence: his own, which he sometimes wields formally, as an ardent film theorist, and sometimes informally, as he improvises scenes from a basic script; that of the audience, and that of the actors.

"Ah, the power that can be generated by giving the audience a sense of discovery! The fault I find with most realistic drama is that a long time is spent setting everything up for the audience to discover for itself, but then, when the chips are down, the actors explain the whole thing anyway."

Mr. Kubrick spoke feeling-fully about how vulnerable actors are in front of a camera. One of his most important functions, he felt, was to give his actors a sense of the whole, depending upon emotion as well as intellect to do it.

"Making a movie is such a fragmented process - the 8:30 to 6 routine day after day - that an intellectual under-standing alone is insufficient to sustain a sense of the whole. That's why I have to trust my own emotional involvement, and think of it in terms of musical progression from one related element to another."

His understanding of actors' problems, his attention to detail in even the smallest characterizations, have made Mr. Kubrick extraordinarily popular among the performers who work for him. Peter Sellers who plays Clare Quilty, Lolita's abductor, said recently he would have worked in a Kubrick film even if it had meant taking a two-line part. To prove his fidelity, Mr. Sellers now plans to be in the next Kubrick film, Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. This will be the story of a "nuclear Wise Man" in American society, a person of learning and personal power, with Mr. Sellers in the title role.

Another star of Lolita, Shelley Winters, had this to say about Mr. Kubrick: "He respects and likes actors, and explains the totality of what he's after and picks your brains about how you would fulfill it. Then, by a process of elimination and discovery, he arrives at what he wants. But it's not a performance superimposed on you. It's something of your own that he's managed to bring forth."

It would seem then, that Lolita was in safe hands with Mr. Kubrick - if she could be in safe hands with anyone.

Sunday Herald Tribune, June 10, 1962

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