Sue Lyon: Lolita

Sue Lyon was just fourteen when she beat off 800 other hopefuls and was chosen to appear in Stanley Kubrick's 1962 film, Lolita, yet young as she was, she was still two years older than the character on whom her role was based.

Money, or lack of it, was an issue in the Lyon household - Sue, already working as a model,  was the youngest of five children and her widowed mother worked as a house mother at a  hospital. The financial opportunity the film afforded, as well as the career potential, must have seemed too good to miss.

Lolita was base on the controversial book by Vladimir Nabokov, which dealt with a man, Humbert Humbert's, dangerously unwholesome obsession with a young adolescent girl. The book, which was expertly written, was a comic/tragic tale which portrayed Humbert as pathetically entombed in his own desires and those around him, hapless victims to his drives.

Sue Lyon as Lolita, relaxing in the garden

An Inescapable Role
It's  difficult to imagine the whole experience not being hugely intimidating for a young, inexperienced girl to be thrust into working with such luminaries as James Mason, Peter Sellers and Shelley Winters -all of whom were a riot in the film incidentally. Despite winning a Golden Globe Award  for Most Promising Newcomer, Lyon's inexperience shows  - but her performance is carried by the strength of the seasoned actors around her. Chosen for her looks and mature, curvaceous body, rather than her talents, she was required to dye her brown hair yellow blonde for the role and the effect is more mini-vixen than natural girl.

Lolita is an exploitative story and there's long been the suggestion, largely because of her youth and gender, that Lyon was herself exploited. After the film, she garnered all the wrong sort of attention and was forever tagged as Lolita, alluring nymph and symbol of destruction. Although she continued to appear in films and television spasmodically, including Night of the Iguana with Richard Burton,  there were no stand out performances, no accolades and little acting kudos.

In later years,  Lyon reputedly suffered from bipolar disorder and when the career opportunities fizzled, took what she could get - at one point working as a cocktail waitress. After several failed marriages, she forged a relationship with a prison inmate, doing time for murder and armed robbery - a decision that inevitably created a wave of judgmentalism about her state of mind and life choices. They eventually married after his release but that marriage too dissipated, as her husband made the decision to return to crime. On paper it sounds like a hard, punishing road she went down but however good or bad it has been for her (and no-one else can know) she has survived.

There's a tendency to portray Lyon as a 'victim', yet the actress herself described working on the film as "a joy" and she was disappointed to find working on subsequent film projects a less pleasurable and secure experience. It's also possible that if were negative after-effects from the Lolita experience, it had more to do with the  prurient responses of those who claimed to be outraged by the story, than the role itself. Brooke Shields suffered a similar reaction after she appeared in Louis Malles Pretty Baby.

Hollywood being what it is, is exploitative by nature - nothing new there. What set Lolita apart of course, was the dynamite nature of the films' narrative. Viewing it now, five decades after it release, it's a highly watchable film, with some great performances and a witty script, not withstanding the touchy subject matter. Unlike the laboured 1997 French/American remake with Jeremy Irons as Humbert Humbert,  Kubrick's Lolita didn't take itself too seriously.