Lolita Comes Again
by Elizabeth Kaye, Esquire
Lolita comes again: the book was banned, its author reviled, the first film version censored. Is there anything more about a lustful twelve-year-old nymphet that can shock American sensibilities? Yes; new film version of Vladimir Nabokov's 1953 literary classic; Cover Story
The Film Director Adrian Lyne, A Renegade Englishman inclined toward Irish stubbornness, had been intent upon filming Lolita, and he was doing it in the singular fashion in which movies are made: employing winter for a season meant to be summer, using a darkening day for an afternoon meant to be brilliant, and confronting, in the process, the unbounded tyranny of answered prayers. The crew, shielded by anoraks, faced away from the sharp San Antonio wind that raised stinging dust and released parched leaves from pecan and hackberry trees. Their camera focused on Lyne's redheaded Lolita, a fifteen-year-old in a red bathing suit, sprawling beneath a lawn sprayer that drenched her with spouting water as she frolicked with a panting male dog in a manner markedly erotic while puzzled passersby looked on.
"What's this movie about?" one asked.
"Some middle-aged guy" a grip answered, "who falls in love with a young girl."
"Based on a literary classic" said the unit PR woman. "Don't forget that."
"That's your department," he answered.
Lyne peered at the sky as if it were an unwelcome intruder. "We've got a suspicion of sun here," he said as he strode back and forth, biting his lip, propelled by the panic and bliss that accompany the bringing of desire into being.
"How are you, Adrian?" someone asked. Lyne smiled. Agitation abruptly dissipated; his seraphic face beamed. "Miserable," he said.
Then he called a cut, and the quivering young actress, silken skin chilled to the bluish pallor of bruises, was swaddled in dense towels and led away by the customary entourage of her mother, her teacher, and her body double. Her plight that bleak afternoon was suggestive of the twisted history of Lolita, both book and film, creations long fated to do time in the cold.
Written by Vladimir Nabokov in 1953, Lolita is a masterwork that was drafted in English by a Russian, a descent into the perilous terrain of human failing recounted by a narrator whom Nabokov described as "a vain and cruel wretch who manages to appear touching." The book popularized the words nymphet and Nabokovian, the latter meant to evoke an unorthodox author, a collector of butterflies who impaled his fictional characters with comparable permanence and precision.
Though the novel is not based on Nabokov's experience - his own marriage was impossibly ardent and joyous - it may be that his tenure as a professor provided its inspiration. A photograph displayed in Adrian Lyne's office shows Nabokov at Wellesley in 1945 among his female students. The girls wear bobby socks, Bermuda shorts, and immaculate blouses with sleeves rolled to the elbows. They have reached that ripening though tender season when girls are no longer adolescents but not yet women. In their midst, the middle-aged Nabokov appears not merely happy but somehow complete, having discovered at this American university a male intellectual's nirvana, where his most lucid lectures are lauded while he himself is extolled as handsome and engaging. The picture suggests a generative seed that will take root in the interior landscape of a writer who, though afraid to fly in airplanes, was entranced by the notion of space travel and could appreciate the way that everyday facts nourish the imagination.
Lolita charts the unraveling of Humbert Humbert, an urbane European beset by passion for a twelve-year-old American girl. Intent on being near her, he weds her irritating mother, who, upon discovering his fixation, dashes distractedly into the street and is conveniently run over by a passing car, leaving Humbert to wander the country with a youngster who has become his stepdaughter, his mistress, and his ward. With its innuendos and filigree phrasing, its delight in the minutiae of American kitsch, its summoning of that special desolation of being on the run after doing something irrevocable, Lolita is the ultimate road book, a literary sleight of hand both tragic and comic, harsh and tender. A uniquely perturbing and titillating work, infused with the particular cruelty of annihilative sex, it locates the precise but obscure juncture between high and low culture, between trash and art.
It is also a book that almost never was, since early on, Nabokov nearly burned his notes for the manuscript, then, less rashly, considered using a pseudonym for the finished novel. Initially, he sought to bring it out in America. "Would you be interested in publishing a time bomb?" he wrote James Laughlin of New Directions.
But with his time bomb rejected by every major American house, he settled for the publisher he attracted, Olympia Press, a Parisian outfit whose list ran to titles like White Thighs, With Open Mouth, and The Story of O. Its imprimatur assured that Lolita would be neither advertised nor reviewed, md it went unnoticed until January 1956, when Graham Greene designated it one of the three best books of the previous year. Unearthed, Lolita became entrenched as the literary work least likely to inspire neutrality. "It shocks," Harvey Breit noted in The new York Times, "because it is great art."
It was, wrote the editor of the London Sunday Express, "the filthiest book I've ever read."
By late 1956, Lolita was banned in France, and its British publication was delayed by an obscenity bill pending in Parliament. "My poor Lolita is having a rough time," Nabokov wrote to Greene. "The pity is that if I had made her a boy, or a cow, or a bicycle, philistines might never have flinched."
Two more years passed before G. P. Putnam's Sons became the sole publisher prepared to unleash Lolita on America's vestal citizens, generating a riptide in those becalmed years when the nation had succumbed to a postwar lassitude undispelled even by the combined assault of James Dean, Marlon Brando, and Elvis Presley "Over twenty-six hundred reorders today," Putnam wrote Nabokov the afternoon of its publication. Four days later, Lolita entered its third printing.
Nabokov's book became a movie in 1962, instigating a craze among teenage girls for heart-shaped sunglasses. Directed by Stanley Kubrick, this fashionable and notorious film was chiefly distinguished by james Mason's dexterous Humbert. For, as countless publishers had demonstrated, Lolita could instill apprehension in the previously unflinching. Faced with the project, Kubrick faltered, his much-touted sense of the bizarre finding expression only in the Peter Sellers role of Quilty, Humbert's nemesis.
Nabokov includes in his novel a mention of Lolita's and Humbert's untimely demises, she in childbirth, he of a heart attack while awaiting trial in prison, a denouement sufficient to satisfy the long-defunct Hays Code's insistence that God punish the wicked. But Kubrick planned an inexplicably upbeat ending in which Humbert makes an honest woman of Lolita while relatives bless the happy couple. A graft palpably destined not to take, it was eliminated from the script, for which Nabokov wrote early drafts that Kubrick discounted. The eventual product featured music by Nelson Riddle, a Humbert and Lolita who never kiss, and eroticism that starts and ends when he paints her toenails.
"How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?", began Bosley Crowther's review in The New York Times. "The answer to that question ... they didn't."
And Nabokov's credit as sole screenwriter would be neither the first nor last time in the film industry when bestowing credit was a means of assigning blame.
From the novel's emergence, readers either adored it or reviled it. Either way, Lolita was a staggering experience, albeit one subject to distinct limits in the 1950s, when, if sex with young girls was a prevailing male fantasy, it was also presumed to be primarily a fantasy. The term "sexual abuse" had not invaded the vernacular. Groups to recover memory did not exist. No statistics asserted that one in every five women had been sexually abused by her father or stepfather. And Humbert Humbert's predilections, devoid of real-life resonances, were less disquieting because readers felt assured that they were essentially fictive.
Only in the late 1980s did sexual abuse of children become that latter-day oxymoron: a familiar aberration. This occurred courtesy of the 1987 McMartin-preschool case, the nation's lengthiest criminal trial, with its weeping parents and testimony from studiously coached children. The charges of sexual abuse proved bogus. The suspicions they raised lingered, then spread like a bloodstain. At a time when authority everywhere was being questioned, previous certainties became doubted: the goodwill of priests and teachers; the conception of school and family as a haven.
In a riven America that was as conspicuous for the astonishing trash it tolerated as for the sanctimony with which that trash was deplored, it was no surprise that sexual abuse of children would be the sole act that solicited consensus. In the age of victim consciousness, abuse of innocents was, in a terrible sense, the right crime at the right time, one that everyone, regardless of party affiliation, religion, or class, could stand against. Plainly, the society that cannot safeguard its young cannot survive. And as stories of sexual abuse spilled into tabloids and talk shows, the revulsion they engendered was atavistic. With each revelation, notions about what constitutes abuse widened, until a six-year-old boy in a North Carolina public school was suspended for kissing the cheek of a female classmate.
The Western world, swamped in paranoia and litigiousness, was descending into bedlam by striving to keep bedlam at bay. Children were urged to sue their parents. Adults deleted from their behavior the most instinctive gestures. "We are bringing up a generation of children," said Jeremy Irons, who would play the role of Humbert Humbert in Lyne's movie, "who can be touched neither in anger nor in love."
Within a dozen years, the cure had become almost as malignant as the sickness.
There is the picture, and there is what its players bring to the making of that picture, what they hope the venture will prove, win, or refute. And the stakes were perilously high in an unforgiving world where everyone is two failures away from working in cable. Adrian Lyne, having made profitable films, stood to prove that he was capable of making a great one.
Lyne had emerged from the sharp-witted world of 1970s British advertising, where his career flourished but which he always despised. The men making commercials then - Lyne, Ridley Scott, Tony Scott, Alan Parker - were genuine talents, all wildly competitive, scheming to get their rivals' demonstration reels. "How did he do it?" Lyne would ask himself, running Ridley Scott's reels backward and forward. "Was it a track? Was it a zoom?"
"It had nothing to do with advertising," Lyne says now. "It had to do with learning to make little films."
Lyne emigrated to Los Angeles in the early eighties and made Foxes, his first feature. He was then persuaded to direct a script he had turned down,"just a silly fairy story, really," as he describes it, that seemed so unlikely to do business that Paramount sold a third of its interest a week before its release. The movie was Flashdance. In its wake, teenage girls, repeating the type of fad Lolita had sparked two decades earlier, wore sweatshirts that fell off one shoulder, and Lyne became the industry's most sought-after new director.
In those days, he would bound into Directors Guild screenings, burly, madly energetic, looking like the drummer in a fairly good rock band. In a town whose collective gaze is riveted to the bottom line, Adrian Lyne's success produced a curious self-righteousness as Flashdance - regarded as so commercial, so crassly like a music vide-took on demonic dimensions, and expanding numbers of mildly talented people agonized at the Polo Lounge over what it might do to their "art."
He went on to make 9 1/2 Weeks, Fatal Attraction, Indecent Proposal, pictures that had their adherents and their pickets. But they all made money, and some people never let him forget it. "You get it endlessly thrown at you that you're from advertising," says Lyne, "though I haven't done a commercial in ten years."
Yet the sniping fostered an energizing indignation, delivering Lyne from an insider's flabby self-satisfaction. As a commercial filmmaker, he had been known to feed audiences what they craved, reshooting Fatal Attraction's conclusion to satisfy the stated preference of survey groups. But Lyne was also refreshingly unguarded, ready to risk, to wager on instinct. He had adored Lolita since he'd read it in his mid-twenties. In 1990, the year he turned forty-nine, the property was optioned for him. For the next six years, his commitment to filming it never wavered, even as the climate became one in which his efforts could only be viewed as intrepid or as quixotic or misguided, the cinematic equivalent of smoking cigars in the presence of an emphysemic.
In February 1994, Lyne drafted a thirty-five-page outline and titled it "Preparatory Notes on Nabokov's Novel." A primary concern was what the audience would make of Humbert Humbert, the protagonist who is no hero." The movie should start in prison," Lyne wrote, ". . . because . . . if the audience understands that Humbert is paying his dues, it may help our case."
He turned first to James Dearden, who wrote Fatal Attraction. He then looked to Harold Pinter, whose efforts to address Lyne's concerns seemed likely to empty the theater with a stink bomb's efficiency. "My name is Humbert, you won't like me," begins Pinter's screenplay. "I suffer from moral leprosy. Don't come any further with me if you believe in moral values."
David Mamet tried next. But in early 1995, Lyne still had no script and was being backed into that final corner of what is known as development hell, where he needed to get one or abandon the project. Prepared to try anything, he took a suggestion from Richard Zanuck, then Lolita's producer, to read dialogue written several years earlier by the New Yorker writer Stephen Schiff for an unproduced film adaptation of the book.
Schiff had never written a script. He had never really aspired to write one, having tried his hand at Lolita out of attachment to the novel. Lyne hired him nonetheless, a viable index of what was either the director's vision or his desperation. "From our first meeting," Schiff recalls, "I was very aware of Adrian's fear that the audience would just hate Humbert. The concern was how do you get the audience, who understands that what he's doing is abhorrent, to view him as someone they want to spend time with?"
When Adrian Lyne began working on Lolita, Nabokov's book had sold fourteen million copies, yet, like any book made into a movie, it was better known for its filmed version, from which Kubrick excised Humbert's torturous history. Lyne had it reinstated, since this account, while not excusing Humbert's behavior, served to explain it and was so essential to understanding the material that Nabokov put it in the novel's opening pages: As a child, Humbert adored another child, Annabel Leigh. She was thirteen when she died of typhus. Humbert continued to seek her long after his own childhood concluded. "The poison was in the wound," says Humbert, "and the wound remained ever open."
Enchanted as much by Lolita's youth as by memories of his own, Nabokov's Humbert is the man who both comprehends and denies that he has grown too old for certain experiences. His desire for Lolita is a longing for what is no longer possible, a manifestation of the elemental wish of middle age: that the troublesome person one has become can be disposed of as naturally and efficiently as a snake shedding a skin.
In that reinvention - or so hope decrees - wrongs will be set right, the future will not repeat the past. And we will be conveyed forward and backward simultaneously, to an Eden that seems forever vanished. In this sense, Humbert is the deviant who is everyman, the everyman who is no man at all but an eternal boy who is big but not grownup, experienced but not adult, aged but not mature, brilliant yet stunted, as uncategorizable as Nabokov.
Adrian Lyne needed a Humbert. He considered Anthony Hopkins but decided he was too old; he considered Hugh Grant but decided he was too young. Then Lyne thought of jeremy Irons, whom he had encountered briefly when Irons visited Glenn Close on the Fatal Attraction set and with whom he had the flirtation that occurs between directors and actors when they first meet. "I wonder how we'd get on," Lyne had thought, watching Irons. "I wonder how he thinks."
With his fluent gait, his fastidious but unstudied bearing, Irons is one of few contemporary actors with sufficient style to have been a star in the 1930s. A man who relishes surprises and secrets and cultivates an enigmatic aura, he generates a considerable mystique drawn from temperament and intent. Gregarious yet restrained, ebullient but elusive, he is catlike, by turns amiable and edgy, establishing boundaries with people even as he connects with them. "I'm quite conscious of the effect I have upon the watcher," he says. And he knows that the impact of his work derives less from what he does than from what he insinuates.
"If you want an actor who isn't afraid of looking bad," Harold Pinter once told a director, "get Jeremy Irons."
But Irons didn't want to play Humbert. I've played enough weirdos," he told Lyne. "I need this like a hole in the head."
"Don't be so politically correct," Lyne said.
Irons's American agent liked the script, but the actor was warned against it by his English agent and everyone else whose opinion he trusted, i.e., the male star's coterie of wife, PR woman, makeup lady. Glenn Close, whose work with Lyne in Fatal Attraction lent her a change of type that revived her career, told Irons that Lyne was terribly protective of actors. She also said he shouldn't play Humbert.
Word of this reached Lyne. He was furious. That's a knee-jerk reaction, he thought. He called Glenn Close. "Are you saying," he shouted, "that I can't touch this subject?"
"It upsets me," Lyne recalls her saying, in a voice no calmer. "I've got a daughter."
"Perfectly understandable," said Lyne. "I've got two daughters. But the idea that you wouldn't do something, the idea of self-censorship, is more sinister than upsetting people."
Eventually, the shouting ceased. "All the work I'd absolutely decided I shouldn't do, but did," Lyne recalls Close saying then, "worked very well for me."
"I think she understood," Lyne would say later, "that I really loved the novel and that if you feel that strongly about a subject, there's a chance of it being half decent."
Glenn Close called Irons again. "Remember what we do," she said. "We do great roles with great scripts and great directors. And isn't this that?"
And I'm turning it down, thought Irons, because I'm worried about what it will do to my career?" Ludicrous! " All right, then," he said. "Let's be politically incorrect! Let's stir the waters!"
"Yes," Irons recalls Close saying, "even though, as the mother of a young girl, I still find it all very difficult."
It would be difficult for Irons, too. He also had children: two sons, aged ten and seventeen. And the professional risks sometimes seemed titanic. "I never stop thinking of them," he allowed midway through filming.
For Adrian Lyne, the project would be albatross, privilege, vindication, absorbing him so acutely that, editing the film in the midst of a late-summer heat wave, he failed to notice that he was heading to the cutting room each day in heavy winter clothes.
The Film industry is regarded as the outpost of the essential American ambition: to be rewarded with fame and riches for doing no more than being oneself. In fact, that industry is populated by dedicated people who seek to prove not merely that they have talent or can make money, for there are many talented moneymakers. The more substantial goal is to prove that they are serious.
Jeremy Irons was different. He did not need to prove his seriousness, because his body of work was so impudently eccentric, so brashly noncommercial. Apart from a stint in a Die Hard movie intended to demonstrate his willingness to play the Hollywood game, his nineteen film roles - among them, the Polish-speaking worker in Moonlighting, the lambent priest in The Mission, the accursed twins in Dead Ringers - pandered to no taste but his own, their selection driven by a resolve "not to be embarrassed at my retrospective" and by the incisive intelligence he is often convinced he does not have.
Coming from Cowes, on the Isle of Wight, he aspired to an easy existence of sailing boats and riding horses. He settled on acting for reasons of style. Drawn to the romance of the touring actor's life, he yearned to belong to a family of gypsics, to inhabit a world on wheels, to live with a bit of risk and constant change and, perhaps, the means to keep others at a distance. If he hadn't been an actor, he often thought, he would have liked to be a long-distance lorry driver.
He struggled. Then came Brideshead Revisited. One Sunday morning, shortly after his thirty-third birthday, he bought the papers, saw his face on the cover of four Sunday supplements, and knew that the game had changed. Having entered his profession for reasons not the least artistic, he stayed on to become a craftsman who loved honing a part. An actor who could seem, by turns, the embodiment of the sacred or the profane, he worked with a delicacy that affirmed that nothing is more profound than silence or more telling than simplicity. "There you are, you clever man!" Jessica Tandy exclaimed when he loped onstage in 1991 to take an Oscar for his portrayal of Claus von Bulow.
Still, he would say, "I always feel a charlatan." And he was uneasy around colleagues like Vanessa Redgrave or Ian McKellen. "They're artists," he told himself," and I'm not."
By the time he took on Humbert Humbert, Jeremy Irons did not need to prove his seriousness to anyone but himself.
There was never a career quite like his. If stars were paradigms of manly assertion, he became a star by playing that paradigm's opposite, the man who can neither master nor control his environment, who is doomed to be in the thrall of women. Like other polished Englishmen in American films, such as Cary Grant and Ronald Colman, he was regarded as desirable while displaying the perennially unappealing traits of desperation and dependence. Audiences, he believes, can be compelled by actors who are male rather than macho. "I think," he says "that I'm tough enough."
Onscreen, he was passionate, but beyond that, he was aggrieved, the dark eyes haunted, beseeching, as if scanning the near distance for impending disaster, his characters mired in the circumstance that most intrigues him: the agony that lurks beneath the appearance of normality. Ultimately, they were devastated beyond hope of redemption. "I don't expect much from the future," says his character in Waterland. "I'm gone, I'm history" As it happens, that line was written into the script by Irons.
When he tested for Humbert, he had a moment that assured Adrian Lyne that his instinct about Irons was faultless. "It was that moment when you know Humbert's a beaten man," Lyne told him. Once Irons took the role, Humbert Humbert seemed the point toward which he had long been tending.
On the set, he was perpetually questioning, suggesting, rejecting shortcuts and easy answers, his well-marked Penguin edition of Lolita ever nearby. Painstaking in his exploration of characters, he is loath to institute a similar exploration of himself.
"What are you thinking?" asked his wife, the accomplished actress Sinead Cusack, early in their nineteen-year marriage.
"I'm thinking about curtain rods," he said. And he seeks to stay focused on curtain rods, or their equivalents: locating doors for the house he built his family in Ireland, Rollerblading, gardening, playing guitar. Yet artistry and earthiness do not keep him from remaining, in some measure, the proper Englishman he insists he isn't, to whom introspection is vulgar, who perceives a man's task as assaulting that which is seeable, fixable, doable.
At work, he readily veered from that rigorous equation. Watching him film Lolita with a neophyte actress, observers speculated that Irons was doing a herculean job of hiding his real feelings of frustration. "My real feelings," he said later, were always what Humbert's feelings are. And anything else, any Jeremy thoughts, get right away."
And you can stay in those feelings?" he was asked.
"Oh, yes. I'm a daydreamer," he said.
Dominique Swain had never acted before, which gave her more to prove than anyone and less to lose. Raised in Malibu, in an unassuming house within a distant canyon, she was observant and smart, a verbal child who generally succeeded at what she did, the inevitable focus of attentive parents who described aspects of her conduct as "very Dominique."
Dominique's favorite movie star is Juliette Lewis. She has never heard of Paul Newman. When her costar introduced himself saying, "I'm Jeremy Irons," it meant nothing until she discovered that he had played Scar in The Lion King. He sang the theme song for her. "But I think he was kind of disappointed," she would say later, "that I didn't know any of his serious stuff."
She wanted to act, she says, "for attention. To be in the spotlight and have everyone's eyes on you and have control over the situation." She began going on calls when she was nine, auditioning for wholesome enterprises like bread commercials and The Brady Bunch Movie. When she tried out for Lolita, she hadn't auditioned in two years and had kind of given up. Her teeth were in braces.
She learned of the part from her manager at that time, Rich Leo, an obscure but dogged hustler with an eye on the main chance. He gave Dominique the novel. "It's all through Humbert's eyes," she told Leo. "Lolita doesn't have a point of view. I think I can give her one."
Dominique made a video, reading from the book, camping a bit. She sent it to Adrian Lyne, who liked her braces and the way she moved. He flew her to New York to audition. "She's unpredictable," he mused, watching her. "Endlessly inventive. Pretty much plays herself, really."
A few days later, the casting director called Dominique's house and left the message "She's our girl." And Dominique, having been driven from the airport to the audition in a town car, was conveyed back to the airport in a limousine.
On location, she was like her character, sensing her budding allure and playing on it. "Hi, guys," she would say, approaching Lyne and Irons with the unshakable insouciance of a model stepping onto the runway, entwining her slender arms through theirs. Irons maintained his distance. Lyne was captivated, introducing her as "my Lolita," laughing delightedly when she abruptly hugged him or contrived a bit of business.
"You always surprise me," he told her.
"I surprise myself sometimes," she said.
But her equanimity deserted her when she had to play the seventeen-year-old, pregnant Lolita, and she became so agitated that shooting was delayed a day. She had long dreaded that scene, and perhaps it signaled, in a film shot in sequence, that her experience with Lolita was reaching its end. "It was really nice," she said months later, "to have so many eyes on me." Although she was soon cast in another movie, it would be a while before anyone could know whether Dominique would avoid the fate of Sue Lyon, for whom playing Lolita in Kubrick's movie pretty much began her career and finished it.
When Jeremy Irons arrived at the initial location, in Wilmington, North Carolina, Dominique Swain had been there a month, rehearsing with Adrian Lyne. Irons saw that they had bonded. He felt excluded. Lyne, Irons suspected, had determined that one of them would control Dominique and wanted to make sure it was he. "That's totally crazy," said Lyne when Irons broached the matter. "I never thought about it. It's just that I have to nurture her because she's never done it before."
Dominique was so inexperienced, in fact, that in early rehearsals, Lyne fastened signs on the door, from top to bottom. Talk, listen. Talk, listen, they read. "That's so you'll remember," he told her, "that it isn't a question of waiting for your cue."
Directors weigh what they envision against what is possible. The trick is to develop enough craft to coax what you imagine into reality. With the shoot in progress, locations changed as Lyne, seeking to lend authenticity to Humbert and Lolita's road trips, carted his cast and crew across America - from New Orleans, with its looming magnolias and sycamores, to lowbred towns wedged among the sepia-toned hills of Texas, to the harsh stillness of the Las Cruces desert.
Days, then weeks, passed. Lyne took to waking in such a state that his wife felt like weeping when she watched him go off to the set. "What worries me," he told his cinematographer, Howard Atherton, "is how the fuck we're going to get through this work." Through it all, he took great care with his actors. "You have to tread like over eggshells," he noted later, "because these poor buggers are naked and you're wrong half the time." But with his own anxieties to tend to, he never let actors watch dailies with him. You need an hour to bad-mouth them and say they're awful and that you'll never work with them again," he says. "You need an hour just to have hysterics. You know what I'm saying?"
Inevitably, the societal rules violated by Lolita's saga were in force on the set. Dominique was not permitted to sit on Irons's lap unless a cushion was placed between them, and her nude scenes were played by a nineteen-year-old body double also enlisted to ran her hand up Humbert's thigh.
It was not that Dominique objected to playing sex scenes or being seen naked. The ruling precept was that an underage female is an innocent, though, like many American shibboleths, it was a tad simplistic. The book and film aspired to more realistic complexity. Their Lolita was an adolescent who, as girls do at that stage, alternates between being a child and a woman and, as such, is the seducer and the seduced, the perpetrator and the victim.
On the set, sexual scenes between Lolita and Humbert simply became the work at hand. Once you adjusted to them, they no longer seemed unusual. One night, the set was closed while everyone waited in the biting cold outside a tacky motel room, where Lolita wailed as Humbert lay in bed, listening. Then, wearing pajamas, red hair wrapped in rags, she stumbled toward him, pathetic and ludicrous, and fell into bed beside him. The scene caused no embarrassment. The principle in which the movie traffics had taken over, proving that the line between what is reasonable behavior and what is not can be moved so incrementally that a sea change can take place without being noticed.
At times, people working on the movie felt compelled to defend its subject, often for the oddest of reasons, among them that since girls must cease to be virgins, they may as well be deflowered by their fathers, who can, at least, be said to love them. One principal figure in the action, denying Humbert's calamitous effect on Lolita, invoked a female friend who had been sexually abused as a child yet had emerged miraculously unscathed. "Making a movie about something," Jeremy Irons would say, "isn't condoning it."
Early on, shooting in Wilmington, Dominique suggested to Irons how he might play the scene. "Don't tell me what to do," he told her sharply. Scared and embarrassed, she burst into tears. But Dominique Swain was a quick study, and filming Lolita was, in any case, an endeavor uniquely geared to hastening a young girl's growing up and to dismantling a grown man's defenses. One day, they prepared to shoot the scene in which Humbert forces himself on Lolita, sensing she has been with someone else. Astride her, he moves back and forth, devastated, weeping. "Who is it?" he begs. "Tell me, tell me."
Sex scenes were the most demanding for Irons, the hours preceding them the most uneasy. "That's when I keep quiet," said his assistant. And this particular scene was more formidable than many. The camera was right there. Dominique's mother was there. He was tired. They tried it once. It didn't work. They tried it again. "I can't do this," said Irons, nearly in tears, covering his face with his hands.
Lying beneath him, Dominique stared at him for a long moment. Reaching up, she peeled his hands from his face. She looked into his eyes, her gaze at once forthright and tender. "Yes you can," she said.
As the year neared its end, Irons awaited A break in the shooting of a movie for which he was required in nearly every scene and whose filming was so protracted, so intense, that the joke on the set, as the holidays approached, was that Christmas would be ten minutes. Matters that failed to faze him on some days troubled him on others, and then he would consciously deflect anxiety. "Where is Jerry?" he demanded one morning, looking for his wardrobe man. "I want to be cross with someone."
Filming Lolita had both galvanized and drained him. At his most accessible, Irons mm a romantic, but at bottom, he was a realist who understood that what you want does not always bear on what you get. "I hope people will see a tragedy and a love story," he told a friend in a rare speculation on how audiences might respond to the finished product. "I hope they'll laugh and cry and be very confused about why they're laughing and why they're crying."
Finally, the holiday break called, he set off for home with his youngest son, Max, who was visiting his father on location. "What time do we get to London, Dad?" asked Max.
"This is not the part of the journey to ask that question," replied Irons.
"Because we might get stuck in Dallas for fourteen hours."
"Why fourteen?" asked Max, but his father was on to another matter.
"You know how to make God laugh?" he asked. "Tell him your plans."
Max frowned. "I don't get that at all," he said.
Irons ruffled his son's blond hair. "Well," he said, "you may have to live a bit longer to get it."
Throughout the filming, everyone affiliated with Lyne's Lolita had stressed that his was no cinematic remake but a picture truer in form and spirit to Nabokov's novel. This was Lyne's abiding intent and the achievement of his meticulously assembled initial cut, in which the camera caresses Lolita's nubile form and Humbert has his way with her while she reads the comics. But this version might never reach a theater near you in its stark entirety, for Lyne, while adopting a rawly explicit approach to sexual concerns that Nabokov dealt with by inference, was contractually bound to deliver an R-rated film based on material whose nature strained the limits of NC-17 in its most unabashed reading.
Months after principal photography concluded in February 1996, the movie did not have a distributor. Speaking with the British press, Jeremy Irons fretted that it might never get one. "Every time he opens his mouth," grumbled one of Lolita's flacks, "we get in trouble."
In fact, the film's producers were not seeking distribution until the final print was ready, a procedure Lyne instituted with his flagrant 9 1/2 Weeks. Still, there were rumors. In one, failure of nerve prompted Lyne to domesticate the enterprise into "a $40 million art-house movie." In another, prospective distributors, chastened members of an industry denounced for licentiousness, were questioning Lolita's suitability for audiences.
"If I were doing a movie about a thirteen-year-old getting chopped up by cannibals," Lyne was quoted as saying, "there'd be no problem."
In time, dire tales about Lolita's fate became as much a part of Los Angeles mealtime fare as decaffeinated cappuccino, even if their most telling aspect was that the project's nature allowed them to fester. In june, at a reading of the novel given by Irons, a brief corrective was offered by the author's son, translator, and literary executor. "I have no doubt that Lolita will be an excellent movie" said Dmitri Nabokov, and I have no doubt that it will find an excellent distributor."
Soon after, Lyne told an Entertainment Weekly reporter, "Anybody trying to translate this novel into a film is doomed, because the novel is so extraordinary," and was appalled to find himself quoted around the world as saying, "This movie was doomed from the start." Following that misunderstanding, officials of Chargeurs, the French company financing the movie, instructed Lolita's participants to reserve discussions with the press for later.
In early September, one year after he began making Lolita, Lyne watched an edited segment of it. While shooting, he had forced himself to stay silent during a final scene, when Irons chose to play Humbert's first glimpse of Lolita, after years of absence, with a face that literally shook. "That was kind of over-the-top," Lyne thought, watching him do it. "Yet when you look at it," he told a colleague after screening it, "it breaks your fucking heart." Lyne had labored to be true to the novel. And his efforts, as had Nabokov's, had produced a reproof of human nature that also was an elegy for the human condition. "I think it will work," said Lyne, "if people can get past the subject matter."
Dominique Swain was restless. She missed the attention. Most of all, she missed Adrian Lyne, who had recently delighted her by sending flowers on her birthday and attending her school play. In summer, she had enrolled in junior lifeguard training, and the day it ended, her mother picked her up at the beach and drove her home. She leaned out the car window. "Goodbye, guys!" she shouted to her friends. No one responded. "Oh, God!" she said. "Nobody cares!"
Lately, she was staying out late, not calling home when she should. Playing Lolita had satisfied Dominique's longings but only temporarily, and now it was her turn to discover that answered prayers are hard to contend with. Her mother, not sure how to handle her, called Lyne. He promised to talk to Dominique, who was now sixteen, four years older than Lolita at the onset of her liaison with Humbert. But however much Lyne was compelled and intoxicated by the improprieties of Lolita, as a man in his fifties with a twenty-one-year marriage and a family, he understood that the standards one accepts in art are not necessarily those one lives by. So, reaching Dominique, a parental Adrian Lyne wanted to know, "Are you staying squeaky-clean, m'darlin'?"