by Bob Armstrong

Humbert, Lolita’s step-father, is a dirty old man. Today he’d be a registered sex offender, at least tagged, probably in a body bag after the neighborhood watch dog committee decided it would be best to hire a hit man for some rough justice. But over forty years ago Humbert, a pervy college professor, let the world know his taste for rope-skipping, hopscotch-playing, lollipop-sucking Lolita.

Vladimir Nabokov’s masterpiece, published by Olympia Press in Paris in 1955, was initially rejected by four American publishers, then finally released by Putman in 1958.

From the states to Europe and back again. So too the current movie of Lolita, airing on Showtime cable this month after playing in Europe last year. “This movie was doomed from the start,” director Adrian Lyne told Entertainment Weekly two years ago after completing the film. But the director of Indecent Proposal, Flashdance and Fatal Attraction knows a thing or two about the value of hype and controversy. Many films get a good deal of publicity before they are released, but the tease on Lolita has been building for two years with splashy stories in major magazines and newspapers.

“It’s an incredibly disturbing story,” said Lyne. “But it’s also hilariously funny, tragic and heartbreaking. The novel is a magnificent work of art–which is why I’m so terrified of it. But then, why wouldn’t I want to try and film it? Just because it involves pedophilia?

Pedophilia doesn’t quite make it for a summer blockbuster, although the possibility of deep impact by a lizard monster stomping across Utah after 12-year-old Morman nymphets might get the green light from the studios.

Jeremy Irons plays Humbert and newcomer Dominique Swain drives him bonkers as Lolita. About 2000 girls auditioned for the role. Swain, a 14-year-old freshman at Malibu High at the time, landed the part. “One moment she looked nine years old, the next you could see her sensuality,” said Lyne. In the 1962 version of the film directed by Stanley Kubrick, the title role went to Sue Lyons who looked more bad girl than girl-child.

At an early screening of the film for producers, Hollywood’s initial reaction was just what Lyne predicted: don’t call us, we’ll call you. Sony, Fox, Paramount, Universal and Trimark passed, most of the executives saying the film was dull and did not have commercial appeal. To some extent, the latter charge is true. It falls roughly into the category of an “art film,” meaning the gross receipts at the box office will be nowhere near the blockbuster mark.

But Hollywood churns out lots of films knowing the profits will not be astronomical. Although controversy over the subject matter of a film frequently spurs producers on, in this case they figured Lolita was too hot to handle–at the time.

As it happened, Lyne’s camera had Dominique Swain rolling in the sheets at the same time the country’s moral cops–the U.S Congress–passed the Child Pornography Prevention Act of 1966. The fact that a body double for Swain over the age of 18 played the juicy scenes with Jeremy Irons makes no difference. The act says it is against the law to produce any “visual depiction, including any photograph, film, video image or picture” that “is, or appears to be, of a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct” As a result, Lyne had to take out the shots using a body double.

After Showtime snapped up the film, Hollywood had second thoughts. Samuel Goldwyn films cut a deal with Showtime to release Lolita in movie theaters in September after it has aired on television. Jeff Lipsky, Goldwyn’s head of marketing, offered a nice spin on a cable to theater film: “We view the Showtime airing as a national sneak preview.”

“My poor Lolita is having a rough time,” Nabokov wrote to Graham Greene when he was taking flak for the book in the fifties. “The pity is that if I had made her a boy, or a cow, or a bicycle, philistines might never have flinched.”

What disturbed people about the book then and the film now is not pedophilia, but the ambiguous portrait of Humbert who can’t be easily stereotyped as an ugly, creepy child molester. Women are attracted to Humbert, a refined, witty European professor teaching French literature in a small New England town. He gets hooked up with a beautiful widow , mother of Lolita, and trouble bubbles thereafter.

Humbert and Lolita take off on a cross-country journey spending most of their times in Hillcrest Courts and Sunset motels. During their doomed love affair Lolita is both seductive and a howling child. Humbert at times seems to be the victim of Lolita rather than the other way around. One critic reviewing the book suggested the story was a metaphor for a decayed Europe out to molest young America only to find the “virgin land” more corrupt than geezer Europe could imagine.

However dangerous the pedophile’s deeds might be, women find a greater threat imagining, correctly, that many older men not only want to be with a younger woman, but a teenager. Only the chosen few got to bang the cheerleader in high school and the memory of her swaying pom-poms remains all too vivid in the minds of men who never had a chance with her.

Worse than the Sweet 16 dream is the nightmare of an attraction like Humbert’s for a pre-pub girl of 12 or 13. Knowing there are men floating around like that understandably frightens parents of young girls. Then Humbert comes into full view and there’s a good chance those same parents might actually feel sympathetic toward this guy who knows he is destroying his own life and Lolita’s life. But they are laughing and crying because the story is funny and tragic. When the art is great, shit happens.

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