Based on Vladimir Nabokov’s novel “Lolita,” Stanley Kubrick’s film took the story of a man driven by lust for his landlady’s seductive teenage daughter broke boundaries that have not been pushed again by contemporary Hollywood. And in the middle of it was starlet Sue Lyon who was critically praised for holding her own against the film’s heavyweights, James Mason, Shelley Winters and Peter Sellers. But after playing “Lolita,” Miss. Lyon seemed to disappear. Was it because she played the notorious “nymphet”? She thinks so.
Once the film’s director, Stanley Kubrick commenced the casting process, he knew what he was looking for – an girl who could play Lolita from age twelve to seventeen and who was more mature than her peers in body and mind. Many girls tested for the part, and many fame-seeking mothers sent disturbing letters of “my daughter really is Lolita” proclamations, but none of them came close to Sue Lyon. The twelve-year old model turned actress went to the audition based on the recommendation of her agent. It was when Kubrick and the casting team saw her, they knew she had “It.” Kubrick described in an interview, “. . .She had this wonderful, enigmatic, but alive quality of mystery, but was still very expressive.”
Having only appeared in an episode of “The Loretta Young Show” previously to her audition, Kubrick still wanted to know if she could act. After a few readings and a screen test, Kubrick knew he had his “Lolita.” Miss. Lyon was only fourteen at the time of shooting the film, only two years older than the character at the beginning of Nabokov’s novel. Due to the adult nature of the film, “Lolita” was shot in secret and Miss. Lyon was protected and guarded at all times during the production. It was not until post-production when Kubrick started running censorship problems, the public realized what Kubrick was up to, and as a result, the film’s tagline appeared on the poster as “How did they ever make a film about Lolita?”
As much as audiences did not want to admit that Lyon’s onscreen presence was fascinating and movie goers were undoubtedly exposed to a film full of seductive taboo not shown on the screen before. At the time of the film’s release, a wise 15-year old Lyon had commented on Kubrick’s version of Lolita with, “I feel sorry for her. She’s neurotic and pathetic and only interested in herself.” When award season came around, Kubrick’s “Lolita” garnered a decent amount of awards including a “Most Promising Newcomer” Golden Globe award for Lyon.
The “nymphet” typecast lasted for only one more film when Lyon portrayed “Charlotte Goodall” in “The Night of the Iguana” (1964). Afterwards, Lyon’s career turned into a string of relevant and irrelevant roles, mostly in television with the exception of the lead role in the film “The Flim-Flam Man” (1967) and a supporting role in “Tony Rome” (1967). By the time Miss. Lyon turned thirty-four, she decided to retire from acting. Her last film role being a newswoman in a low-budget sci-fi flick titled “Alligator” (1980).
At the time, the actress had already been diagnosed as a manic-depressive, divorced four times while taking care of one daughter. She gave an at-length interview about her early retirement from film, furthering the details of how the role of “Lolita” destroyed her sense of self, saying, “Lolita exposed me to temptations no girl of that age should undergo.” And she concluded the interview with, “Am I going to be Lolita when I’m 50? Much as I appreciated Lolita in her day, I’d like to leave her now.”
It was in 1998, Lyon spoke to a Reuters news service in the event of the “Lolita” remake, “I am appalled they should revive the film that caused my destruction as a person.” The remake, although closer to Nabokov’s novel than Kubrick’s film, grossed only $1 million dollars at the box office and was critically panned. As of today, Miss. Lyon remains a private person and rarely gives interviews.