PUTTING NABOKOV'S NYMPHET ON FILM WAS A DREAM PROJECT FOR DIRECTOR ADRIAN LYNE. FINDING SOMEBODY TO RELEASE HIS MOVIE IN AMERICA HAS BEEN HIS NIGHTMARE.
BY RACHEL ABRAMOWITZ
PHOTOGRAPHED BY MARY ELLEN MARK
ADRIAN LYNE HAS A LOT of metaphors for describing how people are treating his film Lolita. Today, he uses snow. There was a flurry of interest from a number of studios, and then suddenly it all melted away. Vanished. Poof. It is mid-May 1997, seven years after the rights to Vladimir Nabokov's masterpiece fell into his lap, almost two years since Lyne began production on his dream project, and several months since Lyne has begun to realize that his Lolita, which he thinks is the best movie he has ever made, may never light up the screens of his adopted homeland, America.
Lyne is the kind of 55-year-old who normally carries himself like an enthusiastic teen -filmdom's answer to Paul McCartney, complete with shaggy Prince Valiant hair, rumpled affability, and Technicolor blue eyes that leap out of a ruddy English face. Today, though, he hunches over his shrimp cocktail and red wine, in a banquette at Balthazar, New York's trendiest bistro, looking dazed and trampled.
Lyne says he's beyond the depression that beset him several weeks ago, when he -a determined optimist- finally began to understand how difficult it would be for his picture to ever find an American distributor. "There have been so many body blows that I'm fairly inured to it," he says, seeming to feign a weary detachment. Nabokov's tome was published in Europe three years before it found an American publisher willing to take on its story of an older man's obsessive affair with a barely teenage girl. Likewise, Lolita has found a number of willing distributors overseas, but in the U.S. it's been met with the sound of doors quietly closing.
Legendary executive John Calley told Lyne that his Lolita was "unequivocally extraordinary" after he saw 50 minutes back in the fall. At the time, Galley headed United Artists, the only major studio not owned by a larger conglomerate. Now Calley is Sony's point person in Hollywood, and that studio passed on the project because, one of Calley's minions told Lyne, it didn't think the movie would be profitable in this "political climate." Time Warner's largest shareholder is Ted Turner, who barred TNT from showing the controversial Bastard Out of Carolina. Paramount Motion Picture Group chairman Sherry Lansing, who produced Lyne's Fatal Attraction and Indecent Proposal, said she would have done it if the price had been right (not to mention the fact that her boss, Jonathan Dolgen, didn't want to pick up the movie). And so on, down the list of Hollywood chieftains. Even the independent distributors -now also mostly owned by various multinational corporations- balked. After seeing a finished cut, Harvey Weinstein, of Disney's art-house wing, Miramax, offered the producers the conundrum "Loved the filmmaking, but it's not for me."
"I have piles of letters, at least 20 or 30, from different people" -agents and executives- "who say how overwhelmed and moved they were by the picture," says Lyne, words tumbling out of his mouth. "I've never had that. They say they've talked about the movie for days after; they tell me, 'It's your best work,' and suddenly they become mute.
"People are acting as they're told to react by the powers that be, by the corporate people, who don't want the heat," says Lyne. "I sometimes wonder how they live with themselves -the executives- if their taste means nothing, if in the end they just have to toe the party line. One executive told me, 'You have to understand, I'm a pod now.'
"I think, What do people want?" he adds plaintively. "Do they really just want Independence Day?"
Child’s Play: Director Adrian Lyne and his Lolita, Dominique Swain. "Why do you worry so much?" she asked him on the set.
WITH A MARTIN SCORSESE movie, there is always a presumption of art; with an Adrian Lyne movie, there is always a presumption of smut. For the last ten years, Lyne has spearheaded the commercialization of screen sex, creating an arena where concupiscent romping meets shopping in a dizzying blend of ripped T-shirts, twirling limbs, and smoke. In 9/2 Weeks or Fatal Attraction, copulation isn't an act of intimacy but a kinky, full-throttle battle of the sexes.
Sex has also earned the studios that have released Lyne's films nearly a billion dollars; and his films have earned the filmmaker both the town's approbation and occasional ridicule. While Lyne's cinematic bravura suggests the potential for greatness, it's almost always obscured by his inclination to pander. Lyne poses such genuinely provocative questions that his movies become cultural referendums on the sexual zeitgeist. "What should be the cost of adultery?" asked Fatal Attraction. "Would you sleep with a man for a million dollars?" teased Indecent Proposal. But Lyne didn't examine these questions so much as exploit them, which is why people who haven't seen his Lolita assume the worst: that he's set out to make pedophilia sexy. (Ironically enough, though, because of the mandate for an R rating -and, as it happens, a federal law- scant actual sex remains in Lyne's Lolita.)
Almost all of Lyne's protagonists have been morally ambivalent; Humbert Humbert, a man who seduces his stepdaughter, is by far the diciest. Especially in the charged climate of the 1990s, when child abuse is a staple of the 6 o'clock news. After a career dedicated to locating our cultural hot buttons, Lyne has found one that nobody wants to touch.
To make a film of Lolita today means working in the shadows of two geniuses: Nabokov, the Russian émigré who looms as one of the century's greatest writers, and director Stanley Kubrick, whose 1962 version of Lolita is as celebrated as it is cold. Critics have mocked Lyne's ambitions, and he has taken to mocking them himself. His oft-repeated mantra is "The book is so great, you're doomed to fail."
“I’m just trying to be honest to the novel," he says over his second glass of red wine. "But not slavishly, and not overly reverent. There are dangers in being overly reverent.
"Elton John told me that I was either the stupidest fool or the bravest man in Hollywood."
THERE WAS A TIME, almost two years ago, when Lyne was happy, in love with his film, his stars, his Lolita.
The scene is an elaborate theater stage in New Orleans where two dozen dewy teenage girls -dressed in schoolgirl uniforms with sashes of blue and pink chiffon- chatter, scamper, and wait, the living incarnation of Nabokov's "thin-armed nymphets." Like a boy chasing fireflies, Lyne is corralling them to re-create a campy school pageant.
His mood might be termed stressed-out ebullience. "Ladies, all in your parts, however small. I want you to concentrate on being an archer," he calls out in loving English tones. He has already orchestrated the many cameras, including the one that will swoop down from the balcony. He rehearses again. "Nymphs, nymphs," he calls out, "let's see the poses.... Go slower, spearchucker…”
In the center of the stage are Dominique Swain, the actress who plays Lolita's title character, and Erin I. Dean, who plays her best friend, Mona. Lyne doesn't simply want them to be doing good bad-acting. He's coaxing them to be more teenager-ish and insular, young girls goofing off, mouthing their lines to one another.
Part of the joke is that Mona is rendered more obviously sexual, with brightly painted lips and a lascivious, grown-up drawl. By contrast, Swain is coltish and free. When Lyne cast her, he waxed poetic about the rubbery, amorphous quality of her face -a face that hadn't yet found its adult mold. (He doesn't know that his Lolita will later languish, while an older Swain will be seen in Face/Off, as an already fully ripened teen.)
Swain's trademark seems to be a fearless entitlement; the confidence that soars before the arrival of real adolescence. She got the part of Lolita after sending in a homemade videotape of her reading the book. Her reading was less notable than her presence. Lyne says she has ended up often playing herself.
But not in the sex scenes. As he awaits the lighting to be done, Lyne explains that it is primarily a body double who is performing in those sequences. He gamely relates his plan to visually graft Swain's head onto her double's occasionally writhing, naked form -much the way he intercut Jennifer Beals and the real flashdancer in Flashdance. He eagerly shows off some recent footage of Swain steadfastly moving her foot up the thigh of Jeremy Irons, who plays Humbert Humbert; of a lust-addled Irons watching Swain do her homework, her legs swung over the desk, bathed in a golden glow.
Any time you can see her underwear, we have to use the other girl," chirps Lyne, his face alight with excitement. He thumps on his chest. "It's sexy, isn't it!" Later he admits that "you can get used to the subject matter and you have to pinch yourself. Then you remember it's appalling."
"She doesn't care [about the sex]," insists the director, who ensures that there is a pillow placed between any sensitive spot where Swain's and Irons's bodies might touch. Her mother cares more, and I do [too]." Indeed, while Swain has the girlish privilege of freedom, her mother has the womanly responsibility of fear. A tall redhead, Cindy Swain, an older dopplegänger of her daughter, lopes around the set with a permanently furrowed brow -constantly scrutinizing Dominique.
She's not the only one. There is hardly a moment when the popular young star is not being feted and cosseted by some member of the vast 200-person crew. The makeup people fuss. The grips flirt. A propman dons some pink chiffon and dances in front of her to make her laugh.
Her biggest audience, of course, is Lyne, who treats his Lolita with high adoration. Swain bounds onto the set, trailed by her younger sister, and throws her arms around the director. "Why do you worry so much?" she coos. She snaps a picture of Lyne with a friend. She drapes a plastic necklace around his neck. She teases him about his laughter. He turns red and laughs some more. (When Irons arrived on the set after a month of shooting, he seemed miffed to find that Lyne had completely hijacked Swain's affections.)
Later on, Swain is gamely having her hands massaged. Her arms are all swollen from a fight scene shot yesterday, in which she pummeled Irons with her fists. "Jeremy hit me by accident. I really couldn't take it."
It's probably best, for now, that Swain believe that Irons hit her by accident. In fact, Lyne had asked Irons to thwack the fifteen-year-old Swain once for real: "It really helped her performance."
Swing Time: Irons, Swain, and Griffith (from left) form a gruesome parody of the nuclear family in Lyne's film.
NABOKOV's HUMBERT IS both sick and hilarious, delineating his obsession with some of the most inspired prose in the English language -"There is nothing more atrociously cruel than an adored child," intones the supremely self-involved, notoriously unreliable narrator. Humbert's passion can be seen as a literary conceit; indeed, Nabokov said Lolita could be described as a record of his love affair with the English language.
The writer, at heart, was an ironist. By contrast, Lyne is a romantic. The salaciousness of his movies aside, his real obsession is with the question of whether to love means to possess. In 9 1/2 Weeks, Mickey Rourke's character demands total submission. In Fatal Attraction, Glenn Close's Alex battles to own the hapless husband played by Michael Douglas. In Lolita, Humbert keeps his nymphet in peripatetic captivity.
While few confuse literature with life, many confuse movies with life. Lyne thinks what people find discomfiting about his movie is that it does not release them from culpability as voyeurs enjoying the spectacle.
"The book is ambivalent about Humbert. There's no simplistic condemnation," says Lyne, elaborating on the freedom that is allowed readers but denied viewers. "Humbert, in Kubrick's film, is never made despicable."
Indeed, Kubrick dodges the whole sticky question of sex by substituting satire for obsession. His Lolita is cerebral slapstick that defuses the discomfort evoked by the idea of a grown man bedding a little girl. James Mason is a neutered, dog-eyed Humbert; his desire is simply the off-screen engine of the plot, much like the violence in a Greek drama.
"With Jeremy's portrayal, the man is a monster, but we don't just hate him," says Lyne. "People find that troubling.
"When he sees her at the end, when she's pregnant by, by the other man, and she's no longer the nymphet that he was attracted to, he still loves her. It says in the novel [that] she was the 'dead-leaf echo' of what he had once known, with ropy hands and a swollen belly."
Lyne fantasizes Humbert's staying with Lolita, finding a kind of redemption. "It's naive to say he would've been cured, but I think, I think, that in a sense he would've been, actually," says Lyne. "That [desire to stay with Lolita] made him not just a generic pedophile. However strange and however awful the story is, it's still a love story."
ROPE SKIPPING, HOPSCOTCH... Ah, leave me alone in my pubescent park, in my mossy garden. Let them play around me forever. Never grow up.
-from Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov
In the age of Spielberg, it has become axiomatic to say that film directors are people who don't want to grow up. Lyne is no exception, less a businessman cum artist than an artist with lots of big, expensive toys.
Lyne likes to operate on pure creative id, and in the past has relied on a variety of strong-willed producers to serve as his fiscal superego. Lolita, however, was produced by Mario Kassar (at one time the industry's biggest sugar daddy, who is now being investigated by the IRS), and MK Productions' Joel B. Michaels. Kassar permitted Lyne everything his heart desired -including a parade of pricey screenwriters, among them Harold Pinter and David Mamet. In his search for perfect authenticity, Lyne retraced Humbert and Lolita's two road trips across the United States, and even flew to France for a sequence from Humbert's youth.
Lyne wound up shooting around 90 days. An average movie shoots 60-odd days; an average day of shooting costs over $125,000. Lyne's schedule drove Lolita's budget up to an estimated $50 million-and put off its intended American studio, Fox 2000-before even a frame was shot. The French company Chargeurs stepped into the breach with open, unquestioning arms and an open checkbook. No American distributor was in place, but Lyne and the producers, confident in their product, decided to worry about that later.
IN THE FALL OF 1995, Lyne and his production are in North Carolina, shooting Humbert's slaying of Quilty (Frank Langella), his Lolita-stealing nemesis, played so brilliantly by Peter Sellers in the Kubrick version. (Lolita's remaining lead character, Charlotte Haze, is played here by Melanie Griffith, taking the role Shelley Winters had in Kubrick's film.) Quilty's abode is an elaborate, garish plantation mansion.
As ever, Lyne is hyper and enthusiastic, full of tricks to snatch bits of reality out of artifice, and so perfectionistic that he operates the camera himself at times. This morning, he's filming the maniacal Humbert's fixing his gun on the hungover Quilty.
Irons is clearly wrought up. Alternately determined and fragile, he is swathed in a gray blazer, his face pale and clammy. This scene is essentially Humbert's suicide -the killing off of his secret sharer, an act that will end his own life as he knows it. Irons is watching his own performance like a hawk. He and Lyne intently discuss whether Humbert should stand or sit when he draws his gun.
Irons wants to stand. In his cheery way, Lyne is working on him to sit, ignoring Irons's mounting frustration, until the actor finally fumes, "I don't tell you where to put the camera. Why are you telling me how to act!"
Lyne furiously shuts down the set. Five minutes stretches into 10, into 30. The actors retreat to their trailers.
The burden of making Lolita has fallen heavily on Irons, who feels that he is being ostracized from the rest of the cast and crew because of the sins of his character.
"Normally what I do, what any actor does, if he has a relationship within the film, you sort of live that relationship during the film," explains Irons later. "I don't mean you have an affair, but you get close to them. You play with them on- and off-screen. With Dominique, I couldn't really do that, because everyone was terrified." Irons himself grew so disturbed by Humbert's proclivities that Swain sometimes had to coax him back into performing by reassuring him that she was in fact fine.
Like James Mason before him, Irons initially balked at the opportunity to play Humbert. He didn't want to add another weirdo to his repertoire, which includes drug-addled twins in Dead Ringers and Claus von Bülow. In his search for Humbert, Lyne talked to both Warren Beatty and Anthony Hopkins; both were deemed too old. He contemplated Hugh Grant, who was deemed too young. But he returned again and again to Irons, and began wearing down the actor's resolve.
After a long conference in the trailer, Lyne and Irons return side by side, determinedly jolly -all made up. Irons stands for the scene (apparently it was his turn to wear down Lyne's resolve), and performs with fierce, soul-annihilating intensity. The crew applauds.
"How did I do? Did I lose ignominiously?" Lyne asks jokingly.
ALMOST A YEAR AFTER Lyne has finished shooting, he is still in an editing room, meticulously piecing together his masterpiece. "I don't know how to do it quickly," sighs Lyne, who has spent months whittling the movie down from its initial four-and-a-half-hour cut to just over two hours.
Lyne seems older than he was when he was buzzing about the Lolita set. The lack of a commitment from an American distributor has begun to eat away at his confidence, as has a steady whispering campaign about his film. While Lyne relishes controversy, he doesn't like being what he fears he might be becoming -a pariah.
He has also had to spend several weeks sitting with a lawyer, going over the film with a finetooth comb to make sure it conforms to the strict new language of the Child Pornography Prevention Act of 1996. It is now illegal not only to show a child having sex but to even make it look as if a child is engaging in sexual conduct. Hence, most of the footage of Swain's head atop a grown woman's body has been excised. During this defanging of his film, Lyne's loud tantrums have reverberated down the hallways of the building.
He brings out a series of cuts to demonstrate what has been done to Lolita. He chooses a notorious scene from the novel in which Lolita is sitting on Humbert's naked lap, "picking her nose while engrossed in the lighter sections of a newspaper, as indifferent to my ecstasy as if it were something she had sat upon, a shoe, a doll, the handle of a tennis racket, and was too indolent to remove."
In his outline of the movie, which he gave to the screenwriters, Lyne wrote, "The scene could be funny, intercutting the cartoon characters, her nose-picking indifference, and Humbert crazed with lust."
The first version begins with Lolita blithely reading the funnies astride a nude Humbert. It is gradually revealed that they are making love -Lolita's torso arches in ecstasy as she is entered from the rear by Humbert. Mercifully, it will be kept from public view.
In the next version, the whole lovemaking part of the scene has been reduced to symbolic imagery, Humbert's naked body pressed against Lolita's pajama-clad frame, her face contorted orgasmically.
Lyne has been pleading with the lawyers to let him use a third take, which is almost identical to the tamer version, save for the addition of Humbert's hand brushing along Lolita's naked thigh. It is a cut that clarifies that Humbert is not simply masturbating against the back of his Dolly.
The tone of the scene has migrated from the initial humorous and grotesque intent to arrive, in the finished product, at horror.
Lyne will soon aver that the mandated cuts actually improve the film. In truth, however, there are moments when the movie feels truncated. Ironically, it is not Lolita's naked flesh that is missed but Humbert's desperate, unrequited love. It has often been said that men show love through sex, and Jeremy Irons has been denied this avenue of expression.
Aside from the sex, Lolita turns out to be missing many of the Lyne trademarks -jarring MTV cutting, people as pretty and shallow as objects, jet-speed pacing. The result is a fascinating but flawed endeavor, boasting a terrific performance by Dominique Swain, who vivifies Lolita. Inspired in its depiction of its perverse central relationship, the movie wallows in too much prettiness, with flourishes of self-indulgence. The director's romanticism has left too high a gloss -would a child of twelve really enjoy being penetrated from behind while reading the funnies?
BY THE TIME THE FILM is finished, Lyne seems disingenuously contrite -at least about the money he has spent. He always wanted to make his Lolita a road movie, but claims to have envisioned a long shooting schedule with a lean crew: "Wim Wenders made Paris, Texas with a handful of people going across the country," he says with impatience. "We could [have made] the movie cheaply. We ended up employing 200 people." He professes no regrets about the movie itself. Weeks ago, he stopped blaming himself for Lolita's release woes.
He test-screened Lolita in December of 1996 in Pasadena, California. He was too nervous to allow the audience to fill out response cards, but afterward the market researchers held focus groups. In one group, the fourteen test moviegoers were asked if they liked Lolita. Close to half raised their hands, indicating to the filmmakers that the audience, despite its disapproval of Lolita, was enthralled by it. They were then asked how many would recommend the film. Strangely, thirteen out of fourteen raised their hands. After the same screening, Dmitri Nabokov, the author's son and translator, plugged into the Internet to broadcast his reaction -"Stunning."
If there is anything Hollywood mogulets don't want to talk about, however, it's Lolita. For some, it represents a clash between their generally liberal politics and their fear of provoking a conservative backlash. Others more simply don't love the movie. As one studio chief puts it, "If people really thought this was a great film, they'd find a way to [release] it." Then there's the economic question: How could a $50 million art film make its money back?
Lyne and his producer, Joel B. Michaels, scoff at what they see as a smoke screen. If the studios' objections had truly been about money, there would have been haggling. In May, Lyne's agent, ICM head Jeff Berg, tried to reopen negotiations with more advantageous terms for the studios, but he doesn't seem to have gotten anywhere.
By mid-July, Lyne himself has begun to lose faith, especially in light of recent events in Oklahoma, where local police went into video stores and at least one private home to confiscate video copies of Volker Schlöndorff's Oscar-winning classic The Tin Drum, after a judge said the film contained child pornography according to Oklahoma law. "My jaw dropped," Lyne recalls. "That could be a floodgate. That means that Rambling Rose -any coming-of-age movie- is suspect. It's frightening. Until that happened, I thought someone would pick up Lolita, but now I wonder really...” The director was looking forward to a public hearing, his opportunity to prove that he was more than a slick purveyor of commercial entertainments.
One of the scenes in Lolita Lyne finds most affecting is the confrontation between Humbert and Quilty, the scene he shot in North Carolina. Lyne paraphrases Humber's
words in it. "You stole my redemption," he says ruefully, "my chance at redemption."