Most movie buffs know that Sue Lyon was an unknown when she was cast as Dolores "Lolita" Haze in Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. Many might also know that nearly 800 girls auditioned for the part. What they might not know is that Kubrick had also considered some young actresses who were actually somewhat famous at the time.
Of course, casting Lolita presented Kubrick with some significant problems, as did the entire production of the movie. The novel Lolita had been a source of controversy from the beginning. Nabokov finished the novel in 1953, but due to its subject matter was unable to find a publisher until resorting to Olympia Press in Paris, who published the book in 1955. Even after Graham Greene gave the novel high marks in an interview with The Times, the novel proved scandalous in the United Kingdom. The editor of the Sunday Express referred to it as sheer "unrestrained pornography." The Home Office ordered British Customs officers to confiscate all copies of the novel. This would be followed by a ban in France that would last for two years. Amazingly enough, in the traditionally more puritanical United States the novel was published with little ado. In fact, it became the first novel in the United States since Gone with the Wind to sell 100,000 copies in its first three weeks.
Even today it is easy to understand the controversy over the novel and why it presented Stanley Kubrick with problems in its motion picture adaptation. After all, the novel centres upon the middle aged Humbert Humbert who becomes obsessed with Lolita, who at the start of the novel is only twelve years old. The portrayal of an obviously disturbed, middle aged man in a relationship with an adolescent would obviously have difficulties meeting with approval from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Indeed, it is because MPAA would permit no suggestion of paedophilia that at the start of the film Lolita is fourteen years old. Beyond making Lolita older, the MPAA also required that Stanley Kubrick cast someone who looked more mature. He had been warned strongly against using a less mature looking actress in the role. Beyond having to find a young woman who looked mature and could be convincing as a fourteen year old, Kubrick also had to find someone who could be convincing as the sexually precocious Lolita. Casting the part would not prove to be easy.
Stanley Kubrick's first suggestion as to who should play Lolita must have seemed obvious at the time and still seems obvious today. Tuesday Weld was already an experienced actress, having appeared in several movies and the first season of The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. Although still a teenager, her image was already somewhat sexualised. Indeed, it has been reported she was dropped from the cast of The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis because she was too sexy for a family sitcom. While Tuesday Weld seemed perfect for the role of Lolita, she turned it down. Years later in an interview, when asked why she turned down Lolita, she simply said, "I didn't have to play Lolita. I was Lolita."
Another young actress considered for the role of Lolita was the still relatively unknown Joey Heatherton. Although today Heatherton is remembered as a sex symbol of the late Sixties and early Seventies, at the time she was just beginning her acting and singing career. Joey Heatherton was the daughter of vaudevillian and Broadway veteran Ray Heatherton, who had appeared on Broadway in Babes in Arms and as host of the children's television show The Merry Mailman. In 1960 Joey Heatherton appeared on Broadway in There was a Little Girl and had appeared on The Perry Como Show and Route 66. Heatherton was among Kubrick's top choices as to who should play Lolita, but her father Ray Heatherton turned the part down for her. Ray Heatherton worried that his daughter might be typecast as a sexually precocious sex kitten. Ironically, this would be the sort of image that Joey Heatherton would cultivate as she grew older. In 1963 she made her film debut in Twilight of Honour, playing the rather untamed young wife of Nick Adams. The following year Heatherton played a role that was quite similar to Lolita Haze in Where Love Has Gone, in which she played a teenage girl who competed with her own mother (Susan Hayward) for the same man. By the late Sixties she would be one of the sex symbols of the era.
At the time the choice of Tuesday Weld to play Lolita must not have seemed very surprising. In retrospect the choice of Joey Heatherton to play the role does not seem very surprising either, although it must have at the time. That having been said, Stanley Kubrick had in mind another actress for the role whose choice would have seemed shocking then and still seems shocking now. Hayley Mills was the daughter of legendary British actor Sir John Mills (who had appeared in such films as Great Expectations and Goodbye Mister Chips). Her sister Juliet Mills had also gone into acting and already had a healthy career by 1960. Hayley Mills had made her film career while still a baby, alongside her father in the film So Well Remembered. It was in 1959 that Hayley Mills appeared in the film Tiger Bay, also alongside her father. The film attracted the attention of Disney, who cast her as Pollyanna in the 1960 film of the same name. She would then begin a long association with Disney, making six films for the studio. One film she would not make would be Lolita.
It is unclear today why Hayley Mills turned down the role of Lolita. In 1960 it was reported that it was Sir John Mills himself who made the decision. It would hardly be surprising if this was the case, as it is would be reasonable for any father to have concerns over his daughter playing such a role. Indeed, Ray Heatherton had exactly those same concerns. Later it was reported that it was Walt Disney who made the decision. This would not be surprising either. Historically Disney was very protective of the images of actors under contract to his studio. When Annette Funicello appeared in the "Beach Party" films for American International Pictures, Disney even placed restrictions on the sort of bathing suits she was allowed to wear. Both Sir John Mills and Walt Disney would have had very good reasons for not letting Hayley Mills play Lolita, and it even seems possible that both men made the decision. In fact, it even seems possible that Hayley Mills made the decision herself. As of 1960 Hayley Mills was only fourteen years old and her career was just beginning. It seems quite possible that Hayley Mills may not have felt ready for such a role or that she realised he possible repercussions it could have on her career.
Regardless, in retrospect it would seem that Hayley Mills was right in turning down Lolita. She had already appeared in Tiger Bay and Pollyanna. By the time Lolita was released, she would have appeared in The Parent Trap as well. With an image as a wholesome, if sometimes flippant teenager already in place, it seems doubtful that audiences would accept her as Lolita. Indeed, audiences would have trouble accepting her as a young newlywed in The Family Way (directed by her father) and as the object of Oliver Reed's affections in Take a Girl Like You. It seems possible that audiences would have rejected the idea of the girl who played Pollyanna playing Lolita outright.
As surprising as the choice of Hayley Mills to play Lolita might seem today, another choice at the time might seem even more surprising. James Mason, who would play Humbbert Humbert in the film, initially turned the role down to for a part in a Broadway play. Mason did recommend his daughter Portland Mason for the role Lolita. Portland Mason had already appeared in a film short directed by her father (The Child in 1954), the film The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, and several television shows. Eventually the part in the Broadway play fell through and Mason accepted the role of Humbert Humbert in the film. While it is unclear whether Portland Mason was ever in serious contention for the role, it seems likely that the casting of her father would have prevented her from being cast in the part. As the tale of a rather sick professor (Humbert Humbert) obsessed with a teenager, Lolita was already disturbing enough. It would have been much more disturbing had the man who played the professor also been the real life father of the teenager. Not only would the relationship between Humbert and Lolita have smacked of ephebophilia, but for many it might have smacked of incest as well. Of course, even if James Mason had not been cast in the role, it seems likely that Portland Mason would have never played the part. She would have turned twelve years old as of November, 1960. That would have made her far too young to play Lolita, who in the film starts out as a fourteen year old. Portland Mason's acting career would not last long. By 1968 she was no longer acting. Her most famous role may have been that of Georgina in The Great St. Trinian's Train Robbery.
Not having found an already established actress to play the role of Lolita, Stanley Kubrick was forced to conduct a talent search in which nearly 800 young women auditioned for the part. In the end it would be fourteen year old Sue Lyon who would be cast in the role. Lyon had been born in Davenport, Iowa, and had little acting experience. As of 1960 her only roles had been guest appearances on The Loretta Young Show and Dennis the Menace. Regardless, she was precisely what Stanley Kubrick was looking for. Although only fourteen, Lyon looked mature for her age, which would assuage the concerns of the MPAA. She also proved to be a capable actress, holding her own with such experienced actors as James Mason, Peter Sellers, and Shelley Winters. She even won the Golden Globe for Most Promising Newcomer – Female.
Although Lolita proved very controversial when it was released in 1962 (by which time Sue Lyon was sixteen years old), it also performed quite well at the box office. Unfortunately, while Lolita made her a star, her stardom would not last. In 1964 she played a role quite similar to Lolita, that of Charlotte in Night of the Iguana. This film also proved controversial. Unlike Tuesday Weld, Lyon would not be stuck in sex kitten roles. She played a missionary worker in 7 Women and the wealthy love interest in The Flim-Flam Man. Unfortunately, her star tbegan to decline in the late Sixties. By 1971 she was appearing in such roles as Evel Knieval's wife in Evel Knieval and making guest appearances on television shows. After 1980 she retired from acting.
Because of its very nature, Lolita proved to be a very difficult film to cast. The MPAA made it clear that it would allow no suggestion of paedophilia, so that Stanley Kubrick needed an actress who was young enough to be convincing as a teen, but looked mature enough that she would not be seen as a total child. At the same time the film's subject matter would prove to be a stumbling block in casting the role. Both Joey Heatherton and Hayley Mills turned down the role because of the subject matter itself. It is not surprising that in the end Kubrick had to conduct a talent search in which nearly 800 young women auditioned for the role.
Even today, when so much more is permitted on the screen, Lolita is a very disturbing film. After all, it is the story of a obviously troubled middle aged man who becomes obsessed with a girl who is only fourteen at the start of the movie. The movie made for uncomfortable viewing in 1962 and it continues to do so today. It is little wonder that Stanley Kubrick had some difficulty making the film.