Remembering Sue Lyon, Golden Globe Winner, 1946-2019

by Yoram Kahana January 21, 2020
Actress Sue Lyon, Golden Globe winner

lee sporkin/shooting star

Sue Lyon, Stanley Kubrick's Lolita who died at 73, was the fourth-youngest actor to win a Golden Globe. Lyon was 14 years old when she won in 1963 as Most Promising Newcomer - Female, a Golden Globe category that was discontinued in 1983. Lyon won for playing the title role in the film version of Vladimir Nabokov's controversial novel about a middle-aged man, pedophile Humbert Humbert,  obsessed with 12-year-old Dolores "Dolly" Haze, the daughter of his landlady.

While Lyon appeared in over 20 television shows and feature movies after Lolita until her retirement in 1980, she was mostly known and remembered for that one role. Nabokov, Lolita's author who adapted his novel to the screen, approved of her performance and called her "the perfect nymphet", the same sobriquet he used for the character he has written. Critics disagreed, seeing her as more mature.

The novel created a scandal when it was first published, in English. It roiled the zeitgeist in 1955 when liberalizing winds met the resistance of censorship and prudery. The restrictive Motion Pictures Production Code still smothered Hollywood, and Kubrick filmed Lolita under the radar, in the U.K. Sue and her mother were living at a secret address in London, and a newspaper wrote: "the young actress has been guarded, watched and hidden away as if she were a pack of atomic secrets."

"All that"  Kubrick said in a 1970 interview, prevented him from "capturing the full forbidden essence of the novel...Because of all the pressure over the Production Code and the Catholic Legion of Decency at the time, I believe I didn’t sufficiently dramatize the erotic aspect of Humbert’s relationship with Lolita”. Star photographer Bert Stern created the iconic poster image, featuring Lyon lounging in a bikini while wearing sunglasses shaped as two hearts, and sucking on a red lollipop, all props that did not appear in the movie. The publicity tagline was  “How did they ever make a movie of ‘Lolita’?”.

The talented cast was led by James Mason, playing Humbert, a visiting middle-aged British professor, who marries the widowed mother of the teen-aged Lolita, played by Shelley Winters. Peter Sellers was a mysterious chameleon-like character, who competes for Lolita's favors. The movie was not embraced by critics or awards. The Academy, BAFTA, DGA, and Venice doled out just one nomination each. But the HFPA, ahead of the times, gave Lolita four more nominations in addition to Lyon's award, recognizing the director and the three leading actors, Winters, Mason and Sellers.

Sue Lyon and Stanley Kubrick

With Stanley Kubrick on the set of Lolita.

sunset boulevard/corbis/getty images

 

Suellyn Lyon was born on July 10, 1946, in Davenport, Iowa, the youngest of five children. Her father died before her first birthday, and her mother moved the family to Los Angeles. There Lyon helped bring income by doing catalog modeling and minor roles on television shows. An appearance on The Loretta Young Show caught director Kubrick's eye. He urged her to audition for Lolita, saying, "She has a great natural ability... She's a one-in-a-million find." On her part, Lyon would say later that she just " went as a lark."

She was called back for three more interviews, followed by a screen test, and was cast, it was said, over 800 other applicants. “Even in the way she walked in for her interview, casually sat down, walked out, she was cool"... Kubrick said later. “She was enigmatic... She could get people guessing how much Lolita knew about life.”

Having started her movie career near the top, by playing the title role for a world-class director, Lyon went on to be directed by two other cinema greats: John Huston (The Night of the Iguana, 1964, five Golden Globe nominations) and John Ford (Seven Women, 1966, his last movie).

In Huston’s film, Lyon retained some of her Lolita traces, this time playing the 16-year-old niece of the leader of a Baptist school in Mexico who again seduces an older man, a defrocked priest turned tour guide, played by Richard Burton,  “You’re as dangerous as you are young and lovely,” he tells her.

In Seven Women she played a young missionary in 1935 rural China, caught between the attention of the jealous mission's matron, Margaret Leighton, and the youngster's attraction to a visiting American atheist doctor. Lyon's performances stood out, but these movies did not do well, and her career declined.

Leading roles as a grown-up also did not catch fire. She was the romantic interest in The Flim-Flam Man (1966), opposite con men George C. Scott and Michael Sarrazin, co-starred with private eye Frank Sinatra in the neo-noir Tony Rome (1967) and was the long-suffering wife of George Hamilton in the biopic of the popular stunt man daredevil Evel Knievel (1971). Her career declined to international low budget thrillers and some guest appearances on TV shows. After completing a 1980 horror movie, Alligator, she called it quits.

Her personal life did not help her career either. Lyon married and divorced five times. Her first was a Lolita-like affair, when at 17 she married older, divorced actor Hampton Fancher III.  Just 14 months later she was in divorce court, telling the judge that "I was alone and miserable... most of the time". Her second marriage created controversy when in July 1971, Lyon, then 24, married Roland B. Harrison, 33, a black photographer and football coach, divorced with five children. America and especially Hollywood were not yet ready to accept intermarriage, and the couple moved away to Spain where they had a daughter, Nona. But the controversy and pressure were unbearable and they divorced less than a year after the wedding. Her next marriage was even more controversial. Lyon was living in Denver with her toddler, and working as a cocktail waitress in a night club, when she met, through mutual friends, a convict doing time for second-degree murder and robbery, Gary "Cotton" Adamson. Sue married  Cotton and began working for prison reform and conjugal rights. A year later Adamson broke out and committed another robbery. Lyon divorced him, saying: “I’ve been told by people in the movie business, specifically producers and film distributors, that I won’t get a job because I’m married to Cotton.”

Lyon married and divorced twice more, the last time in 2002. She never acted again, refused to give interviews, to be photographed or appear in public. Only when Lolita was re-made in 1997, she told Reuters: "I am appalled they should revive the film that caused my destruction as a person."