Before helming such hits as 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining, Stanley Kubrick directed the controversial cult comedy Lolita, adapted from the Russian novel of the same name. The film followed a man that became romantically obsessed with his teenage stepdaughter, who was played by 14-year-old actress Sue Lyon. Sue went on to lead a tragic life, and she blamed much of her troubles on the experiences she had behind the scenes of Lolita. Join Facts Verse as we explore the tragic life and death of Sue Lyon.
Sue Lyon was born in Davenport, Iowa, on July 10, 1946. Her father died before her first birthday, leaving her and her four elder siblings alone with their mother. The family moved to Dallas, Texas, for a short period of time before eventually landing in Los Angeles, California. It was here that a 14-year-old Sue was cast to play the titular role in Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of the Russian novel Lolita.
Lolita premiered on January 13, 1962. While the film would likely not even get produced nowadays due to it’s problematic plot, it was controversial even for the time period. The film notably came out in the days before the creation of film ratings, when all films were forced to follow the strict guidelines of the Motion Picture Production Code. Because of this, the adaptation was forced to eschew much of the sexual material of the novel. As well, a creative decision was made to increase the titular character’s age from 12 to 14, hence the hiring of 14-year-old Sue.
Although the guidelines of the Motion Picture Production Code meant that Lolita was essentially a film that had been approved for all audiences, it still received a good deal of controversy upon it’s release. However, the adaptation was also met with a great deal of praise, and continues to receive critical acclaim to this day. Although the film arguably isn’t as widely remembered as Stanley Kubrick’s later works, it’s one of the most widely known of his earlier features. Lots of attention was given to Sue’s performance upon the film’s release, and the young actress even found herself blessed with a Golden Globe. Sadly, the impact that both Lolita and it’s success had on Sue’s life was anything but positive.
Like the novel that inspired it, the film adaptation of Lolita was controversial for it’s depiction of a romantic relationship between a teenage character and her adult stepfather. In the film, actor James Mason played the stepfather. The stepfather is no hero, and his obsessive pursuit of his underage stepdaughter is played for ridicule and laughs. However, the film’s humor was likely lost on producer James Harris, who was mirroring the actions of the character behind the scenes with his pursuit of Sue Lyon herself.
Sue became involved in an affair with James sometime during Lolita’s production. Sources vary whether they became involved during the time the movie was being filmed or closer to it’s release, which would make her somewhere between the ages of 14 and 16. James was in his 30s, and friends of Sue recalled that he looked old enough to be her grandfather. James apparently took Sue’s virginity.
Despite the fact that Sue and James never married, their romantic relationship was mentioned in a newspaper article around the time of Lolita’s premiere. Like the film itself, the article kept from referencing the problematic relation too explicitly, though it did mention that the two had been spending a lot of time together. At the time of the film’s premiere, Sue was 16 and James was 33.
Lolita remained controversial well after it’s release, and Sue became a vocal detractor of the film later in her life. According to her, no child should have been asked to perform in that role. Sue went on to have lots of problems with mental illness. She married and divorced five times before her death in 2019, and maintained a tumultuous relationship with her only daughter. Sue continued acting until 1980, at which point she officially retired.
James Harris had previously produced two of Stanley Kubrick’s features, 1956’s The Killing and 1957’s Paths of Glory. However, the two never worked together again after Lolita. Perhaps, the director had taken offense to the producer’s apparent lack of understanding of it’s themes.
James’ career continued successfully after Lolita, regardless of never again working with Stanley. James made his directorial debut in 1965 with The Bedford Incident, and directed four more films over the ensuing decades. Today, James is 93 years old, having outlived both Stanley Kubrick and Sue Lyon. When asked about his relationship with Sue, he refuses to talk about it. If you’re enjoying this video so far, be sure to hit the like button to show your support. As well, subscribe to the channel if you’d like to be among the first to know when more Facts Verse videos are on their way!
Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of Lolita had to change a lot from the Russian novel that inspired it in order to meet the strict guidelines of the Motion Picture Production Code. The Motion Picture Production Code was a self-imposed standard that Hollywood studios followed in order to keep their films from offending the audience. Soon after the release of Lolita, the Motion Picture Association of America, or the MPAA, replaced the guidelines of the Motion Picture Production Code with the modern film rating system that is still being used today. The introduction of film ratings allowed for films to feature more inappropriate content.
Lolita was a hit with audiences, and the film even spawned a successful hit single for Sue Lyon in the form of “Lolita Ya Ya”, which was a song that had been featured in the movie. Following Lolita, Sue appeared in Night of the Iguana, a film adaptation of the Tennessee Williams play. In addition to Sue, the film featured both Richard Burton and Deborah Kerr. The film was another big success, and many predicted that Sue was on the path to true Hollywood stardom.
Night of the Iguana premiered in 1964, and Sue next appeared in 1966’s 7 Women. Directed by John Ford, the film featured Anne Bancroft, Margaret Leighton, and Sue as missionaries working in China. Sue followed her appearance in 7 Women up with many more film roles. She appeared in 1967’s Tony Rome alongside Frank Sinatra, and a 1971 biopic of Evil Knievel that featured George Hamilton in the lead. Despite Sue’s continued appearances in films, true stardom seemed to somehow be eluding her.
Sue appeared in diminishing roles throughout the 1970s before officially retiring from acting in 1980. Her final role came in the 1980 film Alligator, an exploitation horror picture about a pet alligator tormenting the people of Chicago after being flushed down the toilet. In addition to her many film roles, Sue also made guest appearances on several TV shows. Some of the many shows she appeared on include Police Story, Fantasy Island, and Night Gallery.
One of the reasons that Sue had a hard time maintaining success was her failing mental health. Sue suffered from bipolar disorder throughout her life, which affected both her career and her relationships. Sue was married and divorced five times over the course of her life, and had one daughter.
Sue’s first husband was an actor named Hampton Fancher, whom she married in 1963. The two were only together for a few years before divorcing in 1965. During their marriage, Hampton was an actor on television Westerns. However, he later became better known as a screenwriter, penning such films as 1982’s Blade Runner. After divorcing from Hampton in 1965, Sue didn’t marry again for six years. However, she did have a relationship with folk singer Donovan during this period of time. Sue’s second husband was Roland Harrison. Roland was a photographer, and he and Sue had a daughter. That daughter was named Nona Harrison, and her and her mother maintained a tumultuous relationship up until the latter’s death in 2019.
Sue divorced from Roland even sooner than she had divorced from Hampton, and was onto her third husband by 1973. Though it is unclear how the two met, Sue’s third husband was incarcerated at the time they were married. Because of this, the ceremony was held at the Colorado State Penitentiary, where the man, named Cotton Adamson, was imprisoned after being convicted of murder and robbery. He broke out of prison in 1974, though Sue apparently wasn’t happy to see him. They quickly divorced. In a little over a decade, Sue had married and divorced three times.
After divorcing from Cotton, Sue didn’t marry again for nearly 10 years. Her fourth husband was a man named Edward Weathers, and their marriage was as ill fated as Sue’s prior three. They were divorced a year later, in 1984. Sue married a fifth and final time in 1985, to a man by the name of Richard Rudman. This marriage proved to be Sue’s most successful yet, as it lasted until 2002. After divorcing from Richard, Sue never married again.
Sadly, Sue’s relationship with her daughter was as unsuccessful as her many marriages. Nona has been open about her troubled relationship with her mother, saying that Sue kicked her out when she was only 12 years old. Nona has said she blames the way her mother treated her on her mother’s bipolar disorder. This kept the two from having a very close relationship, and Sue likely died very lonely. Not much was revealed about Sue’s 2019 death besides the fact that her health had been suffering for some time. She passed away the day after Christmas, and was 73 years old.
Lolita is still arguably just as controversial nowadays as it was upon it’s initial release, even if it’s not the most widely known of director Stanley Kubrick’s films. Comment down below to share what your feelings on the controversial cult comedy are, or if you were saddened to learn about the tragic life and death of it’s 14-year-old star, Sue Lyon. As always, like this video to show your support, and subscribe and hit the notification bell if you’d like to be among the first to know when more Facts Verse videos are on their way!