'Lolita' just another screen scandal Adrian Lyne's new film may be controversial - but controversy and the movies have never been strangers.


August 02, 1998|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,sun staff

Sex. Violence. Language. Religion.

Hot-button topics all, guaranteed to start debate in the halls of Congress, arguments at cocktail parties and controversy when brought to movie screens.

Forty-seven years ago, the intense sexuality of "A Streetcar Named Desire" ruffled America's feathers. Twenty-nine years ago, the numbing violence of Sam Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch" had audiences wondering how far Hollywood should be allowed to go. Fourteen years ago, Jean-Luc Godard's "Hail Mary" had people crying blasphemy and dousing moviegoers with holy water. Fifty-nine years ago, "Gone With the Wind" shocked everyone by having Clark Gable say "damn."

Tonight, the latest in a long line of Hollywood envelope-pushers comes to cable television with the premiere of "Lolita," director Adrian Lyne's adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov's controversial novel.

Although "Lolita" had been made into a film before - in 1962 Stanley Kubrick directed, with James Mason as the lecherous Humbert Humbert and Sue Lyon as his nymphet - this adaptation was said to be different: truer to the novel, more graphic, depicting on-screen sex in ways Kubrick could never have gotten away with.

Lyne has a reputation for high-gloss box-office successes ("Flashdance," "Fatal Attraction," "Indecent Proposal"), but his "Lolita," though screened throughout Europe, sat on the shelf in this country for two years. Partly, the film's $60 million price tag may have scared off some American distributors, while others were understandably reluctant to market a film chronicling a man's sexual relations with a preteen girl.

Then Showtime came along, anxious to live up to its promise of "no limits" programming. And if history is any indication, Showtime should get the notoriety it's hoping for, since controversy rarely decreases a film's popularity.

A number of movies have challenged popular mores - for example, 1943's "The Outlaw" (featuring Jane Russell's ample and amply displayed bosom), 1946's "The Postman Always Rings Twice" (sex and atmosphere), 1966's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (language), 1967's "Bonnie and Clyde" (violence), 1972's "Last Tango In Paris" (raw sexuality) - but here are four of the more notorious examples from Hollywood's past.

The biblical epics of Cecil B. DeMille

It didn't take long for some of the public to challenge Hollywood's excesses. Even before World War I, people were decrying the loose morals and corrupting influence of motion pictures. But things really heated up after the war, and not only because of what films brought to the screen. When comedian Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle was accused of raping and killing bit-actress Virginia Rappe, much of America feared this was typical Hollywood behavior. (Arbuckle would eventually be exonerated, but to no avail; his career was ruined.)

Fearful studio executives struggled to cut back on what offended people and promote what seemed harmless. That translated to less sex on the screen, more biblical stories.

Leave it to DeMille, perhaps Hollywood's first great showman, to combine the two. In films like "The Ten Commandments" (1923), "The King of Kings" (1927) and "The Sign of the Cross" (1932), DeMille depicted all forms of debauchery, yet made it all seem OK by mixing in heavy doses of religion (the debauchers invariably came to a bad end). Claudette Colbert bathing naked in asses' milk in "The Sign of the Cross" is as titillating a film scene as anything that would appear on screen until the 1960s.

Of course, people were outraged, and DeMille's cinematic excesses were among the main inspirations for the Hollywood Production Code, which would considerably tone down films made from roughly the mid-1930s to the early 1960s. But DeMille (whose career extended into the 1950s) was always great box office, and he's regarded as one of the half-dozen most influential directors of the early cinema.

'Gone With the Wind'

Rarely has one little word raised such a ruckus.

Film censor Joe Breen suggested Rhett Butler's parting shot be "My dear, I don't care." But producer David O. Selznick was having none of it. The script, following the book's lead, read, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn," and that's how it was going to stay.

Selznick took his case to the Motion Picture Association board, whose production code specifically forbade the word, and argued for a change. In their book, "The Dame in the Kimono," historians Leonard J. Leff and Jerold L. Simmons contend that Breen wanted him to do just that, so the code would be relaxed to allow an occasional "damn" or "hell."

After much debate, the code was changed to allow the offending words when their use "shall be essential and required for portrayal, in proper context, of any scene or dialogue based upon historical fact or folklore, or the presentation in proper literary context of a Biblical, or other religious quotation, or a quotation from a literary work provided that no such work shall be permitted which is intrinsically objectionable or offends good taste."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.