Brilliance of Peter Sellers shines in `Lolita'


Film Column

July 05, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

From the beginning, British-comedy fans loved the work of Peter Sellers for its wit and sure attack and for its fillip of emotion. But it took a brilliant young American director with a hip, cosmopolitan temperament to exploit Sellers' talent fully.

For his 1962 movie version of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita -- playing tomorrow at noon at the Charles Theatre -- Stanley Kubrick chose Sellers to play what could have been a subordinate role: not Humbert Humbert (James Mason), the French-literature professor obsessed by the title nymphet (Sue Lyon), but Quilty, the television playwright and minor celebrity who lures her away. With Kubrick in control, Quilty also steals the movie. The emphasis on Quilty is prescient: if this were a comedy about, say, the Long Island Lolita, Quilty would be the guy tying up the TV rights.

As Quilty, Sellers is quicksilver-changeable -- a portrait of the artist as a phony. He's ostentatiously high style. At a summer dance in a high school gym, he manages to look good even though he bops only from the chest up. As he haunts Humbert, he takes on diverse flaky disguises; at one point he impersonates a suspiciously ingratiating state cop -- the kind of weirdo turn Norman Mailer once reveled in. When Quilty poses as a German psychologist, the dagger-glint in his eyes lets Humbert know that the pseudo shrink has his number.

Sellers' Quilty sees through the weakness and hypocrisy in Humbert. In the film's daring narrative frame, you feel that the ultra-civilized Humbert is able to kill Quilty because the victim starts his death scene under a sheet and finishes it hiding behind a painting. In the end, Humbert doesn't have to look at him.

Admission is $5.

A dandy film

You can extend your July 4th celebration and salute the 60th anniversary of a Hollywood classic if you go see Yankee Doodle Dandy at tonight's opening of the Little Italy Open Air Film Festival. (The feature begins at 9 p.m. at High and Stiles streets.)

With bristling energy, it tells the glad-rags-to-riches saga of Irish-American song-and-dance man George M. Cohan, from his roots in the family vaudeville act "The Four Cohans" and his conquest of Broadway to his rise to patriotic-legend status with the penning of "Over There" and "You're a Grand Old Flag."

This movie features one of the greatest screen performances in American musical history. Whether portraying Cohan in the pink of youth or sporting a sizable middle-aged paunch, James Cagney moves as if he were a marionette pulling his own strings -- a punk Pinocchio with kapow. Imagine a wire running from his rump through his neck, giving his torso and head a swivelly motion and letting his feet tap and hands dangle, and you've got the basic Cagney dance posture. In Yankee Doodle Dandy, it allows him to tap like a whole percussion team and to fly like Peter Pan -- all over the stage, and even up the proscenium walls.

And you can double your pleasure by going from Yankee Doodle Dandy to The Komediant at the Charles Theatre (see today's review) -- a documentary about the Burstein troupe, a Yiddish equivalent of the Cohans.

Doubly crossed

Gabe Wardell, programmer of the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions film series on Billy Wilder, has generously announced: "On July 10, Baltimore audiences will be cross trying to choose between two great cross-dressing films!"

At 7:15 on Wednesday, at Hopkins' Pre-Clinical Teaching Building (725 N. Wolfe St.), Wilder's Some Like It Hot will screen for free -- and let's just say that when the AFI voted it the funniest American film of all time, it was the rare AFI choice with which nearly everyone agreed.

At 7:30 at the Charles, the Maryland Film Festival will present The Cockettes, a tribute to the San Francisco-based camp-musical drag act, founded in 1969, that helped Divine establish her drag career, nurtured disco star Sylvester, and may have influenced the glam-rock movement and the transformation of The Rocky Horror Picture Show into an audience-participation hit.

David Weissman, who co-directed The Cockettes with Bill Weber, will serve as co-host for the evening with Divine's director, John Waters. Tickets are $10. For additional information, go to; reservations are available at 410-752-8083.

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