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

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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."

It was a small door Hollywood was opening in the code, but it proved big enough for Selznick to drive "Gone With the Wind" through. And any furor over Butler's profanity was lost in the roar of approval for the film itself.

'The Wild Bunch'

In 1969, director Sam Peckinpah decided it was time to up the ante on movie violence. And it wasn't the censors who got in the way - by this time, the ratings system had been established, making professional censors pretty much obsolete - but the movie studio itself.

"The Wild Bunch," about a group of old American gunmen in 1913 Mexico who vacillate between money and honor as their prime motivation, was like nothing American audiences had seen before. Moviegoers may have been jolted by the graphic, slow-motion shootout that ended Arthur Penn's 1967 masterpiece, "Bonnie and Clyde," but Peckinpah's film made that one seem like Disney by comparison.

A horrified Warner Bros. had the film cut, removing about 10 minutes of footage. Peckinpah, outraged, cried foul, but to no avail; the trims stood, not to be restored in their entirety until three years ago, when the original director's cut played in theaters.

Yet the cuts did little to damage the film's reputation. "The Wild Bunch" is often hailed as a masterpiece, and even those who hate it acknowledge its significance.

'The Last Temptation of Christ'

Few films have caused an uproar to match Martin Scorsese's 1988 rumination on the humanity of Jesus. Based on Nikos Kazantzakis' novel, the film considered what might have happened had Christ let his human self take over, if he had wavered when called upon to die for humanity's sins. The Jesus of "Last Temptation" questions God, has sex with Mary Magdalene and comes across as quite human.

The film was decried as blasphemous; evangelical Christians, especially, demanded Scorsese's head. Religious leaders (many of whom never saw the film) denounced it from the pulpit.

Much the same thing had happened three years earlier, when Godard's "Hail Mary" transported the story of Mary and Joseph to modern times, with Joseph as a taxi driver and Mary shooting hoops. But at least "Hail Mary" was a French film; "Last Temptation" was American, with far greater audience appeal.

So the protests mounted. No doubt because of its resultant notoriety, more people saw the film than would have ever considered sitting through a 164-minute discourse on Christ's humanity. And Scorsese was Oscar-nominated for his direction (he lost to Barry Levinson and "Rain Man").

'Lolita': A sad tale

Though perfectly cast and expertly filmed, there's a hollowness at the core of Adrian Lyne's "Lolita" that suggests this is one book that may defy being made into a great film.

That may be because, at its core, "Lolita," premiering at 9 tonight on Showtime, is about an adult having sex with a child - a film that would guarantee an XXX rating. But more likely, it's because Nabokov's book isn't so much about child love as about the old being infatuated with the new, about the Old World being enticed by, and falling victim to, the excitement of the New. It's about passion that's as inevitable as it is forbidden.

And it's about Nabokov's beautiful words.

To their credit, Lyne and screenwriter Steven Schiff have done as well putting "Lolita" on screen as anyone could - perhaps done even better than Nabokov himself, who worked with Stanley Kubrick on the 1962 version. Their "Lolita" is not pornography (those who look for titillation will be disappointed), not comedy, but tragedy - a sad tale that leaves no one involved unscathed.

Jeremy Irons is the perfect embodiment of Humbert Humbert. Irons' fumblingly autocratic demeanor makes Humbert dangerous yet sympathetic - a combination that's not easy to pull off.

As the sinister Clare Quilty, Frank Langella has rarely appeared so menacing; though unseen through most of the film, his presence hangs over it like a sword, always threatening to do the inevitable damage. And 15-year-old Dominique Swain looks and acts like exactly what Nabokov had in mind; not beautiful (like Sue Lyon in the 1962 version), but beguiling.

Pub Date: 8/02/98

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