Mason, James


Mason, James
(1909–1984)
   James Mason was England’s biggest box-office attraction in the 1940s. He was born in Huddersfield, England; his father was a wool merchant. He took a degree in architecture at Cambridge University in 1931, but decided to go on the stage; he eventually made his first film in 1935. There followed a series of low budget “quickies,” but he made his mark in two major films that won him stardom in England: The Seventh Veil (1945), in which he played a stern Svengali who dominated his protégé, and Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out (1947), in which he took the role of a wounded Irish Republican Army gunman on the run from the Irish police. He then moved to Hollywood, where his impersonation of Field Marshall Rommel in The Desert Fox (1951) was outstanding. He excelled in the role of an alcoholic actor, opposite Judy Garland, in George Cukor’s A Star is Born (1954) and as a dapper enemy agent in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959) with Cary Grant.
   Surprisingly, Mason declined the role of Humbert Humbert in LOLITA (1962) the first time STANLEY KUBRICK offered it to him. He preferred to star in a Broadway musical, an adaptation by the songwriting team of Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz, of The Affairs of Anatol, to be called The Gay Life. It was derived from a stage play by ARTHUR SCHNITZLER, whose novella TRAUMNOVELLE (Dream Story) became Kubrick’s last film, EYES WIDE SHUT (1999). Admittedly, Mason was no singer, but he pointed out to Kubrick that neither was Rex Harrison, who had scored a triumph in My Fair Lady by half-talking, half-singing his songs in the musical. “Kubrick sounded a little surprised,” Mason wrote in his autobiography;“ but he made no effort to dissuade me. ” Still, friends and colleagues who heard that Kubrick had approached Mason made every effort to make him accept this plum part. So Mason bowed out of The Gay Life, which proved to be no My Fair Lady when it opened in 1960, and opted to sign on with Kubrick. “I contacted Kubrick and thank God that I caught him before some unworthy rival had inherited the part that I had in fact longed to play ever since I read the novel. ” For his part,Kubrick felt that Mason represented perfect casting. Although Kubrick started production with a completed screenplay, he made further changes in it in the course of the shooting period. During the rehearsals that preceded the filming of each sequence, the actors read through the dialogue with Kubrick and chose to keep the lines that seemed to work best. Then they would sit at a table and improvise additional dialogue for the passages they had selected. Kubrick would then type the revised version of the scene into the shooting script prior to filming it.
   Mason found these intense rehearsals wearing and reportedly stalked off the set more than once, when he got fed up. His impatience stemmed from the fact that American actors are more prone to improvise than are English actors. British actors, with the notable exception of PETER SELLERS, who played Clare Quilty in the film, tend to be wary of improvising, because they have more respect for the text than American actors do. This goes back to the tradition of the English theater, to which Mason belonged and Sellers decidedly did not. Consequently, Sellers’s inclination to improvise, in order to experiment with a variety of ways of handling a scene, sorely tested Mason’s patience at times. Mary Day Lanier, a production assistant on Lolita, told Peter Bogdanovich that “James Mason got the most terrible eczema on his hands” when his nerves were on edge. At one point during production he “had to hide his hands because they were totally swelled up. But Stanley knew how to be very gentle; he shut down the set and talked to him for a long time. ” As a matter of fact, Mason praised Kubrick in his autobiography for the way that he dealt with actors during rehearsals. In retrospect, he believed,“It was evident that Kubrick had learned a great deal about screen acting, and had become a director of enormous sophistication when it came to handling our group. ”
   Lolita was adapted from VLADIMIR NABOKOV’s controversial novel. It tells the tale of Humbert Humbert (Mason) and his sexual obsession with Lolita Haze (SUE LYON), a prepubescent girl. Kubrick is able to imply the erotic nature of Humbert’s infatuation with Lolita in the opening credits, in which Humbert’s hand applies toenail polish to Lolita’s foot, thereby suggesting the subservient quality of his fascination with her.
   After the credits there is a prologue in which Humbert drives up to Clare Quilty’s ramshackle mansion. He enters the house, gun in hand, intent on forcing a showdown with Quilty, who lured Lolita away from him. Their confrontation ends with Quilty hiding behind a painting that is leaning against some furniture; Humbert empties his revolver into the painting, which is filled with bullet holes. The remainder of the film consists of an extended flashback which leads up to this catastrophe. Some critics questioned whether or not Kubrick should have transferred Quilty’s murder from its place at the end of the novel to the opening of the film. In his preliminary discussions with Nabokov about the screenplay of the story, Kubrick saw that much of the interest in the novel centered around Humbert’s machinations to possess Lolita and at the same time preserve an air of surface propriety in his relationship with her. When Lolita later disappears and he tracks her down, Humbert learns that Quilty had snatched her from him after playing several grim tricks to get Humbert to relinquish his hold on the girl. By shifting Humbert’s final encounter with Quilty to the beginning of the film, Kubrick exchanged the surprise ending of the novel for the suspense of making the moviegoer wonder how and when Humbert will realize what Quilty is up to. Of course, we still do not get the full explanation of what Quilty has done until Lolita fits the pieces into place for Humbert in their last meeting. Nonetheless, the film viewer has the satisfaction of being aware all along about Quilty’s ingenious bamboozling of Humbert.
   With a title that reads “Four years earlier,” the story proper gets underway after the prologue. Humbert acts as narrator and thus become an ongoing presence in the film. He explains, via voice-over on the sound track, how he came to meet Lolita:“I had recently arrived in America, where many Europeans have found a haven. I was given a lectureship at Beardsley College in the fall. But I decided to stay in Ramsdale, a small resort town, for the summer and was looking for a place to stay. ” Humbert chooses the home of Charlotte Haze (SHELLEY WINTERS) after he gets one look at her preteen daughter, Lolita, whom Humbert sees as an alluring nymphet.
   In the book Humbert quotes copious passages from the diary he kept while staying with the Hazes. In the movie we see him occasionally committing his experiences to his pages. At one point he begins to expound on “the twofold nature of the nymphet: the mixture of tender, dreamy childishness and a kind of eerie vulgarity. . . . I know it is bad to keep a diary, but it gives me a strange thrill to do so. ” Presumably Humbert’s occasional comments on the sound track are quotations from this diary. Charlotte, who is a widow, almost immediately becomes smitten with Humbert and initiates a campaign to win his affections. Piqued by the way Lolita’s presence makes it difficult for her to pursue Humbert with the gusto she would like, Charlotte tells Humbert that she is going to pack her irritating daughter off to summer camp so that they can spend more time together. Mason’s immaculately understated performance is perfectly attuned to the demands of the scene. When he hears this piece of news, a look of consternation steals across his face that faultlessly mirrors Humbert’s feelings at the moment. “Is something wrong with your face?” Charlotte inquires, noticing his pained expression. He excuses himself on the pretext of going upstairs to nurse a toothache.
   The next morning Humbert sulks in Lolita’s room while she and her mother pack her things in the Haze station wagon for the trip to the girls’ camp. When the car has pulled away, Humbert hurls himself on Lolita’s bed and sobs into her pillow, for he believes that he will never see her again, since he is to depart for Beardsley College before she returns from camp. Film critic Richard Corollas notes that, ironically, Humbert is behaving like a woozy teenager himself, mooning over the loss of his inamorata.
   Then the Hazes maid presents him with a note which alters the situation entirely; in it, Charlotte proposes to Humbert. He bursts out laughing uncontrollably, understanding as he does that he will have to accept Charlotte’s marriage proposal if he is to remain in a position to carry out his designs on Lolita.
   Humbert accepts his fate, and the marriage takes place, as he informs us in a voice-over. As Charlotte embraces him on their marriage bed at one point, Humbert slyly looks beyond his wife to the photograph of Lolita on the bedside table. Even an amateur psychologist could deduce that he refers his sexual encounters with Lolita to those with the girl’s mother. To say that Humbert’s sexual obsession with the nymphet has to be implied by Mason’s meaningful looks in the film, therefore, is still saying quite a bit. When Charlotte inevitably discovers why Humbert married her, they have a violent quarrel. Afterward, she rushes hysterically out of the house into the street, where she is run over by an oncoming car.
   One of the best examples of the black comedy which permeates the film, and a scene which Mason plays flawlessly, is the one in which Humbert, like an ex-convict savoring the first moments of his parole, floats dreamily in the bathtub sipping Scotch, drinking in the realization that Lolita is completely his, now that Charlotte—the last obstacle (as far as he knows) to possessing her—has been removed, like a captured chess piece from the board.
   His neighbors, the Farlows, concerned for Humbert’s morale, burst into the bathroom. They mistake his mellow alcoholic detachment for a severe state of shock. “Try to think of Lolita,” says Jean, ladling out unneeded consolation. “She is all alone in the world and you must live for her. ” (As if Humbert had been doing anything else. ) Humbert hardly listens, his thoughts already preoccupied with his plans to spirit Lolita away from summer camp.
   Richard Corliss compliments Kubrick’s direction of Mason in the scene: Humbert “lounges in the bathtub, blotto with his good fortune, on his chest a cocktail tumbler that protrudes above the bathwater like a lighthouse in polluted seas, while neighbors offer him condolences. Even Nabokov saluted ‘that rapturous swig of Scotch in the bathtub; it struck me as appropriate and delightful. ’” Pauline Kael adds: “Mason is better than what almost anyone could have expected,” as his handsome face “gloats in a rotting smile. ” Humbert drives off to the camp to bring Lolita home; after he picks her up, the pair stop for the night at a large hotel, where Quilty is staying as well. Quilty eavesdrops on Humbert’s interchange with the desk clerk, who has only a single room left. To maintain a surface propriety, Humbert requests that a cot be installed in the room, an item which he has no intention of using. Humbert’s plans to seduce a minor, however, abruptly founder when a stranger introduces himself on the terrace and mentions that a police convention is currently staying at the hotel.
   Quilty is the stranger on the terrace, and he will in fact shadow Humbert until he wins Lolita away from him. Quilty introduces himself as a state trooper and, correctly sizing up the situation, pointedly says that he has noticed the “lovely little girl” Humbert is with, and wonders if they are staying in the bridal suite. Quilty further upsets Humbert by suggesting that he is a homosexual interested in Humbert himself. This is all too much for Humbert, who promptly jettisons his plans to possess Lolita that night. The next morning, however, Lolita wakes Humbert and suggests that they play a game she learned at camp from a male employee. We realize, as the scene fades out on Humbert’s lascivious smile, that Lolita has in fact turned the tables and seduced Humbert, in the wake of his failed attempts to seduce her. Quilty continues to stalk Humbert; later in the film Humbert and Lolita are again travelling crosscountry. Humbert says ruefully over the sound track, as he and Lolita spin along the highway, “I cannot tell you when I first knew that a strange car was following us. Queer how I misinterpreted the designation of doom. ” Humbert’s fears are allayed, for the moment at least, by the disappearance of the other car.
   Lolita falls ill and is committed to a hospital in the nearest town; and Humbert visits her with flowers. Back in the motel where he is staying, Humbert receives a telephone call, which is Quilty’s last and most menacing impersonation: “Is this Professor Humbert? My department is concerned with the bizarre rumors about you and that lovely, remarkable girl. You are classified in our files as a white widowed male. I wonder if you would be prepared to give us a report on your current sex life, if any. ” Kael comments wryly that Quilty is the sneaky villain who dogs Humbert’s footsteps, “and he digs up every bone that Humbert ineptly tries to bury, and presents them to him. Humbert can conceal nothing. ” Completely unhinged, Humbert dashes frantically to have Lolita released from the hospital, only to find that she left earlier in the evening in the company of her “uncle. ”As Humbert rages down the corridor to Lolita’s empty room, he is tackled by two hospital attendants who send him sprawling to the floor toward the camera. A doctor examines the pupils of Humbert’s eyes and calls for a straitjacket with evident relish. This is more than even Quilty had bargained for. Mason musters all of his English reserve as Humbert says quietly, “I really ought to be moving on now,” as if he were taking leave of a boring hostess. “Uncle Gus came for her. I forgot about him. He’s very easy to forget. ” He is set free and walks down the hall, away from the camera, a sad, defeated character retreating into the distance. It is one of Mason’s finest scenes in the movie. Indeed, many reviewers singled out Mason’s haunting, harrowing scene in the hospital as superb—poignant and expertly played. Kael describes Humbert as “slavishly, painfully in love, absurdly suffering, the lover of the ages who degrades himself, who cares about nothing but Lolita; he is the classic loser. ”
   Following the hospital episode, Humbert receives a letter from Lolita, begging him for money to help her and her husband prepare for the coming of their baby. After two years of searching for Lolita, Humbert follows this lead and finds her living in a tawdry bungalow in a slum neighborhood. He takes a gun from the glove compartment of his car, determined to shoot the man who took Lolita away from him. Lolita is now a matron with an upswept hairdo, shell-rimmed glasses, no makeup, wearing a maternity smock. Humbert decides against using his gun as soon as he learns that Lolita’s husband is not the man who spirited her away from the hospital. “Do you remember that car that followed us around? That cop you talked to at the hotel?” she inquires. “And that guy who called you at the motel?” For his benefit, Lolita explains,“All of them were Clare Quilty. I had had a crush on him ever since he used to visit Mother. ” Quilty lured her away from the hospital, promised her the sky, drained her dry emotionally and sexually, and pitched her out.
   Humbert abjectly begs Lolita to go away with him, insisting that he can surely support her in a more fitting manner than her working-class husband. Commenting on Humbert’s relationship with Lolita throughout the film, Kubrick told Corliss that he regretted that he was not able to give more emphasis to the erotic aspect of Humbert’s relationship to Lolita in the picture. “The eroticism of the story serves a very important purpose in the book, which was lacking in the film: It was very important that Nabokov delayed an awareness of Humbert’s love for Lolita until the end of the story. ”
   By contrast, in the movie, Kubrick could only hint at the true nature of Humbert’s attraction to Lolita; and, he noted,“It was assumed too quickly by filmgoers that Humbert was in love with her,” as opposed to being merely sexually attracted to her. As he told Gene Phillips, “in the novel this comes as a discovery at the end, when Lolita is a pregnant housewife. ” It is in her final encounter with Humbert, and her sudden recognition of his love for her, he concludes, “that is one of the most poignant elements of the story. ”
   Lolita of course decides to stay with her husband, the father of her child, so Humbert turns over to her the money from her mother’s estate. He makes for his car, trying to avert the tears that have started coursing down his cheeks. It is Mason’s most touching moment in the entire film.
   Humbert proceeds immediately to Quilty’s mansion, intent on using the gun he carries in his pocket. He plans to shoot Quilty, we now understand, not because Quilty lured Lolita away from him, but because Quilty merely used her for a while and then coldly discarded her.
   In the final sequence Kubrick reprises footage from the prologue, and we see Humbert enter Quilty’s lair, searching for him, gun in hand. The film concludes with a shot of the bullet-hole-riddled portrait behind which Humbert had finally trapped Quilty. A printed epilogue informs us that “Humbert Humbert died in prison of coronary thrombosis while awaiting trial for the murder of Claire Quilty. ” This ending is unique: one can think of no other movie that creates as much compassion for the tragic end of its obsessed hero by employing a simply worded epitaph on the screen at the fade-out. One cannot help feeling somewhat sorry for a man who organized his whole life around the pursuit of a goal that would be short-lived in any event, the love of a nymphet who could never remain a nymphet for long. It is Humbert’s recognition that he has used Lolita and must suffer for it, however, that humanizes him in our eyes to the point where he is worthy of whatever pity we wish to give him.
   Mason’s performance was widely acclaimed, and he was gratified by that. Still, he mentions in his autobiography that “many different films could be extracted from Lolita. If one of the now-young directors attempts another version, I assume that the sex will be prominently featured; but from no matter what viewpoint, I am sure we have not seen the last of her. ” Mason’s prediction came true when Adrian Lyne announced his film adaptation of Lolita (1998) in a press release which promised “explicit sex scenes and nudity. ” He then dismissed Mason’s portrayal of Humbert as “totally hateful,” implying that Jeremy Irons would give a more faithful interpretation of Humbert than Mason had. But Irons’s glum Humbert was simply not in the same class with Mason’s Humbert. As Norman Kagan has written, Mason “underplays his role, making Humbert always desperate and often pathetic, despite his urbane voice and unshakeable smile. ”
   As Mason grew older he played character roles with distinction: the evil pirate in Richard Brooks’s film adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim (1965), opposite Peter O’Toole; Dr. Watson to Christopher Plummer’s Sherlock Holmes in Murder by Decree (1978); and the sly corporate lawyer in Sidney Lumet’s The Verdict (1982), with Paul Newman. Among this gallery of characterizations, Humbert Humbert has a special place, since Mason caught the tricky voice of Nabokov’s self-destructive hero and played him to perfection.
   References
   ■ Bogdanovich, Peter, “What They Say About Stanley Kubrick,” New York Times Magazine, July 4, 1999, pp. 18–25, 40, 47–53;
   ■ Corliss, Richard, Lolita (London: British Film Institute, 1994);
   ■ Kael, Pauline, I Lost It at the Movies (New York: Marion Boyars, 1994), pp. 203–209;
   ■ Kagan, Norman, The Cinema of Stanley Kubrick, rev. ed. (New York: Continuum, 1989), pp. 81–109;
   ■ Mason, James, Before I Forget (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1981);
   ■ Phillips, Gene, Stanley Kubrick: A Film Odyssey (New York: Popular Library, 1997), pp. 83–102;
   ■ Tibbetts, John, “Lolita,” in The Encyclopedia of Novels into Film, rev. ed. , ed. John Tibbetts and James Welsh (New York: Facts On File, 1999), pp. 134–138.

The Encyclopedia of Stanley Kubrick. . 2002.

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