Sue Lyon, most famous for playing the title role in Stanley Kubrick’s daring and boundary-pushing 1962 film of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, has died, reports The New York Times. She was 72.
Lyon was 14, a nobody from Iowa, when she nabbed the role of the “nymphet” who inspires lust and desire in middle-aged professor Humbert Humbert, played by James Mason. (Shelley Winters played her brassy mother.) The character’s age was actually bumped up; she starts Nabokov’s book at 12. That wasn’t the only change to appease Hollywood’s strict — but at that time eroding — Production Code. The script, credited to Nabokov himself, dances around the details of the pair’s relationship, which is not quite father-daughter, not quite lovers.
Lolita made Lyon a name, and images from the film — of her with heart-shaped red sunglasses, nursing a lollipop, and another of her lounging in a bikini — became iconic, forever associated with the scandalous but adored novel. Lyon won a Golden Globe for Best Female Newcomer. Still, Lyon would later say the part ruined her life.
Indeed, Lyon’s immediate post-Lolita career sounds incredible on paper. Having kicked off her career by working with Kubrick — on the cusp of being proclaimed a cinematic genius, Dr. Strangelove and 2001: A Space Odyssey to come later that decade — she moved onto John Huston, with 1964’s The Night of the Iguana, and John Ford, with his last narrative feature, 7 Women, alongside Anne Bancroft and Margaret Leighton.
But the good times didn’t last. By the late ’60s, Lyon’s career was in freefall, the movies and parts never eclipsing her debut. She was third-billed in the Frank Sinatra detective movie Tony Rome, in 1967, and second-billed in the 1971 biopic Evel Knievel, starring George Hamilton as the daredevil biker. After that the roles were scarce, the movies often quickly forgotten. Her cinematic swan song came in 1980, less than two decades after her first role. And it was small. In the John Sayles-penned creature feature Alligator, starring the late Robert Forster, she’s credited simply as “ABC Newswoman.”
After that Lyon recused herself from the pictures and the spotlight, rarely making public appearances. One of those was to decry the other movie version of Lolita, released in 1997 and starring Jeremy Irons as Humbert Humbert and Dominique Swain the role that made her a name. “I am appalled they should revive the film that caused my destruction as a person,” she told Reuters.
You can watch bits of Lyon’s award-winning Lolita turn below.