Sue Lyon – Actress
Born July 10, 1946; died December 26, 2019
Sue Lyon, who has died aged 73, will forever be associated with Lolita, the title role of Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 film of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel, published seven years earlier. The name of the character played by Lyon was actually Dolores Haze, but she was gifted the nickname by James Mason’s middle-aged professor of French literature, Humbert Humbert, who becomes obsessed with the teenage girl. Lyon was only fourteen when she was chosen from more than 800 auditionees. The girl in Nabokov’s novel was twelve, with Kubrick adding a couple of years to fit in with Motion Picture Production Code standards. Kubrick described his new star as “the perfect nymphet.”
“From the first, she was interesting to watch,” Kubrick told Look magazine of his new charge. “Even in the way she walked in for her interview, casually sat down, walked out. She was cool and non-giggly. She was enigmatic without being dull. She could keep people guessing about how much Lolita knew about life.”
Bert Stern’s photograph of Lyon as Lolita, sucking on a red lollipop while wearing heart-shaped sunglasses, appeared on the film’s poster alongside a tag-line that asked ‘How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?’ The photograph defined both Lyon and the film’s image ever after. The name Lolita itself became a wilfully sensationalist tabloid byword for underage girls involved in front-page scandals with older men.
Lyon’s performance as Dolores/Lolita won her a Golden Globe award for most promising newcomer, and she released a record singing two songs from the film, Lolita Ya Ya, and Turn Off the Moon. The film was the high spot of what over the next eighteen years turned out to be a sporadic film career.
Suellyn Lyon was born in Davenport, Iowa, the youngest of five children to Sue Kerr Lyon and James M. Lyon. Her father died when she was ten months old, and her mother initially moved the family to Dallas, then to Los Angeles three years later. It was here Lyon pursued acting, and aged thirteen she appeared as a spoilt student in an episode of anthology series, Letter to Loretta (1959), and an uncredited role in an episode of Dennis the Menace (1960). It was on Letter to Loretta that Kubrick first spotted Lyon, and after Lolita’s release, she became flavour of the month.
Lyon was cast as another precocious teenager in John Huston’s adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ play, The Night of the Iguana (1964), in which she vied for the attention of Richard Burton’s de-frocked priest in competition with Ava Gardner and Deborah Kerr. In John Ford’s 7 Women (1966), Lyon played a missionary in 1930s China alongside Anne Bancroft. She played a rich girl who gets involved with an army deserter and a con-man in Ivan Kershner’s The Flim-Flam Man (1967), later known as One Born Every Minute, and a millionaire’s daughter causing trouble for Frank Sinatra’s tough private investigator in Tony Rome (1967). There were also turns in Arsenic and Old Lace (1969), as a U.S. marshal’s wife in Four Rode Out (1969), and in TV movie, But I Don’t want to Get Married! (1970). In Evel Knievel (1971), she played the real-life stunt motor-cyclist’s wife.
In real life, Lyon married five times, though all of the relationships were short-lived. Her first husband, Hampton Fancher (1963-1965), was an actor who went on to co-write the screenplay for Blade Runner. Her second husband was football player, Roland Harrison (1971-1972). The pair had a daughter, Nona Harrison, who has written in social media posts how her parents never wanted children, and that she was distanced from both of them. Harrison also wrote that her mother had been diagnosed with bi-polar manic depressive disorder from an early age.
Lyon wed her third husband, Cotton Adamson (1973-1974), in Colorado State Penitentiary, where he was serving a prison sentence for second degree murder and robbery. Lyon blamed her career’s increasingly diminishing returns on the marriage.
“I’ve been told by people in the movie business, specifically producers and film distributors, that I won’t get a job because I’m married to Cotton,” she said. By the time she wed Edward Weathers (1983-1984) and Richard Rudman (1985-2002), Lyon’s acting career was long over.
Lyon never managed to shake off the Lolita tag. Murder in a Blue World (1973) was an Italian-made piece of post Clockwork Orange schlock in which her character had a copy of Nabokov’s novel on her bedside table. In The Magician (1973), she was an American tourist who marries an older blind man for his money.
She played the young wife who caused an accident that left her older husband played by Jose Ferrer wheelchair-bound in occult thriller, Crash! (1976), and starred opposite Christopher Lee in plodding low budget sci-fi feature, End of the World (1977). Guest roles in TV shows such as Police Story and Fantasy Island and a couple of disaster movies followed.
Lyon’s last appearance onscreen was in 1980 as a news reporter in the John Sayles scripted monster satire, Alligator. Lyon was not yet 35, and by rights should have been in her acting prime. While there was some truth in what she said about the reaction to her marriage to Adamson, her career’s end might also have had something to do with an industry that couldn’t accept Lyon as anything other than ‘the perfect nymphet.’
Lyon is survived by her daughter, Nona Harrison.
The Herald, January 13th 2020