The Lasting Effects of the Lolita Complex

Lacy Warner examines the downward turn of actress Dominique Swain’s career, and how the trouble began the moment she grew up.

Lacy Warner | Longreads | November 2018 | 14 minutes (3,431 words)

It feels like I’m watching porn. The video is grainy and cheap looking, like an old daytime soap shot with Vaseline over the lens. In the corner there is a grey couch that sits against a wall painted the desperate sand-beige color of every strip mall in America. This is a six-minute, twelve-second YouTube video of Dominique Swain’s screen test for the title role in the 1997 film adaptation of Lolita. At the four-minute mark, director Adrian Lyne gives a line reading of the word, “slut.” He says it over and over again. Jeremy Irons, 49 years old at the time, had already been cast as Humbert Humbert. In the video, Swain is 15 years old, playing 14, though in the novel, Lolita is 12. Seconds before the end, she looks toward the camera, smiles, and says in a bad, mock-English accent, “I’m a conniving little slut.”

***

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.” In 1954, Lolita was rejected by five American publishing houses. Eventually, the down-market French publisher Olympia Press agreed to publish the first edition. Riddled with errors, this initial printing would be Nabokov’s albatross for the next three years. In 1958, Lolita finally saw its American debut, and became a bestseller overnight. Critics and readers alike have called Lolita many things: the great American novel; the great road novel; an allegory for the alienation caused by exile; a satirical tale of the incompatibility between European and American cultures; a great detective novel; smut; high-brow porn — but what it has never been called, until now, is true.

Last September saw the publication of Sarah Weinman’s nonfiction book, The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel that Scandalized the World. Weinman investigates the 1948 case of Horner, who was abducted as a child by the con-artist and pedophile, Frank La Salle. Horner lived with La Salle as his captive for two years, spending her 12th and 13th birthdays on the road as he took her from her New Jersey hometown across the US to California. Horner’s story is also Dolores Haze’s story. Through careful critical investigation, Weinman maps out how Nabokov learned of, and developed Lolita around, reports of Horner’s kidnapping and abuse.

Weinman argues that we must remember Horner’s life, not only because it influenced the course of 20th century literature, but because Horner was a survivor in her own right. After a brave telephone call to her brother in-law, Horner’s terrifying internment with La Salle was finally over. Two years after her initial abduction, she returned home. But Horner’s life was cut short when, two years after her rescue, she was killed in a car accident. “What drove me then and what galls me now,” Weinman writes, “is that Sally’s abduction defined her entire short life. She never had a chance to grow up, pursue a career, marry, have children, be happy.”

Weinman pinpoints Nabokov’s knowledge of Horner to a single line in Lolita, “Had I done to Dolly, perhaps, what Frank La Salle, a fifty-year-old mechanic, had done to eleven-year-old Sally Horner in 1948?” Weinman explains that this exploitation marks Nabokov’s only real connection to Professor Humbert. “For decades Sally’s claim to immortality was as an incidental reference in Lolita,” she writes. “One of the many utterances by the predatory narrator Humbert Humbert, that allows him to control the narrative, and of course to control Dolores Haze.”

This video is about a teenage girl who believes what these two older men tell her: that she is special, unique, and, if she does what they want, there is fame coming her way.

In Swain’s screen test, her eyes gleam when she cracks a joke at Jeremy Irons’ expense. “I’m a murderous pervert,” she says, mimicking Irons. She laughs and rolls her eyes, readying herself for applause. Lyne gives it to her: a big belly laugh off-camera. Lyne’s playboy hair, coupled with his English accent, turn him into everyone’s uncle who knows no boundaries. He is both flirty, and fatherly. Then, on the second take, Irons slaps Swain across the face. He doesn’t hesitate. It’s shocking to see. Effective. When it’s over, Lyne goes in a for hug. With his arms around her, he whispers praise. Swain says she’s fine. She’s a professional after all.

On the extra features that accompany the film, Lyne calls Swain “spontaneous,” but in this video, she seems more manic, easily distracted, jumping over the sofa, twitching, letting her legs fall open in denim shorts. My own maternal instinct makes me want to reach through the screen and push her knees together. There are no mothers in this video — just like there are no mothers in the second part of the novel. Melanie Griffith, who plays Charlotte Haze, is killed off 25 minutes into the two- and half-hour film.

But this video isn’t really about Lolita, or Nabokov, or literature at all. This video is about a teenage girl who believes what these two older men tell her: that she is special, unique, and, if she does what they want, there is fame coming her way.

***

I was 13 in 1997, when Adrian Lyne’s Lolita tried to make its way into theaters. Like the novel, the film was initially banned in the US. It made its premiere in Europe before debuting on Showtime. Back then, TV premieres were considered the mark of a flop. In the end, the movie did see an American theatrical release, but in extremely limited venues, which all but guaranteed the film would be considered — at least financially — a failure.

I remember reading an article, disturbingly titled, “Lolita Comes Again,” in one of my dad’s Esquires. Author, Elizabeth Kaye gives a searing account of the making of the movie; she is as critical of Adrian Lyne and his Lolita endeavor, as she is of American puritanism itself. Kaye keeps her knife sharpened throughout the profile but is also coolly detached from getting too involved. She lets the cast and crew do the real heavy lifting for her:

At times, people working on the movie felt compelled to defend its subject, often for the oddest of reasons, among them that since girls must cease to be virgins, they may as well be deflowered by their fathers, who can, at least, be said to love them. One principal figure in the action, denying Humbert’s calamitous effect on Lolita, invoked a female friend who had been sexually abused as a child yet had emerged miraculously unscathed.

I wish I had read the writing, which was very much on the wall, but instead the profile only served to reinforce a belief I was just starting to nurture: I thought I was the powerful one when an adult man, someone my father’s age, stopped to watch me saunter down the sidewalk. I thought I was intimidating, hard to catch, not easy, like prey.

At,13, I loved looking at the photographs of Dominique Swain. In the Esquire spread she is wearing a light blue nautical-themed romper. Her red hair is braided Heidi-style across the top of her head. She sports saddle shoes and blows big pink gum bubbles. She sits on Jeremy Irons’ lap. I spent years searching for the same shoes and romper. At 16, I went to a cast party where an older man I had a crush on would be in attendance. As a teenager, I believed I was an actress, and that night, at the opening gala, I put on a light blue sundress, and wore my hair in two braids across my head. I didn’t understand anything about seduction — and I shouldn’t have had to — but I did think the way to a man’s heart was in the costume of a nymphet. I tried my hardest to mimic the clothes and posture of Swain. I projected authority onto her. Those photos in Esquire were my source material.

That night, standing next to the buffet, and looking for a glass of champagne, hoping I wouldn’t get caught, I felt him behind me. His body wasn’t all the way pressed against mine, instead there was just enough space between us that you could slip a hand through. I felt his breath though, on my neck when he bent down to whisper, “When d’you learn to walk that way?”

***

Dominique Swain was born in 1980 and raised in Malibu, California. Before Lolita she had never acted, not even in school plays, though she had auditioned plenty. She started attending open calls at 9 years old, for anything from commercials to the Brady Bunch movie. Kirsten Dunst is said to have narrowly beat her for the part of Claudia — the woman forever stuck in the body of child — in Interview with a Vampire. When Swain read for the part of Dolores Haze she had just finished reading the novel, and is forever quoted as saying, “Lolita doesn’t have a point of view. I think I can give her one.”

Adrian Lyne, it seems, begs to differ with his lead actress. In the early ’80s, Lyne made his feature debut, Foxes, a movie that is equal parts a melodramatic teen PSA, and a gentle film about female friendship and desire. Then he made Flashdance and 9 ½ weeks — both erotic dramas that put their female protagonists’ sexuality on center stage. His most successful film, Fatal Attraction, has a complex legacy. Glenn Close stars as Alex, a woman who develops a violent obsession after an affair goes sour. Though the film received six Oscar nominations, it also helped coin the phrase “bunny boiler,” meant to convey a certain type of “crazy woman.”

In some ways Lyne was the perfect director for Lolita. He had been steadily making movies about the complexity of female desire. But his Lolita is derived from the most superficial reading of the novel. He missed the genius, what Nabokov wrote in his essay, “On a Book Entitled Lolita,” was the “nerves of the novel,” the “secret points, the subliminal coordinates by means of which the book is plotted.” It’s these furtive scenes in which Nabokov allows Haze her freedom, or rather validation, a kind witness for her pain. Towards the end of the novel, Nabokov provides readers with a hint of Haze’s inner life, while simultaneously forcing us to understand that Professor Humbert has never been granted entry there:

My Lolita remarked: “You know, what’s so dreadful about dying is that you are completely on your own”; and it struck me, as my automaton knees went up and down, that I simply did not know a thing about my darling’s mind and that quite possibly, behind the awful juvenile clichés, there was in her a garden and a twilight, and a palace gate […] absolutely forbidden to me.

A true Lolita reader will know that even in the very first passage we’re set to understand Haze’s fate as tragic, no matter how charming Humbert can be. In the pseudo forward, Nabokov writes, “Mrs. Richard F. Schiller, previously Miss Dolores Haze, aka Lolita, died on Christmas day 1952, giving birth to a stillborn baby girl.”


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Lyne,on the other hand,wanted a movie, “that sticks with you after dinner,” perhaps as an examination of complicated puritanical morals. The movie he made glorifies and perpetuates sexual assault; at its heart, the film sides with Professor Humbert, and believes him when he considers Haze as “a deadly little demon among the wholesome children.”

The first time Humbert sees Haze, she is lying on her stomach under the sprinklers reading a magazine. She looks at him, smiles and flashes her retainer. The camera lingers on her wet body, and the shot is lush and melancholic, the beginning of a trite romance. The whole film looks as though it is shot through a layer of gauze, with the sepia tones of Humbert and Haze’s road trip lulling the viewer into a beautiful trance. It is so mesmerizing we forget we are watching a movie about child molestation. The film is told in flashbacks from Humbert’s point of view, further poeticizing his bad deeds and telegraphing that this story is Humbert’s alone. Jeremy Irons’ voice-overs not only serve to justify Humbert’s behavior, they make him seem valiant — ultimately asking us to consider Humbert’s abuse the work of a tragic lover.

Weinman states in The Real Lolita, “both girls, [Haze and Horner] fictional and real, were wholesome children. Contrary to Humber Humbert’s assertions, Sally, like Lolita was no seductress.” Lyne’s Lolita never wants to accuse Humbert of having done anything wrong. As Lyne said repeatedly in interviews from that time, he believed he was making “a love story.”

A true Lolita reader will know that even in the very first passage we’re set to understand Haze’s fate as tragic, no matter how charming Humbert can be.

Weinman writes about the famous scene where Humbert has an orgasm with Haze on his lap, “Humbert, of course, believes his emission to be furtive — that the girl doesn’t know. But Nabokov, in his description, leaves it up to the reader to decide what Lolita knew.” In the ’97 film, Lyne decided that Lolita did more than simply know what Humbert was doing — that she was in on it, too. The camera holds tight on Swain’s face as her eyes close, and her lips part. We watch her, as she pretends to come.

***

This past year actress Natalie Portman gave a speech at the Women’s March about the unfortunate consequences of being a female child actor:

At age 13 […] I excitedly opened my first fan mail to read a rape fantasy that a man had written me. A countdown was started on my local radio show to my 18th birthday, euphemistically the date that I would be legal to sleep with. Movie reviewers talked about my budding breasts in reviews. I understood very quickly, even as a 13-year-old, that if I were to express myself sexually, I would feel unsafe. And that men would feel entitled to discuss and objectify my body, to my great discomfort.

The abuse many women experienced at the hands of Harvey Weinstein and other men in positions of power in Hollywood was both horrifying and endemic. There is another connected force that pushed actresses to the forefronts of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements: the stories and characters these women have been asked to portray not only cast them aside, but put them in harm’s way, enacting violence upon them mentally and physically. The movies they star in are movies that imply, or even overtly state, that women’s lives do not matter. Viewers’ entitled consumption of women like Portman and Swaine on screen implicitly permits their consumption off screen. Portman turned down Lolita. She told interviewers, “that movie’s not going to be anything but sleaze.”

Child actress Mara Wilson, who starred in Matilda and Mrs. Doubtfire, wrote in Elle about being sexualized as a child star, “Even before I was out of middle school, I had been featured on foot fetish websites, photoshopped into child porn, and received all kinds of letters and messages online from grown men.” Brooke Shields recalled in her memoir, There Was a Little Girl, that during her first sexual experiences, at the age of 22, she was so disassociated from her body she could only think of her mother. Terri Shields managed her daughter’s career and was responsible for pushing Brooke into many of her most sexually exploitative roles. “I didn’t know where I began and where my mother ended,” Shields explained. Natalie Portman’s first role was in The Professional — a film in which she played a nymphet architype planning to revenge her family’s murder, and the film sexualizes Portman in ways similar to Lolita. Ironically, the success of The Professional most likely also gave her the recognition and freedom to turn Lolita down. Hollywood is a world in which the power actresses have is often gained against their self-interest.

***

In The Real Lolita, Weinman quotes author Azar Nafisi from her book, Reading Lolita in Tehran:

Lolita belongs to a category of victims who have no defense and are never given a chance to articulate their own story. As such she becomes a double victim — not only her life but also her life story is taken from her.

Weinman points out that Nafisi unknowingly connects Horner and Dolores Haze, writing:

In fact, Sally Horner is a triple victim: snatched from her ordinary life by Frank La Salle, only to have her life cut short by a car accident, and then strip mined to produce the bones of Lolita, the only acknowledgment, a parenthetical hidden in plain sight, hardly noticed by many millions of readers.

If Lolita is a double victim and Sally Horner a triple victim, then what is Dominique Swain? She is the girl who lived inside Lolita, inside an adaptation that centered her as the seductresses — the perpetrator, not the victim. Dominique Swain inhabited one of the most misunderstood child abuse victims in literature, and with that she also inhabited all the viewers’ rape fantasies about her. Lyne’s Lolita didn’t just sanction those fantasies, it built a beautiful stage for them.

***

There was no significant fame coming to Dominique Swain, at least not the kind she was promised, not the Portman kind or even the Shields kind. After Lolita, she starred in one B-movie after another, always playing some version of the nymphet. In the movie Face/Off — which came out the same time as Lolita — her scenes with John Travolta, who played her father, mimic the same incestuous relationship she had with Jeremy Irons. Next came Tart, The Smokers, and Girl. In each one she’s wearing a tartan skirt, playing a precocious teen who discovers sex for the first time, though this discovery is mostly made for the benefit of the male viewer. Eventually she moved on to TV movies. In the last few years her biggest role was in an extremely low budget horror movie, The 6th Friend, which did not get a theatrical release.

Lyne understood there would be blowback to deal with in making his Lolita, and he wasn’t happy about it. Elizabeth Kaye quotes him saying, “If I were doing a movie about a thirteen-year-old getting chopped up by cannibals, there’d be no problem.” Almost a decade later Swain stars in the kind of torture-porn movies that delight in her rape and murder: sandwiched around The 6th Friend, are The Black Room, and Hexed. Their titles suffice as an explanation of their plots. In some ways Lyne was right, we don’t seem to care about the brutality of violence towards women on screen. And yet, I’m not sure that Swain would have ended up with the compromised career she has now, had she not done Lolita. She is always and has always been eaten by cannibals.

There was no significant fame coming to Dominique Swain. After Lolita, she starred in one B-movie after another, always playing some version of the nymphet.

The horror inflicted upon Sally Horner, then Dolores Haze, then Dominique Swain, moves as if it’s contagious, with Horner functioning as a kind of patient zero of this particular strain of cruelty. The general public is only just now coming to understand how far it’s spread, due to the film and continual promotion of Lolita culture — which has given thousands of people permission to enjoy the story and to inhabit their own versions of characters from the story. Adrian Lyne’s Lolita was not the first adaptation of the novel: in 1962, Stanley Kubrick released his version of Lolita. The tagline to that film was, “How did they ever make a movie of Lolita.” Now I think the more pertinent question is why they made a movie of Lolita. Why is the movie worth more than the actress?

Dominique Swain was 36 years old when The 6th Friend was released, but she still wore her hair in braided pigtails like she did in Lolita. In most of the interviews I found, no matter her age, she sported her hair in two braids across her head. The two pigtail braids are a strange reminder to me that the worst part of a Lolita complex is not the inability to grow up, but the desire not to. The illusion of power is too great. Watching that YouTube video, I wasn’t viewing a screen test for a film adaptation of the great American novel; instead I was watching a classic and all too familiar scene — one that I have witnessed and been part of many times. It is the scene of a young girl vying for the attention of an older man. She is looking for salvation in his heedfulness. When Adrian Lyne leans into Swain, hugging her and whispering, I realize I’ve heard his words for years and from countless men. When he holds Swain’s face, he holds my face too. I listen when he says “Well done, darling.”

* * *

Lacy Warner holds an MFA from Columbia in nonfiction writing and has written for Tin House, Guernica, The Los Angeles Review of Books and others. She is currently at work on a project about the intersection between sex and art and the currency of desire.

Editor: Sari Botton