Sue Lyon, the actress who played the title role in Stanley Kubrick’s controversial 1962 film Lolita, has died at the age of 73.
Lyon’s friend Phil Syracopoulos confirmed the actress’ death to the New York Times, noting that she died in Los Angeles Thursday following a period of declining health. No cause of death was provided.
The Iowa-born Lyon, then 14 with only a handful of small television roles to her credit, was cast over the 800 young actresses who reportedly auditioned for the role of Dolores Haze in the adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel about a middle-aged college professor smitten by his 12-year-old stepdaughter.
“She’s a one-in-a-million find,” Kubrick said of Lyon at the time; the director first saw the actress during her appearance on The Loretta Young Show. Quoting the character Humbert Humbert in the novel, Nabakov described Lyon as “the perfect nymphet.”
A photo of Lyon captured in the film’s iconic movie poster — a Bert Stern photograph featuring Lyon wearing heart-shaped sunglasses and consuming a red lollipop — didn’t even appear in Lolita, but remained a lasting image from the 1962 film. While Lolita toned down the novel’s more scandalous aspects due to the strict Motion Picture Production Code, including aging “Lolita” to 15 years old, the film and its subject matter divided critics of the era. Still, Lyon would go on to win a Golden Globe for Most Promising Newcomer – Female for the film, which would become her defining role over an acting career that would last just two decades.
Following Lolita, the still-teenaged Lyon landed parts in John Huston’s 1964 Tennessee Williams adaptation The Night of the Iguana and John Ford’s 1966 drama 7 Women. After a steady string of roles through the late Sixties and early Seventies, Lyon saw her career crater following her 1973 marriage to Cotton Adamson, who at the time was incarcerated on second-degree murder charges. Although the two divorced a year later —”Getting a divorce wasn’t something I wanted to do – it was something Hollywood wanted me to do,” the actress admitted — Lyon’s career never recovered: her final role was a bit part as a newswoman in the 1980 b-horror film Alligator.
Although Lolita was Lyon’s most enduring role, the actress seemed to regret her casting in the ensuing decades: In a rare statement, following the 1997 release of a Lolita remake starring Jeremy Irons, Lyon told Reuters, “I am appalled they should revive the film that caused my destruction as a person.”