James Mason did not receive an Oscar nomination, despite being nominated for a Bafta and a Golden Globe, for portraying Professor Humbert Humbert in Lolita.
James Mason took on the role that he had turned down originally, apparently due to scheduling conflicts, but before his schedule allowed him to take the role it was turned down by Laurence Olivier and David Niven, Olivier based on the advice of his agents, and Niven over concerns for his TV show. This is not at all surprising considering that the role of Humbert Humbert is that of a pedophile, and that is not the only challenge within the role, though certainly a major one. Now starting at the beginning, in chronological terms that is, Mason's casting could not be more perfect as Mason, think of simply the image of an "intellectual" and Mason just seems to fit. This is surprisingly important for the performance though as Mason being such a naturally dignified presence gives Humbert almost a forced dignity. Mason tricks you almost into accepting Humbert more than you might have otherwise since Mason so effectively exudes the sort of respectability and intelligence one would expect from Humbert, a noted lecturer on French literature you know, even though what Humbert does in the film in no way supports this idea, since Humbert really is anything but respectable as we find out throughout the story.
It is hard to imagine anyone else in the role actually because Mason's whole approach, and presence enable the character in a way one would not expect one would not mind following through the film's run time. It is interesting to examine Mason's work as he does not in anyway attempt to make Humbert likable to make for his indiscretions, in fact many things work in quite the opposite fashion. For example in the early scene where he's looking at the house to stay being shown by the somewhat lusty Charlotte Haze (Shelley Winters), there is a definite air of superiority in Humbert's interactions yet Mason again is just so good at presenting this sort of type that you feel he earns it. Of course this in a way seems subverted quite quickly when Humbert makes his decision to stay in Charlotte's home because he glances at Charlotte's 14 year old daughter Lolita(Sue Lyon). Mason reveals an understated yet clearly rather considerable lust as Humbert eyes her. The stare of a creepy old man to be sure in terms of content yet Mason oddly enough manages to so carefully not go overboard, while in no way hiding the intention of his character from the audience. It's so brilliantly handled by Mason as he allows us to follow Humbert in a way, you wouldn't imagine one could.
Well as Mason in a way tricks us into allowing Humbert to be our lead, Stanley Kubrick actually continues to throws various challenges against him as the film progresses. The film's tone actually has strong vein of humor in it mostly through the character of Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers), and this presents two severe yet possible pitfalls for Mason's performance. The first being that the film very easily considering the subject matter and the style of humor combined could just become rather grotesque, the other being that Humbert as well as Mason could have been completely overshadowed by Sellers, and the madness he makes with his performance as another man interested in Lolita. Well again Mason is the rock center of the film that really makes everything come together as it does, because he always keeps such a distinct sense of honesty in his performance as Humbert. The thing is though that Mason actually even does have technically comical moments, in the darkest of ways usually mostly coming from his interactions with Winters's character. Though Mason succeeds in being rather enjoyable in showing just how technically cruel is towards is to her, as he does so successfully create the sense of false interest in the scenes with Charlotte, yet always undercuts them by never leaving Humbert's true desires in question for the audience.
Now even on point with Sellers, Mason is essential to Sellers's is performance, as it is Mason's performance that allows his take on Quilty to exist, since if the actor playing Humbert tried to actively go for laughs along with Sellers, the film very easily could have gone off the rails losing complete sight of the main point of the story. Mason loses none of the potential humor brought on by Sellers by being a terrific straight man to him. Mason's timing against Sellers is impeccable as he keeps Humbert just out of sync with him in the right fashion, since even though they share the same goal for themselves they are of adifferent mind. Mason quite adept though in funneling his moments with Sellers by keeping Humbert so perfectly out of touch, and unaware of the game that this other man is playing. Mason encourages the laughs found in the material, but never allows it to overwhelm the story, keeping Humbert's dilemma more than just a very dark joke. Mason is extremely effective in the role because he does not ever hold back in terms of actually delving into revealing that lust in Humbert, as he portrays Humbert as a man stricken by an obsession. Mason is excellent in that he does keep up the shield of Humbert, through his own presentation of the "good" professor, while never failing to subtly delve into the mind of the man, who falls into his own personal abyss.
Mason actually makes the gradual revelation of just how dark Humbert's inclination particularly effective because of the way he began as that assured and proper sort. Mason is outstanding in the way he slowly shows the loss of this facade of sorts in a way as circumstances allow him to pursue Lolita in a way he had not be allowed to before. Mason is able to realize the sheer primal nature of the urges as this rather base side of Humbert makes itself more known, as his interactions with Lolita become all the more obvious, and eventually this leads to them becoming involved beyond some questionable glances towards one another. Mason portrays this as only becoming more detrimental for Humbert as it forces out all of the worst aspects of his personality as man. Mason makes this very disconcerting because he loses that usual ease of control of one self Mason presents, instead now revealing a desperation in Humbert as he attempts to control every part of Lolita's life. Mason is so good as he presents just how ruinous the relationship is for Humbert as that confidence begins to wain, and this terrible sense of unease seems ever present in every movement he makes. Mason is incredible as he depicts the crumbling mental and physical state of Humbert. This descent is marvelously performed and is all the more remarkable because of how Mason strips away that apparent respectability originally found in Humbert. Mason shows how Humbert basically loses himself as Mason so vividly creates the terrible pain in Humbert from the stress of his paranoia, as well as how terrible of a wretch he has become as he finds that Lolita has been tricking him the whole time. In the final scenes of the film Mason is absolutely amazing as he takes Humbert to his lowest point. The first being as he brings Humbert to his most vulnerable as Humbert makes one final attempt to get Lolita back. Mason makes Humbert an emotional wreck as he basically begs her to come back to him leaving him with almost nothing left. This leads him to only thing he has left which is to seek vengeance against his rival Quilty, which is actually the first scene of the film. Mason chilling in the scene because he makes this essentially the death of Humbert as he's murdering the other man as there is such a single minded cruelty, and hate is all there is in his eyes in the end as that's all there is left to him. This is one of Mason's best performances as his portrayal of Humbert enables the film to work not only in terms of creating a captivating portrait of Humbert's story of personal decay, but also in flawlessly finding the exact right footing in terms of the character as well as the film's style that prevents the film from collapsing due to its more scandalous elements.