We Still Love You, Sue Lyon

No time like the present to stop fetishising those “Lolita” stills, right? This is from “The Astral Factor” (1978)

Today we pay frustrated tribute to actress Sue Lyon (b. 1946). Frustrated, of course, because she has successfully maintained a veil of secrecy and anonymity for almost 40 years. She made her last movie when she 34 years old, and retreated thereafter from public life so effectively that any information about her present life and circumstances is almost impossible to come by. Without a doubt she has her reasons. She articulates some of them in this rare 1987 interview, recorded seven years after her last movie, the John Sayles-scripted camp classic Alligator (1980). But that doesn’t stop us from missing this intelligent, gifted and charming actress.

Lyon started out as a child model, helping her single mom earn money for the family. This led to parts on The Loretta Young Show (1959) and Dennis the Menace (1960), which brought her to the attention of Stanley Kubrick who needed a red-blooded American teenage girl to play the title role in his adaptation of Nabokov’s controversial 1955 novel Lolita. The Iowa born Lyon was a dream come true — not just bright and flirty, but possessed of an enigmatic Mona Lisa quality, a coy nature that seemed older than her years, and which can be a kind of catnip to men. She held her own onscreen with huge talents like James Mason, Shelley Winters and Peter Sellers. But while I do love this movie and find it hysterically funny, in recent years when I watch it I find myself disturbed by the degree it seems to adopt the point of view of Humbert Humbert. And because Lyon was a sensation in the role, she became overly identified with it. She was sexualized, onscreen and off, from the age of 15 years old. Can you imagine the lechery that became her portion from that moment forward, the sleazy dudes who wanted to be able to say they’d gotten it on with the real Lolita?

Possibly to forestall some of that, in 1963, at the tender age of 17, she married actor Hampton Fancher, eight years her senior, who was later best known for writing the screenplay for Blade Runner (1982). The union only lasted two years. It was the first of five marriages.

And yet, also from a young age, Lyon had marvelous opportunities to earn the respect she briefly enjoyed as an actress. She followed up Lolita with the 1964 adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ The Night of the Iguana, directed by John Huston, and opposite Richard Burton, Ava Gardner, and Deborah Kerr. Next came 7 Women (1966), John Ford’s last film. She was under consideration for the role of Bonnie Parker in Bonnie and Clyde, but Faye Dunaway beat her out. A pity, for that might have elevated her career to an untouchable status. Instead, that year (1967) she did the perfectly respectable, but not blockbuster, films The Flim Flam Man, opposite George C. Scott and Tony Rome, with Frank Sinatra.

At this point, the momentum of her career seemed to stall. She was in an all-star tv movie version of Arsenic and Old Lace in 1969. (What a cast! Helen Hayes, Lillian Gish, Bob Crane, Fred Gwynne, Jack Gilford, Billy De Wolfe, Bob Dishy, David Wayne, Frank Campanella! Now that’s television!) Then came the Spanish-American western Four Rode Out (1970) with Leslie Nielsen and Pernell Roberts. Her presence in this one reminds me a lot of some low-budget westerns Oscar-winning Millie Perkins (The Diary of Anne Frank) appeared in around the same time. Then came another tv movie But I Don’t Want to Get Married (1970) with another insane all-star cast: Herschel Bernardi, Shirley Jones, Brandon Cruz, Nanette Fabray, June Lockhart, Tina Louise, Harry Morgan, Joyce Van Patten, Kay Medford, Kathleen Freeman, and Jerry Paris! A gal could get lost in company like that, and she sort of did.

For the next decade Lyon pretty much divided her time between schlocky but delicious film and television. In addition to episodes of Love American Style, Night Gallery, and Fantasy Island, you could see her in such fodder as Evel Knievel (1971), The Magician a.k.a Tarot (1973), Smash-Up On Interstate 5 (1976), Crash! (1976), End of the World (1977), The Astral Factor (1978), and the aforementioned Alligator (1980). I hasten to add that she was still in a respectable place at this stage. All of these films and others she appeared in at the time feature stars of comparable prestige. Schlock was the coin of the realm in the ’70s, and I would gladly watch any of these movies or shows, any day of the week.

But, as we said, her marital road was bumpy. Her second marriage was an interracial one, to photographer and football coach Roland Harrison, in a time when such marriages were much rarer in America. The couple moved to Spain but the liaison only lasted for about a year. Her third marriage was to a man serving time for murder and robbery. This is why she has no screen credits for a couple of years in the middle ’70s. She was working as a cocktail waitress and visiting her husband. The marriage only last a few months. When she returned in 1976 to appear in Smash-Up on Interstate 5, it was in the thankless role of a biker chick, with scarcely any lines. Thankfully she worked her way back to decent parts.

Her last two marriages occurred when she had already withdrawn from films. The fifth and last one, was the longest lasting (1985-2002). It is known that she has two children (one of whom says she last saw her mother when was 12 years old). I have seen one rather unflattering fairly recent candid photo of her taken by paparazzi, which I won’t share. A dedicated fan created this website in her honor in 2015. Other than that, I got nothin’.

In this age of #metoo, a memoir by Sue Lyon might be an extremely valuable document. But that would only bring her more attention, and — watch this interview — she REALLY hates the spotlight and intrusion into her private life. Wherever she is, I hope she’s happy.

ADDENDUM: We just got the sad news of Sad Lyon’s passing on December 26, 2019. The cause has not yet been reported.