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RIP Sue Lyon

by Tom Lisanti
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So sad. First we lose Carol Lynley this year and now Sue Lyon!?! What is going on? They were part of that group of 1960s blondes that I loved. In the late fifties and early sixties petite pretty baby doll blondes were all the rage with young movie fans. In their teens with shapely figures and All-American wholesomeness, these nymphets were so interchangeable that sometimes even their own families couldn’t tell them apart in photos. Sandra Dee and Connie Stevens (the only one I never cottoned too), always playing the good or mixed up adolescent with big romantic problems, led the pack of nymphets early in the decade in terms of popularity. Critics, however, favored the most talented Tuesday Weld whose wild teens on screen aped her personal life. Her stature only grew as the decade progressed. Carol Lynley, Yvette Mimieux, and Sue Lyon fell somewhere in between them whereas Diane McBain excelled as the sophisticate or bitch.

Following in the footsteps of Sandra Dee, Carol Lynley and Tuesday Weld, Sue Lyon too began her career as a child model who had to support the family due to an absentee father. Modeling led to some minor acting roles on such TV series as A Letter to Loretta and Dennis the Menace where she famously gave that little rascal his first kiss. In 1961, producer James H. Harris was having a challenging time trying to cast the role of Lolita in the movie version of Vladimir Nabakov’s novel, Lolita (1962). Tuesday Weld, Hayley Mills, Jill Haworth, and Joey Heatherton all turned it down. Marta Kristen of Lost in Space and Jenny Maxwell best known as the girl Elvis spanked in Blue Hawaii were seriously considered. However, Harris and director Stanley Kubrick thought fourteen-year-old Sue Lyon whom they spotted on TV had just the right quality to project Lolita’s immaturity and peculiar brashness. She met with them for an hour thinking she was interviewing for a TV show. Before screen testing, her protective mother sat her down to explain what the controversial movie was about though the teenager was familiar with the notorious novel by Nabokov. Lyon was the perfect choice to play Lolita as she had the sexy but innocent appearance to make audiences believe that staid James Mason as writer Humbert Humbert would go to such extreme lengths to be with the underage nymphet after first catching a glimpse of her sunning herself wearing a two-piece bathing suit, sunglasses, and picture hat. The scene of Lyon laying on her bed licking a lollipop, while taunting the frustrated Mason, is unforgettable as is when they are living together after the death of her mother Shelley Winters and he paints her toenails while interrogating the girl about her afternoon whereabouts. She sips her Coke nonchalantly feigning innocence about the boys she met at the malt shop. In an interview she did for the 1987 French TV Show Cinéma cinémas, Lyon claimed a lot of the scowls and funny faces she makes in the movie as well as her gum chewing were suggested by her to make the character more childish. For her expert performance Lyon shared the Golden Globe Award for Most Promising Newcomer – Female with Patty Duke and Rita Tushingham. 

Her next movie was director John Huston’s The Night of the Iguana (1964) based on the play by Tennessee Williams where she was once again the scantily-clad nymphet. This time Lyon’s sexy teen tempts defrocked minister Richard Burton on a bus tour of Mexico to the consternation of her controlling sexually repressed chaperone Grayson Hall who unconsciously lusts after her as well. The beguiling bikini-clad blonde sets her sights on the troubled Burton driving him to drink by sneaking into his room at night and whispering about how the boys back home love her soft skin and asking him, “Have I grown up too early?” When he rejects her advances, she gets tipsy with two shirtless Mexican beach boys and turns her attentions to blonde bus driver James Ward who comes to her “rescue.” As with Tuesday Weld, Sue Lyon’s on-screen antics coupled with her highly publicized off-screen love affairs and a quickie marriage to actor Hampton Fancher made her every parent’s nightmare and not a teen idol for their children to admire.

Trying to shake her Lolita persona, Sue Lyon traded in her bathing suits for a much more conservative wardrobe as a novice missionary in China held captive by a Mongolian war lord in Seven Women (1966), director John Ford’s last movie, and as a lovely small town gal who charms AWOL soldier boy Michael Sarrazin to give up his con man ways in the comedy The Flim-Flam Man (1967). She next played a drunken heiress in the detective yarn, Tony Rome (1967) starring Frank Sinatra as the gumshoe hired to find out who stole careless Lyon’s diamond pin. Even waking up in a seedy motel from a stupor, Lyon looked gorgeous. It was her last major studio production (talks of her co-starring in then controversial Lesbian drama The Killing of Sister George never came to be and Susannah York got the part) as her career waned due to her tumultuous personal life. 

Another film that got away was Bonnie and Clyde. Natalie Wood and Jane Fonda both turned down Bonnie and Clyde. Then the role was accepted and rejected by Tuesday Weld who just had a child. Carol Lynley was reportedly considered after producer/actor Warren Beatty saw stills of her as Jean Harlow in Harlow and liked her Thirties look but felt she looked too young. Reportedly, Bonnie was almost offered to Sue Lyon when Arthur Penn observed Faye Dunaway in a play in New York and brought her to Warren Beatty’s attention. She won the role, an Academy Award nomination, and super stardom.

Lyon relocated to Spain after marrying African American football player and photographer Roland Harrison where they conceived a daughter. While in Europe, Lyon surprisingly turned up in a low-budget spaghetti western entitled Four Rode Out (1970) playing a desperate woman who is willing to have sex with lawman Pernell Roberts of Bonanza fame in exchange for sparing the life of her Mexican lover framed for the murder of her father. Along with Leslie Nielsen as a duplicitous Pinkerton agent, they trek through the barren desert searching for the fugitive. With her marriage to Harrison over by 1971, Lyon returned to Hollywood and gave a sympathetic performance as the supportive wife of George Hamilton’s daredevil motorcycle rider in Evel Knievel (1971) before becoming a pariah to the studios because of the notoriety she received when she married then divorced convicted murderer Cotton Adamson. 

Returning to Europe, she starred in the Italian giallo Tarot (1973) as an adulterous gold digger who marries rich blind man Fernando Rey for his big bucks and gets drawn into a plot hatched by his servants to murder him and Spain’s Clockwork Terror a.k.a. Murder in a Blue World (1973) where she has one of her most outrageous roles as a caring nurse working at a hospital who at night seduces lonely men and kills them after having sex. She eventually gets involved with Chris Mitchum as the leader of a gang of red helmet wearing biker thugs. 

Back in Hollywood, Lyon still looking fantastic and far more youthful than her thirty years was part of the “all-star” cast playing motorists involved in the Smash-Up on Interstate Five (TV-1976). Next came a series of low-budget filmss that barely snuck into movie theaters. She could be seen in Crash! (1977) as the much younger wife of wheelchair bound Jose Ferrer (crippled in a car accident he holds Lyon responsible for) who with the help of a magical idol try to off one another; End of the World (1977) as the wife of scientist Kirk Scott who uncovers the plot of alien leader Christopher Lee masquerading as a priest to destroy the Earth; and Towing (1978) as a bar maid who tries to break up an illegal towing company’s stolen car operation. Lyon’s most notorious film from this period was The Astral Factor, which was deemed so bad it sat on the shelf until 1984 and was released as Invisible Strangler. Playing a fashion model, Sue meets her end in a bubble bath strangled by the rapist she testified against in court. Watching Lyon thrashing about the tub pretending to be strangled by an invisible man is painful especially knowing a decade before she was working with such giants of cinema as Stanley Kubrick and John Huston. Sue Lyon finally threw in the towel after playing a small part of a news reporter in the tongue-in-cheek horror movie Alligator (1980) from a script by John Sayles. It was her last acting job. Just before Lyon stopped giving interviews and faded away, she made sure everyone knew how show business destroyed her life.

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