THE LOVED ONE is a bona fide weird one from 1965, directed by Tony Richardson, scripted by Terry Southern and Christopher Isherwood as a 121-minute mod update and target-expansion of Evelyn Waugh’s 176-page 1948 novella. A scalding black comedy set in Los Angeles, it starts by skewering the movie industry, including the self-exiled British wing, then gores the pretentious vanity of the upscale funeral business. And gluttony, and the military, and whatever else it can shoot poison darts at.*
Visiting L.A., youthful, unemployed English poet wannabe ‘Dennis Barlow’ (Robert Morse) drops in on his uncle (John Gielgud) who’s been fired after decades as a production assistant for ‘Megalapolitan Studios’. When the old man commits suicide, Dennis becomes involved with the foofy ‘Whispering Glades’ cemetery-mortuary establishment owned by greedy charlatan ‘Rev. Wilbur Glenworthy’ (Jonathan Winters) whose twin brother ‘Henry’ has also lost his job at the studio and is dog-boned by the Reverend to run a pet cemetery sideline, ‘Happier Hunting Grounds’. Employed by Whispering Glades are lovely cosmetician ‘Aimée Thanatogenus’ (Anjanette Comer), spaced-out with naivete, and wildly flamboyant head embalmer ‘Mr.Joyboy’ (Rod Steiger), who pines for Aimée while living with his grotesque glutton of a mom (Ayllene Gibbons).
“Inhumement, entombment, inurnment, immurement? Some people just lately have preferred ensarcophagusment.”
In the leads, Morse, 33, and Comer, 25, were still fresh to feature films: within a few years both promising career trajectories in that arena stalled. Morse doesn’t fare well here, because the writing leaves his insubstantial character high and dry and also due to awkward re-dubbing of his shaky English accent. The beauteous Comer, on the other hand, displays some real flair. Winter’s, 40, whose only film role had been part of the ensemble of It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (where he was fabulous) feels forced here, his unique brand of disarming lunacy straight-jacketed by the grating and unlikable twins he’s saddled with.
In cameos: James Coburn, Robert Morley, Roddy McDowall, Tab Hunter, Liberace, Margaret Leighton, Milton Berle, Dana Andrews (one of eight roles that year). A mixed batch: Morley, McDowall and Hunter add little, Coburn is amusing, Andrews wasted. A sharp scene is the zany spat between Leighton & Berle over their dead pooch, and better than that is the drop-dead funny bit from Liberace, as an unctuous coffin counselor, ‘Mr.Starker’; you’ll regret he didn’t do more acting.
Far and away the spotlight is stolen by Rod Steiger’s masterly mincing of Mr. Joyboy: by playing the otherworldly wackjob straight (so to speak) he delivers a comic tour de force gift-wrapped from Camp Heaven. Never less than intense, at 39, Rod had been delivering strong performances on camera since 1950, and would win an Oscar two years later for his memorable redneck sheriff on In The Heat Of The Night. But 1965 was really his high point—stunning as the anguished ‘Sol Nazerman’ in The Pawnbroker, sterling as the cur ‘Komarovsky’ in Doctor Zhivago—and then this hilarious Oedipus wreck, which should have netted him at least a nomination in the Supporting Actor category at the Oscars (he was up for Best Actor in The Pawnbroker, losing to another dramatic actor playing wild comedy—Lee Marvin in Cat Ballou.) As his horrifying eating machine of a mother, Ayllene Gibbons chomps into one of the most obnoxious characters ever splayed on a mainstream film; her orgiastic scarfing is enough to make you swear off everything that’s fun in the fridge.
Waugh’s material about Brit actors in Hollywood (a 1930s-40s clique) was too dated by 1965 to carry much pith-punch, so screenwriter Isherwood (who Waugh detested) and director Richardson land briefly on that angle and then push on to the more relatable inanity of the glitzy funeral biz. Terry Southern’s rewriting must’ve accounted for the inclusion of the corrupt military tie-in and the last third when the tone goes flat and the movie spirals into frantic overtime.
Ultimately, it’s a mess, but enough of the barbs stick, and the best work from the cast (Steiger, Comer, Liberace) is more than delirious enough to command a view. Helping greatly is the stellar b&w lensing from Haskell Wexler.
Going a million dollars over budget, it was a chaotic production. Richardson clashed with Wexler (who was also producing) over the camerawork, the obvious dubbing job with Morse thuds, the editing (Hal Ashby was one of the team) is jerky and that third act belly-flop fizzles into evaporation. Boosted in its advertising as “The Motion Picture With Something To Offend Everyone!”, it succeeded in turning off critics and only took in $5,400,000, 54th place for the year, unloved in light of costing at least $4,000,000.
With Barbara Nichols (dubbed for some reason we can’t divine), Lionel Stander (abrasive), Robert Easton, Paul Williams (his film debut, 25, playing a teenager), Bernie Kopell, Alan Napier, Dort Clark, Don Haggerty, Alan Baxter, Joy Harmon (two years away from history’s most famous car wash), Jamie Farr and Hank Worden. Jayne Mansfield and Ruth Gordon were in it, cut from the final edit.
* Bite The Hand That Feeds You Dept: A pillar of misanthropy, Britain’s Evelyn Waugh found America (hated as a matter of course) and in particular Hollywood a prime target for dispensing venomous wit after a postwar visit to see about filming “Brideshead Revisited”. Yank-phobic director Richardson was no fan of coarse colonials either: before he broke big with Tom Jones he’d undergone a miserable studio experience shooting William Faulkner’s Sanctuary, a 1961 flop. Hiding in plain sight among The Loved One‘s bouillabaisse of sour glee is its biggest in-joke: it had maybe the gayest cast of any movie of the era—Gielgud, McDowall, Hunter and Liberace were still in the closet publicly but those “in the know” knew to subtract surreptitious subtext (add co-writer Isherwood to the recipe). As it is, Steiger’s glorious Mr. Joyboy out-flames them all.
“There’s got to be a way to get those stiffs off my property.” Paul Williams character works on model rockets, which provides the brainstorm to launch the deceased into orbit: his real life brother was a NASA rocket scientist. Some in-ground-level technical advice—and a measure of the screenplay’s fuel—was provided by Jessica Mitford, whose 1963 best-seller “The American Way Of Death” tore into the morbid excesses of the funeral industry. As to the morbid obesity of Mrs. Joyboy, consider that this slap in the jowls was decades before half the population of the country weighed more than the North American continent they trundle on. Ouch!–can’t stand the heat? Get out of the kitchen….
From Tab Hunter’s autobio: “Just when it seemed I might never make another movie, Tony Richardson came to the rescue…..He stocked the cast with stars in cameo roles. Mine was only two days’ work, playing a cemetery tour guide…How oddly fitting, considering that my movie career was dead.”
Speaking of terminal, Waugh died a few days after this opened. He hated the movie, or rather the idea of it, even though he never saw it, likely due his longtime feud with Christopher Isherwood, his bickering with Richardson and his just being disdainful of humanity in general.