“THE LOVED ONE”— Dying in California

“The Loved One”

Dying in California

Amos Lassen

When “The Loved One” hit movie screens in 1965, people were outdone. Based on Evelyn Waugh’s book of the same name and adapted for the screen by Terry Southern and Christopher Isherwood, this is a movie that could never be made today. It was considered tasteless and offensive in its satire on the funeral business in California and I loved it. I recently watched the Blu ray release of this satire and I was even more certain as to why I loved a movie that the world hated.

It is not just about death, however. Director Tony Richardson takes on sex, greed, religion and mother love, as well. Robert Morse plays Dennis Barlow. a would-be poet who gets entangled with an unctuous cemetery entrepreneur (Jonathan Winters), a mom-obsessed mortician, Mr. Joyboy (Rod Steiger) and other bizarre characters played by such adept actors as John Gielgud, Robert Morley, Tab Hunter, Milton Berle, James Coburn and Liberace. The film was advertised as “the movie with something to offend everyone” and we easily see why. The story centers around the pomp and ceremony that comes with the daily operation of a posh mortuary and a climaxing idea by an owner of a Southern California cemetery of orbiting cadavers into space since we are running out of burial spaces on earth.

Dennis falls in love with the lady cosmetician (later promoted to embalmer) while making arrangements for his uncle’s burial. However, she (Anjanette Comer) is dedicated to her work and Whispering Glades Memorial Park. Jonathan Winters, in a dual role, is excellent both as the owner of Whispering Glades and his twin brother, who operates the nearby pet graveyard and is patron of a 13-year-old scientific whiz who invents a rocket capable of projecting bodies into orbit. While the film was promoted as being outrageous and offensive, I want to head in that direction. It is indeed offensive not just because of its theme or its insensitivity.

The way that some funeral rituals are practiced in some of the fancy cemeteries near Hollywood are naturally shocking and disturbing and they are vividly and vulgarly revealed shown here as commercial shams. The violent and undisciplined excessiveness of these funerals is seen in its morbid ribaldry. There is too much kidding around with corpses, too much joking in the embalming room, too many scenes of dead bodies and food. For believers, the travesties of the doctrine of the resurrection of soul is sure to offend. By using an obvious American, Robert Morse, in the role of the poet, who is a total dunce so as to offend the British, however, does not really work. John Gielgud is Sir Francis Hinsley, the loved one, the poet’s uncle who commits suicide and for whom burial is arranged. Rod Steiger is repulsive as the hideously epicene Mr. Joyboy, chief of the embalming room.

The novel on which the film is based is a short satire that was written after Waugh’s trip to Hollywood, where he attended a funeral at Forest Lawn and was struck by parallels between the pretensions of the movie industry and the lavish overproduction of the Los Angeles funeral business. The book is laced with the kind of acidly condescending sarcasm that is a British specialty, but Richardson chose to have made an American screenwriter, Terry Southern, the notorious author whose temperament and style were the antithesis of Waugh’s write the screenplay with British Christopher Isherwood, author of the stories that would inspire and who had been one of Evelyn’s Waugh’s chief literary rivals. What we get is a that is not sure what it is satirizing and being offensive. overstuffed satire that can’t make up its mind about what it’s satirizing because it’s so busy extending a middle finger to everyone watching. The film has quite a cult following despite its many problems.

The first half hourhour mocks America’s film industry, with Roddy McDowall as an unctuous studio executive at Megalopolitan Pictures and Jonathan Winters as a producer. It also parodies English class-consciousness, which is dutifully preserved by the L.A. ex-patriot conclave under the leadership of Sir Ambrose Ambercrombie (Robert Morley), who has been knighted for his services as an actor specializing in butlers and prime ministers. From that point on, the script deals with Dennis getting a job at a fancy pet cemetery called Happier Hunting Grounds. In the process, he becomes familiar with the A-list cemetery for humans, Whispering Glades, which is owned and operated by Reverend Wilbur Glenworthy (Jonathan Winters) in an ostentatious and quasi-religious style that exerts cult-like control over its employees.

Dennis falls in love with Aimee Thanatogenous (Anjanette Comer) but she is already in love with her boss, the facility’s chief embalmer, Mr. Joyboy. Unfortunately for her, Mr. Joyboy only has eyes for his corpse clientele and his aging mother (Ayllene Gibbons). In desperation, Barlow gives Aimee poems that he claims to have written himself but in fact has plagiarized from such well-known sources as Keats and Shakespeare. This mixes her up and so she seeks advice from a newspaper columnist, Guru Brahmin, whom she doesn’t know is really a gruff, cynical and perpetually soused reporter (Lionel Stander), who, when cornered in a bar, might just tell a desperate soul that killing oneself is a good option.

At Whispering Glades, Rev. Glenworthy is running out of burial space, and he conceives a plan to extract more profit from the land by converting it into retirement homes, emptying the graves by blasting their occupants into space. The rocketry will be provided by a child prodigy, 12-year-old Gunther Fry (Paul Williams). The first person to receive a space burial is, appropriately, an astronaut nicknamed “The Condor”, and his precedent-setting service is complicated by a web of deceit and blackmail.

There is not a boring moment in the film. There are subplots and twists and turns, some really good acting and really lousy acting. Instead of paying attention to what is going on, it is fun just to ignore the plot and let the offenses entertain and watch the actors trying so hard. The scenes with Mr. Joyboy and his gluttonous mother remind us of John Water. There are many \ cameos by famous actors (who are even listed as “cameo guest stars” in the opening credits). James Coburn is the immigration officer who stamps Barlow’s passport, Milton Berle is a wealthy Angeleno who wants his dog buried at Happier Hunting Grounds, Dana Andrews is a corrupt Army general. We see Liberace cleanly dressed and minus sequins as Whispering Glades’ “counselor”, gently advising the bereaved on coffins and funeral attire with the enthusiasm of a wedding planner. As each guest star appears, the film momentarily pauses as if boasting about the marquee names it managed to attract. But then the moment is over and… the film ends and Dennis Barlow returns to England a sadder man from his American adventures.

The special features include:

  • Trying to Offend Everyone: This 2003 featurette offers recollections of the film’s production by a scattered group of surviving participants, but it only hints at the film’s troubled history. Interviewees include Robert Morse, Anjanette Comer, Paul Williams, Haskell Wexler and Tony Gibbs, who is described as “supervising editor”, although the film’s editing credit is divided between Hal Ashby (future director of Being There) and Brian Smedley-Aston (a member of the editorial team on Performance).
  • Trailer

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