[26 January 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Back in 1965, this all must have seemed like scandalous stuff. A movie focusing on death in such a callous, cold hearted manner. Religion vilified with hints of unethical behavior and business-oriented obsessions. A tweaking of artists, the English, the Hollywood studio system, and freaked out momma’s boys, all in one deliriously dark comic cavalcade. But that’s exactly what The Loved One was when it hit unsuspecting moviegoers in the social consciousness back in the middle of the swinging ‘60s. Now on DVD from Warner Brothers, this delicious black comedy still retains its cynical cutting edge.
Able to make any movie he wanted after Tom Jones walked away with Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director, British bad boy Tony Richardson was itching to bring Evelyn Waugh’s 1948 mortuary satire to the silver screen. Hiring Terry Southern (off his own Academy nod for the Dr. Strangelove screenplay) and Christopher Isherwood (an ex-patriot famed for his Berlin Stories, which would become the basis for Cabaret) to write the novel’s adaptation, Richardson wanted to continue the cinematic revolution he started with Tom Jones’ jumbled, jangled self-referential style.
For The Loved One, he would incorporate everything he learned as a cutting-edge filmmaker in the UK. As a result, he purposefully mimicked fellow auteurs like Stanley Kubrick (along with borrowing Strangelove‘s look, he placed his comedic star, Jonathan Winters, in a diabolical dual role) and Orson Welles (playing with depth of field and focus). He would also take pot shots at several ‘–isms’—racism, materialism, populism, commercialism—while keeping the more macabre elements about the recently deceased front and center. Thus we have the surreal story of a bad boy British poet who falls in love with a maudlin make-up girl at a ritzy, regal funeral home.
In this purposefully convoluted tale, Dennis Barlow (Robert Morse) decides to visit his uncle in Hollywood. Sir Francis Hinsley (Sir John Gielgud) has been a scenic designer for over 30 years. A young gun studio executive (Roddy McDowell) fires him, causing Hinsley to take his own life. This leaves Barlow to tidy up the estate. Traveling to a memorial park owned by the Rev. Wilbur Glenworthy (Jonathan Winters) called Whispering Glades, he meets the slightly scatterbrained Aimee Thanatogenous (Anjannete Comer) and Mr. Joyboy (Rod Steiger) the resident embalmer.
After a garish funeral, Barlow is set adrift. He eventually gets a job working for the Reverend’s conniving brother Henry (Winters, again) at a pet cemetery. While unfulfilling, it gives him a chance to woo Aimee. Joyboy becomes jealous of Barlow’s fascination, and looks for ways to undermine his position. In the meanwhile, the Reverend is looking for a way to ditch the mortuary gig and start up a retirement community. When a precocious kid’s (Paul Williams) stray rocket lands in the animal sanctuary, the Glenworthys believe they’ve hit pay dirt. They will send all the ‘loved ones’ currently interred into space, endlessly orbiting the Earth while they rezone their resting place.
While the film’s narrative barely resembled Waugh’s wicked work, The Loved One stands on its own as an eccentric celluloid experiment from the equally innovative mid-‘60s. In many ways, it resembles a series of Monty Python sketches as directed by David Lynch, a decidedly deadpan farce that uses corpses instead of conceptualization as the source of its humor. While much of the original outrage will fall flat on audiences raised on our current post-modern sense of mockery, there is still a great deal to enjoy in this early attempt at directorial dadaism.
Richardson didn’t recoil from artistic overreaching, and always tried to imbue his canon with a sense of adventure and innovation. From his film version of the great English proto-punk drama Look Back in Anger to his post-Loved One efforts Mademoiselle and The Charge of the Light Brigade, Richardson played with format and formula, mixing in divergent stylistic elements and unusual camera tricks to challenge motion picture making, much in the manner of the French New Wave.
Sadly, he didn’t have the support of a Godard or a Truffaut, meaning he often took on projects that dampened his anarchic approach. With The Loved One, however, he found a near perfect vehicle. Within the incredibly unusual setting, he could ridicule the Establishment (as illustrated by the racially selective Whispering Glade’s mortuary) while tweaking the counterculture for its lack of originality (Barlow’s poetry is all borrowed from the classics) and conviction (Aimee is a flower child who rather deal in death than reality). Indeed, it could be said that this monochrome masterwork is on par with other examples of stellar ‘60s cinema, losing most of its warped wit, but easily retaining all its aesthetically appealing aspects.
Richardson was also well known for his work with actors, and The Loved One is no different. From the gentile goofiness of the late, great Sir John Gielgud, the overblown bluster of Robert Morley (as a pompous, proud Brit), the artificial air of Roddy McDowall and the drunken defiance of Lionel Stander (as an advice columnist), the ancillary characters in the story are sketched out magnificently. Though some only have a few short moments on screen (Liberace, Dana Andrews, Milton Berle, James Coburn and Tab Hunter all shine in glorified cameo roles) they make their presence important and part of Richardson’s raison d’être.
In the lead, Robert Morse is mesmerizing, slipping in and out of his faux British accent so easily that it becomes a fascinating feature of his persona. We never completely buy Barlow as a bard, so when he loses his Londonderry air, we sense a subliminal statement by Richardson on the reality of his character. Similarly, Rod Steiger is sensational as Mr. Joyboy, an embalmer with a certifiable mother fixation. Playing a closeted crackpot (a variation of which he would use in the equally entertaining No Way to Treat a Lady) this Method madman is so perverted and prissy that we can’t imagine his harried home life. Then once we see his half-ton homunculus of a mom, Joyboy’s oddity becomes obvious.
As the woman who comes between these two, Anganette Comer is fairly strange herself, getting lost in Aimee’s numbskulled naiveté with relative ease. That just leaves Jonathan Winters, and while he’s never given too much to do, he is remarkable in his few scenes (including the Reverend’s last minute megalomania). Yet no amount of scenery chewing or acting chutzpah could match Richardson’s resolve. Like Robert Altman’s The Player, Richardson hoped The Loved One would attack the shallowness of the West Coast while shoving a sharp spike into the heart of Hollywood’s calculated conceits. With a tagline that boasted a film “with something to offend everyone” and surreal scenes of dead animals, mansion like mortuaries and a coffin-based orgy, this devilish director truly tried to push buttons.
Like the uproar over Laugh-In when it first hit TV screens, The Loved One suffers from a social stigma borne out of personal propriety, not out of a universal ethos. Death is always a sensitive subject, but Richardson was really attacking the burial industry, a cash-intensive business that treated bodies like chattel in a never-ending struggle to bilk bucks out of the bereaved. Tamer today than when it first arrived, The Loved One is still a stunning celluloid statement. It’s a movie making a mockery of same while struggling with issues of life, death and dollar signs. It is difficult, rich, intriguing, enigmatic, dense, obvious and just a little arch. As a talent, Tony Richardson never got the chance to fully explore his ideas. The Loved One is the rare case where man and material came together famously.