Stuck in that weird intersection between the death throes of the old Hollywood and the birth pangs of the new, The Loved One, Tony Richardson’s 1965 film of Evelyn Waugh’s satire of famed Los Angeles cemetery Forest Lawn, remains one of the strangest mainstream American movies, and one of its most entertaining disasters.
Pauline Kael’s note on the film in her 5001 Nights at the Movies lists Luis Buñuel and Elaine May as among the many names that attempted to bring Waugh’s novel, considered too wild to be filmed, to the screen. But Kael writes that by the time Richardson got around to it, in 1965, things had changed enough so that Terry Southern was brought in to juice up Christopher Isherwood’s screenplay. (After the success of Jessica Mitford’s muckraking exposé of the funeral industry, The American Way of Death, there was probably nothing Americans weren’t ready to believe about the business.)
The first years of Tony Richardson’s movie career is the story of a passage from one new wave to another. His early films, including The Entertainer and A Taste of Honey, brought the work of brash British playwrights like John Osborne and Shelagh Delaney to the screen, virtually defining the new wave of British cinema.
Richardson’s style changed abruptly with 1963’s Tom Jones. He employed a commercialized version of French New Wave techniques, and the film was hugely popular, winning the Academy Award for Best Picture. But the jump-cutting, the straight-to-camera digressions and the generally antic tone were wildly inappropriate for an adaptation of an 18th-century novel, and the movie has by now dated to the point of being a curio.
Yet Tom Jones was one of those huge successes that anoints a director as a genius, allowing him to do virtually whatever he wants for his next project, almost invariably resulting in a picture that’s both wildly ambitious and unrealized. Richardson would never again have the run of Hollywood as he did at the time he made The Loved One. (And he may not have wanted it—around the same time he made Mademoiselle, starring Jeanne Moreau in a script by Jean Genet.)
The Loved One is one of the most pungent examples of a period when the studios, facing the erosion of their traditional audience and completely baffled by what the new youth audience wanted, were willing to try anything—even eating themselves alive. In The Loved One, Richardson, Southern and Isherwood—as well as cinematographer and producer Haskell Wexler—attempt to expand Waugh’s appalled reaction to the garish tastefulness of Forest Lawn into a general hate letter to America. Though if you had asked them what they were reacting against, you’d likely get no more specific answers than commercialism, phoniness, the whole mega-sized plasticity of the culture. It’s all pretty silly, particularly an opening montage of the anonymous, antiseptic spaces of LAX while a syrupy choir sings “America the Beautiful” on the soundtrack. The irony that escapes the filmmakers is that the film is exactly the piece of vulgar gigantism they’ve chosen as their target.
The picture’s famous tag line was: “The motion picture with something to offend everyone!” But you’d have to be a real square to be offended by The Loved One. There’s no real hatred or malice in it, probably because everyone seems too busy amusing themselves. The problem is that, for long stretches, they forget to amuse us. The continuity here is shaky to the point of nonexistence. It plays as if Richardson, the writers and the actors kept coming up with bits that sounded outrageous to them and then filmed them, without giving a thought as to how it was all going to fit together. (Some of the bits, like a sequence where Air Force generals cavort with hookers popping out of caskets, show the unmistakable hand of Terry Southern, even if the hyped-up presentation sacrifices the way Southern wrote about the most outlandish things in a tone of perfect reasonableness.) What does hold the movie together more than anything is the achieved grotesquerie of Wexler’s black-and-white cinematography, in which the only contrast between hard, over-bright sunshine and hard, over-bright neon is the sort of cloudy, still afternoon light that recalls the threatening minutes before a tornado hits.
Much of the movie’s fun comes from the actors seizing the chance to do what they wouldn’t ordinarily get to do, doodling on their established smiling personas to acknowledge that they’re familiar with exactly the kind of venality the movie is sending up. As the ostensible lead, a British poet who comes to Los Angeles to visit his uncle and winds up working in a pet cemetery, Robert Morse is more like a dazed guest star. He gets to show stray flashes of insanity, as when, left alone in a mortuary showroom, he impishly kisses a statue’s nipple. In dual roles as “the Blessed Reverend,” the founder of Whispering Glades, and the Rev’s brother, a washed-up movie exec, Jonathan Winters is shoehorned, and something in him fights against the restraint. He’s aggressive, with less of the gently spaced-out quality he has always shown in improv.
As a studio chief afraid only of his legendary mogul father, Roddy McDowall (in a role possibly based on Richard Zanuck) sends out lethal rays of self-absorption: Woe to anyone who wastes his time or bores him. Rod Steiger is almost frighteningly immersed in the role of Mr. Joyboy, a preening corpse cosmetician. As a fawning casket salesman, Liberace suggests a finger sandwich flavored with vinegar. He’s wonderful. And best of all, as a married couple arguing over the disposal of their pet dog’s corpse, Milton Berle and Margaret Leighton are flabbergasting. They’re such an obvious mismatch that you have no problem believing they’ve been married for years. The raw-nerved weariness of their exchange shows up Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for the second-rate bitchery it is.
You wouldn’t mistake The Loved One for a good movie. But now, when success is epitomized by something as overbearing and incoherent as Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, this mess of a movie is an almost nostalgic emblem of a time when people could still say, “What the hell, let’s try this.” Its decadence is something like a badge of integrity.