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DIRECTED BY: Tony Richardson
FEATURING: Robert Morse, Jonathan Winters, , , , Paul Williams, Milton Berle, , , Lionel Stander
PLOT: A young expatriate Englishman arrives in Los Angeles and stumbles into the funeral business, where he develops an affection for an earnest young post-mortem aesthetician.
COMMENTS: Funerary practices are perennially strange, probably owing to the contradictory problems they seek to address: desiring to establish the memory of the departed as something that will live forever, while needing to immediately get rid of the earthly vessel left behind. So emotionally unsettling is the prospect of saying final goodbyes to a beloved family member that the standard for what is “normal” changes frequently. Today, cremation is the most common practice in America, but it was in-ground interment only a few years back, and can we honestly say either of those are less bizarre than mummification, sky burial, or post-mortem portraiture?
The Loved One has many sacred cows to skewer, but the American funeral industry and the particularly weird strain of it found in southern California are its leading targets. Although the screenplay by renowned satirist Terry Southern and Berlin Stories scribe Christopher Isherwood is based on a novel by Evelyn Waugh (of “Brideshead Revisited” fame), it owes just as much to “The American Way of Death,” Jessica Mitford’s nonfiction exposé published only two years prior. The Loved One has much to say about how obsessions with money, class, and God-given righteousness find their way into our view of the afterlife. In particular, the film’s Whispering Glades cemetery is a dead ringer for the real Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Hollywood Hills, complete with its courts of statuary, well-manicured gardens, and objectification of beauty in remembrance.
The problem with death, as The Loved One sees it, is the living. They’re always making it about them somehow. When renowned artist Francis Hinsley (a woefully dignified Gielgud) hangs himself after being summarily dismissed by a Hollywood studio after decades of service, his fellow British expatriates insist on a grand ceremony, not just to honor the dead but to highlight their own superiority to the land in which they’ve settled. (Notably, we learn that the cemetery is off-limits to Blacks and Jews, because even in the Great Beyond, there’s always someone to look down on.) The mortuary’s employees are committed to a theme park’s sense of last rites, with all the young women dressed in identical black lace shifts and veils. The sales associates (including one played by Liberace, in perhaps the most understated moment of his entire life) upsell every element, including caskets and mourning attire. The embalmer-in-chief Continue reading IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: THE LOVED ONE (1965)