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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.

Still from The Loved One (1965)

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 is named Mr. Joyboy, portrayed by Steiger as a man-shaped bag of mannerisms who is infatuated by the pursuit of beauty in the face of misery. (His efforts to retain the favor of his morbidly obese mother would seem to have everything to do with his temperament.)

Ideally, our central character would be Dennis, the soft-spoken English poet who, following his experiences at Whispering Glades, eventually winds up working for a pet cemetery that has all of the big-business venality without any of the panache or rococo decoration. There he will also come to witness the one-upmanship of unfettered capitalism, as when an errant model rocket launched by a precocious boy genius (a hilarious Williams playing a decade below his age) spurs a new market for spaceborn commitals. But the naturally ebullient Morse is wildly miscast, forced to play repressed and entirely passive, bouncing around like a pinball and doing the next thing merely because there’s nothing else to do. So instead, our focus shifts to the guileless Aimée Thanatogenos, a pretty makeup artist in Joyboy’s embalming factory and the one person in the movie who is neither cynical nor compromising. Played by Comer with unblemished purity, Aimée is a true believer, fully committed to the Whispering Glades view of death as a sylvan paradise unblemished by the guttural urges of mankind. That kind of insistent innocence can be played for laughs, especially in a film as angry and snarky as this one. But once Aimée is forced to confront the gulf between dreams and reality, it’s hardly surprising which side she will choose, and then there’s not even an ironic laugh to be had.

The Loved One feels tonally of a piece with another 1960s satire, Lord Love a Duck. Both films shoot the dreamland artifice of southern California in harsh black-and-white, both are disgusted by the way old traditions have been destroyed by lethargic intransigence and mindless hipness, and both get a lot of comedic mileage out of presenting the excesses of the modern world exactly as they are. (Both also feature Roddy McDowall.) The Loved One benefits from having a much clearer moral center, but it’s similarly distracted by its intense anger at so many things. The film’s advertising campaign proudly hailed it as “the motion picture with something to offend everyone,” but it’s actually offended by everyone. Like its heroes, it wants to laugh at the ugly world that surrounds us, but ultimately longs only to be in a better place.


“It is when Terry Southern and Christopher Isherwood move this absurd conceit beyond the morbid adventures of their hero in the land of Whispering Glades and go in for a lot of raucous kidding of real estate development, senior homes, junior geniuses in the space age and a plan to launch bodies into space that the whole thing goes into an orbit of witless inanity… All in all, ‘The Loved One’ is disastrous as trenchant satire but should do what its merchandisers say. It should offend a lot of people. Somehow people seem to like that.” – Bosley Crowther, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Patrick M. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

Where to watch The Loved One

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