(Note: This article is about "The Loved One," the 1965 film directed by Tony Richardson, not to be confused with the 2009 film "The Loved Ones")
In other articles about older movies, I've written about the production code, the standard for censorship that governed all films shown in the United States for more than thirty five years, from 1930 to 1968, when it was replaced with the first version of the movie rating system (G, PG, R, etc.). In the 60s, in the midst of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, the production code no longer represented American values. Intended to maintain decency and morality in the movies, it instead came to represent an innocence that we'd already lost.
Among the films that most directly challenged the production code were Elia Kazan's Baby Doll in 1956 and Stanley Kubrick's 1962 adaptation of the Vladimir Nabokov novel Lolita. Both of these films confronted sexual norms and stretched the boundaries of the code. In 1966, Mike Nichols' adaptation of the Edward Albee play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf continued a pattern of challenging the code's restrictions on language that began with Kazan's 1951 adaptation of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire and Joseph Mankiewicz and Gore Vidal's 1956 adaptation of the Williams play Suddenly Last Summer. The common thread between these films were the relatively open and frank discussion of sexually taboo topics (homosexuality and rape in A Streetcar Named Desire, homosexuality and sexual exploitation in Suddenly Last Summer, and impotence and adultery in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.) These films talked about but didn't show any of their controversial acts, using dialogue that was designed to shock the audience.
The production code was designed to make audiences feel comfortable with what was presented on the screen. This goes against almost every instinct of any self respecting artist, and as film began to be accepted as a serious art form and not just a mechanism for mindless entertainment, audiences responded to those films that challenged the status quo. It was a time of rampant revolution and rebellion.
One of the films that is often forgotten is 1965's The Loved One, yet no film as blatantly and deliberately thumbed its nose at the code. Forget about making its audience comfortable; The Loved One sought to make viewers squirm.
In 1947, British author Evelyn Waugh went to Hollywood to meet with studio executives about censorship issues with his script adapting his novel, Brideshead Revisited. It must not have gone well, because after seven weeks he withdrew the book and went back home. The seven weeks weren't a complete waste of time, though, as he visited the famous Hollywood cemetery Forrest Lawn, and from his observations wrote the essay "Death in Hollywood." In 1948, he wrote the short satirical novel The Loved One, its protagonist a young English poet who finds work in a Hollywood cemetery for pets.
Soon, the film rights to The Loved One were purchased, but it would be almost twenty years until a film was actually made. There were several attempts to create a screenplay that would fit the production code standards: one written by the famous Spanish director Luis Bunuel and one written by the great Elaine May, but the material was still too taboo for 1950s Hollywood.
Things had changed by the time the British duo of director Tony Richardson and screenwriter Christopher Isherwood got their hands on the property. It was the mid sixties, and while the production code was dying, American popular culture was exploding, with groundbreaking artists expanding the landscape of popular music, literature and art. It was inevitable that the production code would be a casualty of this cultural revolution. In fact, things had changed so much that Terry Southern, who had co-written the Kubrick masterpiece Dr. Strangelove, was brought in to spice up Isherwood's script. So the movie was made, a broad and satirical yet dark, possibly the darkest, comedy. It was promoted as the movie with "something to offend everybody," which is one of the truest tag lines in film advertising history.
It'd been probably thirty years since I'd last seen the film when I stumbled upon a recent airing on Turner Classic Movies. I was interested in how it'd stand up to the test of time, given that movies, particularly comedies, have come so far in terms of bad taste and willingness to offend in return for a laugh. The "American Pie" films and nearly any film directed by the Farrelly brothers (for example, There's Something About Mary or Stuck on You) immediately come to mind. Surely a film made in 1965 couldn't compete with the hair gel scene in There's Something About Mary.
Yet The Loved One did not disappoint, even in it's own gross-out scenes, as the dinner scene with Mr. Joyboy's mother remains one of the grossest, most disturbing scenes ever put on film. The film is just flat out funny, ingeniously so, yet you find yourself thinking "ewww" at the same time you're laughing.
Richardson was hot property at the time, having won the Best Director Academy Award for his 1963 comedy, Tom Jones. He was one of a number of young and talented British directors that were known as the "British New Wave," which included names like Richard Lester (A Hard Day's Night and Help!), Jack Clayton (The Innocents), Bryan Forbes (Seance on a Wet Afternoon) and would later add Nicholas Roeg and Ken Russell to their ranks. With Richardson on board to direct, an A-list of Hollywood and British stars were eager to participate. The Loved One was no low-budget comedy, and it was no silly slapstick knock-off like the bloated all-star Stanley Kramer vehicle, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad World. The Loved One was skilled satire made by talented artists.
The protagonist, the young English poet who finds himself immersed in the Hollywood death industry, is played by Robert Morse, who viewers in 2014 know from his role as Bertram Cooper in AMC's Mad Men. Nearly fifty years ago, in the early and mid sixties, Morse was the actor Hollywood went to whenever they needed a slight and bumbling young English leading man, appearing in such comedies as How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, A Guide to the Married Man, and Where Were You When the Lights Went Out? The Loved One is, in my opinion, his best performance, as he holds his own against such heavyweights as Sir John Gielgud, Jonathan Winters, Rod Steiger, Liberace, and Milton Berle.
Wait - did I say Liberace? Milton Berle? Sir John Gielgud?
That's right, they're all in the film, and all are outstanding, as are Anjanette Comer, Roddy McDowell, Dana Andrews, Robert Morley and Lionel Stander.
I won't divulge much about the plot except that the reason Morse finds himself in Hollywood is to visit his uncle (Gielgud), who is fired (by McDowell) from his job of thirty plus years as a production assistant at a Hollywood studio, and subsequently hangs himself. As his closest heir, Morse is convinced by others to spend most of Gielgud's estate on burial at the plush Whispering Glades cemetery, the in-place for dead Hollywood celebrities to spend eternity. There, Morse meets and falls for the beautiful but hopelessly sincere cosmetologist Aimee Thanatoegenus (Comer). Morse's competitor for Comer's affections is the chief embalmer (and Comer's boss), Mr. Joyboy, played by Rod Steiger.
|Rod Steiger as Mr. JoyBoy and Anjanette Comer as Aimee Thanatogenus at work|
Just as Kubrick used Peter Sellers in duo roles in Dr. Strangelove, Richardson casts the American comic genius Jonathan Winters in two roles, as the phony Reverend Wilbur Glenworthy, creator of Whispering Glades, and his brother Henry, who has also recently been fired by the same Hollywood studio that fired Gielgud and has taken up heading a business of memorializing dead pets. Winters' wacky brand of comedy was never really captured in movies, but I think The Loved One comes closest, particularly in the scene where Reverend Wilbur reveals who he really is.
The plot is merely an excuse to show us orgies in caskets filled with living prostitutes, a morbidly obese woman who reaches orgasm by eating everything in sight, drunken newspaper advice columnists, and space ships designed by a thirteen year old rocket scientist to send dead dogs and later a dead astronaut (at least everyone THINKS it's a dead astronaut) into eternal orbit.
Liberace shows up as a casket salesman: "All of our units are waterproof. This one is moisture proof. This one is dampness proof." He points out the differences in the material lining the inside of each casket, and that he prefers silk, as rayon tends to chaff; and the difference between the standard eternal flame and the perpetual burning eternal flame. It's a small but creepy role, but he is astonishingly good in it.
Comedies about death are few and far between. The Burt Reynolds directed vehicle The End (1978), Tim Burton's Beetlejuice (1988), Robert Zemeckis's Death Becomes Her (1992), Albert Brooks' Defending Your Life (1991) and the 1994 zombie comedy, Shaun of the Dead quickly come to mind. Those films all explore the comedic elements inherent in the awareness of our own mortality. The Loved One is the only comedy I can think of that's about the process of dying and the industry of death. It's a satire poking fun at what remains our most taboo and forbidden and sacred subject and about how, only in America, death becomes yet another capitalistic pursuit.
At the time, American movie audiences were growing more sophisticated and demanding, but they weren't ready yet for The Loved One. It flopped at the box office, and initial critical reaction was mixed, at best, with many of the leading critics of the time expressing shock and outrage. The film has grown in critical stature since, but it's still difficult to find many people who've seen it. Maybe people still aren't ready to laugh at the how we process the dead. Maybe they never will be.