“Death has become a middle class business. There’s no future in it.”
The Loved One is based on the wonderful, satirical novel written by Evelyn Waugh, and while so many film versions of novels disappoint, this is one film that capitalizes on the visual and thus manages to exceed the book. A black comedy that satirizes the funeral industry, the film emphasizes that beneath all respectability is a not-so-pleasant grubby truth. The film’s protagonist is an aimless, young British man, Dennis Barlow (Robert Morse) who receives an education in hypocrisy that begins after he wins a free trip to America. He lands in Los Angeles with just the vaguest idea of visiting his uncle, Sir Francis Hinsley (John Gielgud). Sir Francis works for one of the major studios, and is a stalwart member of the British ex-pat community. When Dennis arrives, Sir Francis, who’s managed to hang on at the studio for decades, and is considered a “relic”, is ‘training’ a hick cowboy named Dusty Acres (Robert Easton) for a film in which he plays an English gentleman spy.
The film’s theme–explored through Barlow’s bizarre encounters with American culture is set in the very first scene. He’s naive, and out-of-place, but he wants to pick up some life experience. Barlow tries a number of jobs, and finally settles at a pet cemetery called “The Happier Hunting Ground.” After a visit to the beautiful, upscale Whispering Glades Cemetery he is besotted with a mortuary make-up artist, Aimee Thanatogenous (Anjanette Comer). Barlow becomes embroiled in a peculiar love triangle with a rival–embalmer Mr. Joyboy (Rod Steiger). In order to impress the otherworldly, idealist Aimee, Barlow becomes a “poet pilferer”–plagiarizing poetry he passes off as his own.
The film is loaded with incredibly funny characters. Mr. Joyboy is the ultimate “mummy’s boy”–living at home with his hideous, deranged, ill-mannered, food-obsessed mother. Rod Steiger has great fun with his role as Mr. Joyboy, sporting a blonde, curly wig and fussing over dead bodies while tweaking expressions on their faces that reflect his admiration for Aimee. Jonathan Winters plays a dual role as the Reverend Wilbur Glenworthy, the hypocritical, greedy, grabby owner of Whispering Glades Cemetery, and also his has-been, loser brother Henry Glenworthy who runs the low-end of the family empire, the pet cemetery. Liberace appears in a perfect role as a mortuary salesman, and Roddy McDowell appears as DJ Jr.–a British studio executive who’s gone native in all the worst ways.
The film also stands as a testament to the 60s–with subplots involving space rockets, gurus, and sexual liberation. Directed by Tony Richardson (and very possibly his best film), the script was written by Terry Southern and Christopher Isherwood. The result is a perfect satire that illustrates society’s utter tastelessness and hypocrisy. It’s especially brilliant how the human funeral business is portrayed as just a glossy, dressed-up version of the pet cemetery. The DVD print is excellent, and extras include the trailer and a featurette: “Something to Offend Everyone.”