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The Loved One (1965) was advertised as a film with something to offend everyone and it mostly succeeded in this boast though not always in the way it intended. Based on Evelyn Waugh's brilliant and macabre novella that satirized the funeral industry in California, the film departed from Waugh's concise narrative to include numerous subplots, one involving a junior inventor and a plan to dispose of corpses in outer space. The new additions not only outraged Waugh but they also changed the focus of his original satire to include jabs at the youth culture, gluttony, Oedipal relationships, and the military. Of course, this was not the plan when The Loved One was first acquired for the screen.
At one time Waugh's book was rumored to be a project for director Luis Bunuel but over the passage of time the rights were acquired by cinematographer Haskell Wexler and producer John Calley who hired Tony Richardson to direct (The latter was still reeling from the unexpected success of his previous film, Tom Jones, 1963). Richardson, who admired comedians like Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl, wanted to inject a similarly barbed and uniquely American style of humor into the film. But he also wanted to retain Waugh's very British take on Los Angeles so he hired fellow Englishman Christopher Isherwood to adapt the novel along with Terry Southern, co-author of Candy and the screenplay of Dr. Strangelove (1964), the latter providing the 'hip' humor. Richardson even managed to acquire the services of Jessica Mitford, who had previously written a critically praised critique of the California funeral industry entitled The American Way of Death. So much for good intentions. The Loved One quickly became an unwieldy project that spun out of Richardson's control.
In Richardson's memoirs, The Long-Distance Runner, the director recalled that, "most of the actors entered the film with the same sense of fun and pleasure. An exception was Robert Morley, who became a boorish prima donna. Terry Southern had written a very funny scene, an appearance by Morley in drag at a leather-bikers' bar which was meant to be the key to the secret life of his character. Once he'd been shot in another scene and therefore knew he couldn't be replaced, Morley refused to perform this, saying it would upset his children. Liberace, on the other hand, loved his role as the casket salesman so much that he wanted more."
Unfortunately, the numerous cameos increased the film's budget and running time and some ended up on the cutting room floor like Jayne Mansfield's racy scene. Richardson also had major creative differences with crew members over how to shoot the cadavers in the morgue sequences and how to stage the moving statues in the climactic scene where cosmetician Aimee Thanatogunos (Anjanette Comer) has a graveyard fantasy.
Even more problematic, Richardson clashed with producer/cinematographer Wexler over the look of the film: "We had envisaged everything in high-contrast black and white. Haskell still subscribed to the absurd myth....that you couldn't photograph pure black and white. Clothing next to the skin - shirts, blouses, etc. - had to be dipped in tea to give it a beige look. To come out black, paneling had to be brown. It was all rubbish, and their eyes should have told them so. We had converted the former mansion of the mining prospector turned oil tycoon Edward L. Doheny into the headquarters of Forest Lawn. Rouben (Ter-Aruntunian) had painted it a shiny glossy black. When we got to the set to shoot it, it was a muddy brown - Haskell had been in the night before and ordered a crew of painters, all on overnight overtime, to repaint it. I reordered it black, so there was no shooting that day. And that was how the production was run."
Under the circumstances, it was inevitable that The Loved One would end up a chaotic mess but it's also a lot of fun and enjoys a better reputation now then when it was first released. Critic Pauline Kael put it best when she wrote: "This botched, patched-together movie is a triumphant disaster - like a sinking ship that makes it to port because everybody aboard is too giddy to panic. They're so high and lucky they just float in. Perhaps they didn't even notice how low they'd sunk."
Producer: John Calley, Neil Hartley (associate producer), Haskell Wexler
Director: Tony Richardson
Screenplay: Evelyn Waugh (novel), Terry Southern, Christopher Isherwood
Production Design: Rouben Ter-Arutunian
Cinematography: Haskell Wexler
Film Editing: Hal Ashby, Antony Gibbs (supervising), Brian Smedley-Aston
Original Music: John Addison
Principal Cast: Robert Morse (Dennis Barlow), Jonathan Winters (Henry/Wilbur Glenworthy), Anjanette Comer (Aimee Thanatogunos), Dana Andrews (General Buck Brinkman), Milton Berle (Mr. Kenton).
BW-122m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Jeff Stafford