Though it's one time outrageousness has been severely tempered by time, Judge Bill Gibron still finds this 1965 black comedy a definite artistic triumph for U.K. auteur Tony Richardson.
The motion picture with something to offend everyone!
After winning a free plane ticket, British poet Dennis Barlow (Robert Morse, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying) decides to visit his uncle, Sir Francis Hinsley (Sir John Gielgud, Arthur), in Hollywood. A scenic designer for over 30 years, Hinsely feels underappreciated, especially when he is given a mandate by a young-gun studio executive (Roddy McDowell, Planet of the Apes) to teach a slovenly Southern hick star how to act like a Londoner. Eventually losing his job, Hinsley takes his own life, leaving the new-in-town Barlow to tidy up his estate. This leads the lad to Whispering Glades, an ornate funeral parlor and cemetery run by the dictatorial director Rev. Wilbur Glenworthy (Jonathan Winters, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World). There he meets grief consultant Aimee Thanatogenous (Anjanette Comer and resident embalmer Mr. Joyboy (Rod Steiger, The Pawnbroker). After the garish funeral, Barlow is set adrift. He eventually gets a job working for the Reverend's conniving brother Henry (Winters, again) at a pet cemetery. While the job is unfulfilling, it gives him a chance to woo Aimee. Joyboy becomes jealous of Barlow's fascination and looks for ways to undermine his position. In the meanwhile, the Reverend is looking for a way to ditch the mortuary gig and start up a retirement community. When a precocious kid (Paul Williams, Smokey and the Bandit) lands a stray rocket in the animal sanctuary, the Glenworthys believe they've hit pay dirt. They will send all The Loved Ones into space, orbiting the Earth while they rezone their resting place.
Back in 1965, this must have seemed like scandalous stuff: a movie focusing on death in such a callous, cold-hearted manner, vilifying religion with hints of unethical behavior and business-oriented obsessions, and tweaking artists, the English, the Hollywood studio system, and freaked-out fey momma's boys, all in one deliriously dark comic cavalcade. Able to make any movie he wanted after Tom Jones walked away with Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director, British bad boy Tony Richardson was itching to bring Evelyn Waugh's mortuary satire to the silver screen. Hiring Terry Southern (off his own Academy nod for the Dr. Strangelove screenplay) and Christopher Isherwood (an expatriate famed for his Berlin Stories, which would become the basis for Cabaret) to write the adaptation, Richardson wanted to continue the cinematic revolution he started with Jones's jumbled, jangled self-referential style. He would incorporate everything he learned as a cutting-edge filmmaker in the U.K. As a result, he purposefully mimicked fellow auteurs like Stanley Kubrick (along with borrowing Strangelove's look, he placed his comedic star, Jonathan Winters, in a diabolical dual role) and Orson Welles (playing with depth of field and focus). He would also take pot shots at several "isms"—racism, materialism, populism, commercialism—while keeping the more macabre elements about the recently deceased front and center.
The result barely resembles Waugh's wicked work, but stands on its own as an eccentric celluloid experiment from the equally innovative mid-'60s. The Loved One actually resembles a Monty Python movie directed by David Lynch, a decidedly deadpan farce that uses corpses instead of conceptualization as the source of its humor. While much of the original outrage will fall flat on audiences raised on such post-modern mockeries as The Simpsons, South Park, and the previously mentioned bad boys of British sketch comedy, there is still a great deal to enjoy in this early attempt at directorial dadaism. Richardson didn't recoil from artistic overreaching and always tried to imbue his films with a sense of adventure and innovation. From his film version of the great English proto-punk drama Look Back in Anger to his post-Loved One efforts, Mademoiselle and The Charge of the Light Brigade, Richardson played with format and mixing of formulas in divergent stylistic elements and unusual camera tricks to challenge motion-picture making, much in the same manner the French New Wave did. Sadly he didn't have the support of a Godard or a Truffaut, meaning he often took on projects that dampened his anarchic approach. With The Loved One, however, he found a near perfect vehicle. Indeed, it could be said that this monochrome masterwork is on par with other examples of stellar '60s cinema, losing most of its warped wit but easily retaining all its aesthetically appealing aspects.
Richardson was well known for his work with actors, and The Loved One is no different. From the gentile goofiness of the late, great Sir John Gielgud, the overblown bluster of Robert Morley, the artificial air of Roddy McDowall, and the drunken defiance of Lionel Stander, the ancillary characters in the story are sketched out magnificently. Though some only have a few short moments on screen (Liberace, Dana Andrews, Milton Berle, James Coburn, and Tab Hunter all shine in glorified cameo roles), they make their presence important and part of Richardson's raison d'etre. In the leads, Robert Morse is mesmerizing, slipping in and out of his faux British accent so easily that it becomes a fascinating feature of his persona. We never completely buy Dennis as a poet, so when he loses his Londonderry air, we sense a subliminal statement by Richardson on the reality of his character. Similarly, Rod Steiger is sensational as Mr. Joyboy, an embalmer with a certifiable mother fixation. Playing a closeted crackpot (a variation of which he would use in the equally entertaining No Way to Treat a Lady), this Method madman is so perverted and prissy that we can't imagine his harried home life. Then once we see his half-ton homunculus of a mom, Joyboy's oddity becomes obvious. As the woman who comes between these two, Anjanette Comer is fairly strange herself, getting lost in Aimee's numbskulled naiveté with relative ease. That just leaves Jonathan Winters to bat clean up and, while he's never given too much to do, he is remarkable in his few scenes (including the Reverend's last-minute megalomania).
Like Robert Altman's The Player, Richardson hoped The Loved One would attack the shallowness of the West Coast while shoving a sharp spike into the heart of Hollywood's calculated conceits. With a tagline that boasted a film "with something to offend everyone" and surreal scenes of dead animals, mansion-like mortuaries, and a coffin-based orgy, this devilish director truly tried to push buttons. Again it's safe to say that much of the indignity of this movie has long since wafted away, caught up in the broadening breezes of the '70s and '80s. It is also safe to say that much of the material here is of the eccentric or idiosyncratic nature. Where once there was offense, now there is mere peculiarity. Like the uproar over Laugh-In when it first hit TV screens, The Loved One suffers from a social stigma borne out of personal propriety, not out of a universal ethos. Death is always a sensitive subject, but Richardson was really attacking the burial industry, a cash-intensive business that treated corpses like chattel in a never-ending struggle to bilk bucks out of the bereaved. Equally interesting, he applied the same notion to motion pictures. The parallel between what happens to Sir Francis Hinsley in life as well as death creates the defining motifs in this movie. In life, Hinsley was used and abused by those out to profit from his participation in their endeavors. Upon passing, he's a pawn in Whispering Glades funeral parlor financial parlay. Richardson seems to be saying that circumstances screw you no matter what side of existence you are currently on—the here and now, or the hereafter.
With Richardson setting the compositions and the amazing Haskell Wexler handling the cinematography, it is safe to say that The Loved One is one of the best looking black and white films every made. Indeed, this new 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer from Warner Brothers is absolutely stunning. The monochrome is crisp and well-defined, with lights and darks battling for digital dominion. There is nary a flaw, a fleck of dirt, or a scratch in this sumptuous image. As someone who sees dozens of black-and-white films each year, I can say that The Loved One offers this contrasting style in a remarkable DVD presentation. As for sound, there is not much that can be done with Dolby Digital Mono. The aural elements are clean, and the dialogue is always easily discernible. As for added content, we are treated to the trailer and a 15-minute retrospective on the film featuring Paul Williams, Morse, Comer, Wexler, and supervising editor Tony Gibbs. All are eager to talk about the film; while Morse more or less dismisses his performance, all praise Richardson for the risks he took. Indeed, we learn a lot about the production here, making for a fine supplement.
Tamer today than when it first arrived, The Loved One is still a stunning celluloid statement. It's a movie making a mockery of same while struggling with issues of life, death, and decidedly obese matrons. For anyone that argues for movies as art, The Loved One certainly fits that determined description. It is difficult, rich, intriguing, enigmatic, dense, obvious, and just a little arch. As a talent, Tony Richardson never got the chance to fully explore his ideas. This is the rare case where man and material came together famously.
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