For once a movie studio used honest marketing, but the box-office results for this adaptation of the Evelyn Waugh novella were dismal.
The picture was directed by Tony Richardson, fresh off his Oscar win for “Tom Jones,” and it had an all-star cast that included Jonathan Winters, Liberace and John Gielgud, but it’s doubtful that any version of Waugh’s tale of burial practices in Los Angeles would have found favor with a mass audience.
The book had been kicking around Hollywood from the time it was published in 1948, with talents as diverse as Luis Bunuel and Elaine May taking a crack at making a movie out of it.
Three factors gave “The Loved One” the push it needed to go into production in 1964. Tony Richardson was super-hot because of “Tom Jones” being both a box-office smash and the rare foreign production to win a best picture Oscar. Screenwriter Terry Southern had just worked on the script for Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove.” And Jessica Mitford had stirred a national debate on the U.S. funeral business with her bestselling non-fiction book, “The American Way of Death.”
Waugh based “The Loved One” on his visit to Forest Lawn Cemetery, the kitschy over-the-top resting place of so many Hollywood stars. The Brit was appalled by the show business approach to death and crafted a short and not so sweet book about a young poet who comes to Hollywood and is sucked into the funeral business (and a love affair with a funeral parlor cosmetician).
The movie version of “The Loved One” starts off well with the poet (played by Robert Morse) arriving in L.A. and moving in with his uncle (John Gielgud) who is a movie studio artist. Richardson and Southern have a lot of fun with mid-1960s L.A. and the mechanics of the movie business (Roddy McDowall is very funny as a powerful executive who takes all of his orders from his unseen father).
The movie was shot by Haskell Wexler, just before his career took off with “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” “In the Heat of the Night” and “The Thomas Crown Affair.” The black-and-white cinematography is one of the production’s greatest strengths — beautiful but with a documentary-style edge unlike the major studio camerawork of that era.
The picture starts to fizzle out as it goes deeper into the poet’s love affair with the cosmetologist (Anjanette Comer stuggles with a virtually unplayable role). The more time we spend with Morse and Comer the less interesting “The Loved One” becomes.
The two young leads simply can’t compete with the stars who pop up for cameos — Milton Berle and Margaret Leighton share a bizarre but funny sequence in which they fight over funeral arrangements for their dead pet — or with Rod Steiger who is hilarious (and deserves his special billing) as the head embalmer Mr. Joyboy.
The new Warner Archive DVD of “The Loved One” comes with a good 15-minute documentary in which Morse, Comer and Wexler talk about the making of this oddball black comedy.
The movie is still worth watching as a reminder of an exciting time in Hollywood history when the studios and filmmakers began to bring a more European sensibility to mainstream fare — in two years, the real revolution would begin with the release of “Bonnie & Clyde.”