Saturday, January 4, 2014


British director Tony Richardson won a Best Director Academy Award for TOM JONES (1963), which also was that year's Best Picture of the Year Oscar winner. TOM JONES beat out AMERICA, AMERICA, CLEOPATRA, HOW THE WEST WAS WON and LILIES OF THE FIELD. In my estimation, the film that should have been awarded Best Picture of the Year for 1963 was HUD. I've seen TOM JONES and I think it's one of the worst films to win a Best Picture of the Year Academy Award in the last fifty years. Nevertheless, coming off of the commercial and critical success of TOM JONES, Tony Richardson was riding high and film buffs were anxious to see what he'd do for an encore.

What Richardson did was THE LOVED ONE (1965) a jet black comedy (based on the novel by Evelyn Waugh with a screenplay by Terry Southern and Christopher Isherwood) about the American funeral industry (the film also takes aim at Hollywood, organized religion, consumer culture and other targets). The film was advertised as "The Motion Picture With Something To Offend Everyone!" and by 1965 standards, that's a pretty accurate assessment. I watched this cult classic last night for the first time (thanks to a recent showing on TCM) and I'm here to report that I wasn't offended in the least by anything in the film. Your mileage may vary. I also didn't think it was anywhere near as funny as I was led to believe it would be. Oh, I chuckled a few times (it's hard not to laugh at a film in which the great Jonathan Winters plays two parts) but I didn't think it was hilarious. Odd, yes. Bizarre, certainly. Ahead of its' time, definitely.

With black and white cinematography by Haskell Wexler and editing by Hal Ashby (both men would later forge their own careers as film directors) THE LOVED ONE has a cinema verite vibe comprised of hand held camera shots and on-location shooting. It certainly doesn't look like the standard mid-'60s Hollywood studio produced comedy and is closer in spirit, visual style and tone to Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece DR. STRANGELOVE.

The film finds a young Brit, Dennis Barlow (Robert Morse, who is win, place and show in the Dave Barry lookalike contest) coming to America for the first time. He takes up residence in Los Angeles with his uncle, Sir Francis Hinsley (John Gielgud) who works at a movie studio. When a film project under development gets canned, Sir Francis suddenly finds himself out of work after thirty years at the studio. He takes his own life and it's up to young Dennis to make the funeral arrangements.

When Dennis visits the enormous Whispering Glades cemetery and mortuary, he literally goes down the rabbit hole. The facility is run by the Reverend Wilbur Glenworthy (Winters) a con man and real estate tycoon par excellence masquerading as a spiritual leader. Dennis meets a beautiful but simple minded young cosmetician, Aimee (Anjanette Comer), along with the truly outre mortician Mr. Joyboy (Rod Steiger in perhaps the film's funniest performance), and a casket salesman played by Liberace.

Dennis is smitten with Aimee and woos her with plagiarized poetry. Aimee is far too stupid to realize that the words he showers her with are not his own. Mr. Joyboy has a twisted fixation on Aimee, which makes for one of the more unusual love triangles in film history.

The trouble is, Whispering Glades has reached it's limit as far as available land for burials goes. Rev. Glenworthy devises a scheme to turn his property into a retirement community but in order to do so, he must first disinter the existing graves. How to do so without causing a massive scandal? Enter his brother Henry (also played by Winters), who runs a pet cemetery owned by the reverend. Henry once worked at the movie studio but he was cut lose along with the late Uncle Francis earlier in the film. Dennis works for Henry and the two come up with a sure fire plan, courtesy of Gunther, a young rocket scientist played by Paul Williams. The plan is to launch the coffins into low earth orbit and the first rocket is scheduled to blast off with the remains of a NASA astronaut on board. But someone else is in that coffin when the rocket is launched.

THE LOVED ONE was a box-office disaster when it was first released but it went on to be recognized as a cult classic. I've known about the film for years but never had the opportunity to see it until last night. To be honest, I'm not quite sure what to make of it. I didn't hate it. It was imminently watchable and totally unpredictable. As I said, I did get a few laughs out of it but I didn't think it was a comedy masterpiece by any stretch. Bottom line, THE LOVED ONE is certainly worth seeing at least once if you're a hardcore film fan.

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