The Loved One (1965) is my all-time favorite comedy. Based on a 1948 novel of the same name by Evelyn Waugh, The Loved One stands alongside Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood (the book and the movie) as a savagely on-target, dark comic satire on American Protestant civilization.
Both Waugh and O’Connor, of course, were Catholic. But much to my surprise, the movie of The Loved One measurably deepens Waugh’s Christian satire of the spiritual emptiness of American religion and capitalism, even though that could have been no part of the intentions of director Tony Richardson and screenwriters Terry Southern and Christopher Isherwood.
Henceforth, I will be speaking of the movie of The Loved One, and side references to the book will be clearly identified.
The setting is Los Angeles at the dawn of the Space Age, i.e., about 1965. A young Englishman, Dennis Barlow (Robert Morse), has won a free airline ticket and decides to visit his uncle, Sir Francis Hinsley (John Gielgud), who works as a painter at Megalopolitan Pictures in Hollywood. The opening of the movie is thus a very droll satire of Hollywood, where, as Sir Francis says, people “talk entirely for their own pleasure, and they don’t expect you to listen.” Remembering that, he tells Dennis, is “the secret of social ease.”
The comedy turns a bit darker, however, when Sir Francis is fired from the studio and commits suicide, which provides the segue from the prologue to the main part of the picture, which is a satire on the American way of life—and death. The leader ofthe British expatriate community in Los Angeles, Sir Ambrose Abercrombie, a character actor who plays Prime Ministers and butlers (Robert Morley), believes that Sir Francis has let down the team. He persuades Dennis that the best way to ease Sir Francis’ disgrace is to sell his uncle’s house to pay for an expensive burial at Whispering Glades Cemetery (based on Forest Lawn).
A necropolis by way of an amusement park, the best word for Whispering Glades is “kitsch,” meaning the prostitution of beauty to sentimentality and commerce. Whispering Glades is the creation of the Blessed Reverend Wilbur Glenworthy (Jonathan Winter in his greatest role). Like William Randolph Hearst, Glenworthy plundered the whole world of European high culture, meticulously re-creating buildings and monuments, but larger and in concrete and steel. It was perfectly pitched to the sentimentality and social insecurity of its middle-brow, high-dollar clientele.
Both Waugh and Richardson were anti-American snobs, as is Dennis Barlow. But Barlow soon follows in the footsteps of his uncle, Sir Ambrose, and the Blessed Reverend when he realizes that the social prestige and objective worth of European culture can be used to profitably bilk American Philistines out of some of the nation’s embarrassing riches. Although in Dennis’ case, he merely passes off English Romantic poetry as his own to woo Miss Aimée Thanatogenous, whom he meets at Whispering Glades. (She is the cosmetician of the Gothic Slumber Room. Her name, by the way, means “loved one generated by death.”)
Aimée Thanatogenous, beautifully played by Anjanette Comer, who perfectly captures the “glint of lunacy” Waugh ascribes to her in the novel, is the central character of The Loved One. She is the tragic portrait of a cultureless, almost feral American whose moral, religious, and aesthetic longings are cruelly betrayed by the soulless American void.
The novel fleshes out her back story a bit. She was named for Aimée Semple Macpherson. Her father lost all his money in religion. Her mother was an alcoholic who abandoned her. She studied art, psychology, and Chinese for a semester or two, then was forced to leave college and earn a trade as a cosmetician and hairdresser. She is not religious, but she regards herself as “progressive” and “ethical.” Her ethics regarding sex, however, are more prudish than progressive.
She has a strong but uncultivated aesthetic sensibility, which does not, however, provide her with sufficient foundations for life. (In the movie, she assembles a magnificent collection of kitsch—in a condemned house, hanging over a void in a slide zone — a metaphor as majestic as the Titanic.) As her substitute for religion, she writes regularly for advice to the Guru Brahmin, a local newspaper columnist. She also has total faith in the Blessed Reverend Glenworthy and the “eternity” of Whispering Glades.
Dennis’ chief rival for Aimée’s affections is Lafayette Joyboy (Rod Steiger), the Chief Embalmer of Whispering Glades, an unctuous, effeminate mama’s boy and company man who shares Aimée’s absolute faith in the Blessed Reverend.
The Blessed Reverend is merely mentioned in the book, but he is one of the film’s best-realized characters. A narcissistic egomaniac, he runs Whispering Glade as a cult of personality. But the Blessed Reverend does not run a religious cult, because in reality he is a cold and cynical businessman in pastoral vestments.
Winters plays Glenworthy with a magnificent voice, capable of conferring cant and heresy with the aura of holy writ. (His characterization may have been inspired by the novel’s description of Mr. Joyboy’s authoritative, radio-announcer voice.) The movie masterfully captures how yesterday’s resonantly intoned con-artist’s spiel become tomorrow’s earnestly (or desperately) repeated pieties of the little people (particularly when the Blessed Reverend’s words are repeated in the breathy, panicky voice of his brother Henry, also played by Winters).
One of the drollest subplots is the Blessed Reverend’s scheme to turn Whispering Glades to more profitable use as a retirement community for undignified American old people. There’s only one problem: how to “get those stiffs off of my property.” This being the Space Age, he naturally takes inspiration from a tow-headed boy-genius named Gunther (Paul Williams) and tries to create a trend of blasting bodies into “an orbit of eternal grace” using US government surplus rockets, a scheme he dubs “Resurrection Now!” (It all seems much more plausible when Glenworthy voices it.)
Although the “loved one” of the title is Glenworthy’s euphemism for the stiffs he inters, it also refers to Aimée Thanatogenous, who is the central character not as an agent, but as the object of the affections of several men. She is charmed by Dennis’ poetry but irritated by his unethical interest in sex, so the Guru Brahmin advises her to marry Mr. Joyboy.
She is impressed by Mr. Joyboy’s status and professionalism, but she finds his obese, gluttonous (and unforgettably hilarious) mother unaesthetic, so the Guru Brahmin advises her to marry Dennis. Then the jilted Mr. Joyboy avenges himself by revealing that Dennis’ poetry is plagiarized and that he works at the Happier Hunting Grounds, a pet cemetery that Aimée finds unaesthetic (and perhaps unethical as well).
The movie reaches its climax when Aimée turns in her hour of crisis to her two spiritual authorities, the Guru Brahmin and the Blessed Reverend, and discovers both are frauds. The Guru Brahmin turns out to be a cynical, malevolent old drunk named Hump (Lionel Stander) who tells her to jump out a window.
Then she goes to the Blessed Reverend for reassurance after Dennis tells her of the plan to close Whispering Glades. When he admits its truth, she protests, in her cartoon mouse voice, that Whispering Glades is “eternal!” To which he thunders, like a prophet of the true American religion, “Nothing is eternal! All must change!” Then he tries to seduce her.
Her world shattered, Aimée takes Hump’s advice, and, in a shocking sequence, commits suicide by embalming herself alive, thus joining the rest of Glenworthy’s “loved ones.”
A cultureless void is great for clearing away all impediments to the strivers and achievers and go-getters among us as they rocket toward their goals. But as Aimée shows, when one stumbles, one falls, for there is nothing to brace oneself against.
Joyboy finds Aimée’s body and, fearing disgrace, bribes Dennis to cremate her at the Happier Hunting Grounds. The movie’s addition of the “Resurrection Now!” project makes possible a less distasteful dénouement: Aimée is substituted for the corpse of a washed-up astronaut and fired into space, while the astronaut is consigned to the ash heap, and Dennis departs for England courtesy of Mr. Joyboy, to a rousing chorus of “America the Beautiful.”
The movie strikes only one false note. While the novel makes it clear that Jews and gentiles alike were buried in Whispering Glades, the movie features a scene in which a Mr. and Mrs. Bernstein are politely rebuffed. You know, to show just how evil the Blessed Reverend really is.
With brilliant performances by the lead actors; bit parts and cameos by Roddy McDowell, Tab Hunter, Milton Berle, James Coburn, and Liberace; and some achingly beautiful late Romantic music by John Addison, The Loved One is a philosophically profound and deeply disturbing dark-comic masterpiece. It is also one of the most anti-modernist and anti-American films of all time.