Posted in: Essays

Limeys in Lotusland: “The Loved One” Reappraised

[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

Shortly after World War II there occurred a meeting as potent, in its own way, as the confrontation of Frankenstein’s monster and the Wolf Man: Evelyn Waugh went Hollywood. M-G-M had purchased the film rights to Brideshead Revisited and its eccentric author had a tedious time arguing with producer Leon Gordon and writer James Kevin McGuinness as to how it should be filmed. In the end, everyone gave it up as a bad job, the movie went unmade, and Waugh returned to Somerset. But the stopover in Tinseltown had one major by-product, which appeared in 1948: Waugh’s short, scathing novel about Los Angeles, its weird ways, and in particular its burial habits: The Loved One.

As the book accumulated celebrity, Hollywood forgave and forgot in its usual way, and snapped it up for filming. Waugh himself at one time had plans to work on a film version with his friend Alec Guinness (England’s only major international film star of the time) playing Dennis Barlow, the not-very-innocent abroad who is the novel’s central character. It was also a pet project of Luis Buñuel’s (ah, what might have been!), but, despite these eminences, a film never seemed to get made.

The Loved One
The Loved One

Finally, in 1964 or thereabouts, Metro and Filmways put together what must have seemed a classic example of the great Hollywood artform, the deal. The director signed for the film was the then exceptionally hot Tony Richardson, fresh from the $40 million grossed first time round by Tom Jones (which had been forecast throughout the industry as a certain money-loser, even on its slender budget) and from the Oscar ceremonies. Inked instantly as screenwriter was the Bad Boy of American letters, the outrageous humorist Terry Southern, who was also hot as a result of co-scripting Dr. Strangelove, a significant breakthrough in terms of black or bad-taste humour.

They could do no wrong. Richardson demanded and, unusually for those days, got final cut privileges. He refused to film in a studio, although bits of Culver City turned up as location. He went a million or more over the already sizeable budget. Stars came and went. Christopher Isherwood, like Dennis Barlow a minor English writer who’d come to California (and stayed), came in to do extra scripting – an ominous sign, as he was unlikely to have forgiven Waugh for caricaturing him so contemptuously in his 1942 novel Put Out More Flags. Martin Ransohoff, of Filmways, and Robert H. O’Brien, of M-G-M, got nervous, only to find themselves in the ignominious position of being barred from the film. Richardson wouldn’t even let them see the rushes. They offered to buy him out, as they couldn’t get him on his contract. He, brimming over with cheek, offered to buy them out. Now, no one, not even a foreign Oscar-winner, can do that to a studio head and get away with it unless he can be absolutely certain of delivering the goods and making big bucks on top. Here the English flyboy came unstuck; and it is not unreasonable to say that he has been unstuck ever since. The Loved One was perhaps no end of fun as a play-with whilst the filmic ball was rolling. But when it came to hammering the rushes into some sort of final shape, the limey wunderkind found himself with an inchoate mass of celluloid. With observable difficulty, he and three editors finally turned it into an exhibitable movie (opening in the U.S. late in 1965), only to find it widely hated. The public did not come, and it cannot be said that M-G-M was in any way keen to persuade them to.

Evelyn Waugh, a tough cookie to have for an enemy, was full of venom and even tried to get his own name removed from the credits. (Richardson was supposed to have called the book “thin and dated”, although he later denied this). A matter of days after the film’s London opening in the spring of 1966, Waugh died suddenly, and even that did not coax paying customers into the cinemas – not that many were playing the film anyway.

The movie was, like several of its characters, buried deep in the cold, cold ground. The violent antipathy of industry folk to the film (its own co-producer, John Calley, is said to have summed it up as “32 faggot acts all in a row”) seems to have brought out the killer instinct in Leo the Lion. One wonders if M-G-M didn’t feel it was better to consign $5,000,000 (or was it more?) to the drain than to let the public be brutalized by exposure to so foul a portrait of the City of the Angels and its two main business preoccupations. A film obsessed by death? Mocking grief, religion, culture, mother love, devotion, America itself? It was to shudder. Since a good many top critics did shudder – and dismiss the film as self-indulgent crap – the Metro brass probably didn’t feel bad about it. There were no public outcries about the non-exhibition of The Loved One. Tony Richardson retired discreetly to France, directed a couple of disasters starring Jeanne Moreau, and then went off to Turkey to film The Charge of the Light Brigade. This turned out to be the last gasp to date of a meaningful movie career. Nobody since has paid him more than the minimum of heed, and there’s been no occasion to. Looking back over his oeuvre, one discerns that Tom Jones, his biggest hit, is in fact the only first-to-last triumph he’s had, and it’s sadly true that many people now regard even that hit with less fondness than once they did.

Long years after its disastrous openings, The Loved One turned up unheralded on British TV as a last-minute late-night replacement for another movie. I wondered: would it be terrible or would it turn out a lost masterwork, kept under wraps by cowardly philistines? Neither. Kenneth Tynan’s summing-up of the film (in the London Observer) as “mountainously uneven”  got it dead right. The Loved One is, more than almost any other film I can think of, a blend of the brilliant and the dreadful so extreme that it is almost never anywhere in between, and, furthermore, it is eminently liable to hop from one extreme to the other, not merely from one scene to the next, but from moment to moment, even from shot to shot. It’s one of those rare films which totally challenge one’s aesthetic norms. For bourgeois critics to talk of “good bad films” or films that are “so bad they’re good” is, alas, commonplace. But a film like The Loved One does not separate the viewer from his aesthetic sensibilities or allow him merely to condescend to it. More mysteriously, he is affected despite his aesthetic sensibilities, or even despite his common sense; one may be fully aware of the miscalculations on display, even the downright failures of judgment, taste, appropriateness or whatever, but one is still somehow fascinated and also involved. You don’t, I suggest, get involved with, say, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, you just sit there, sort-of-bemused, and chuckle or puke, according to your inclinations. You react to the effect of the film before you react to the film; the movie itself becomes secondary, you are positively invited to patronise it. Separating out the good and the bad things in The Loved One is quite a task, and I wouldn’t deny for an instant that the bad things in the film are very bad indeed, and sometimes loathsome as well as aesthetically unsuccessful. But the film does encourage you to do this; it does make demands on your judgment. It’s not a film you can get settled with, but this defeats any attitude of smug security. It genuinely disturbs as it’s supposed to, though perhaps not in the way intended. It doesn’t bemuse – it puzzles you and nags at you.

Robert Morse
Robert Morse

The bad things start right at the beginning of the film. As his plane descends into smog-encrusted L.A., poet Dennis Barlow peruses a volume of verse and we hear him declaim the opening lines of James Thomson’s “City of Dreadful Night”. L.A., see? To rub it in, the stewardess is a prattling beanbrain, and so is the young mother seated next to Dennis, upon whom she dumps her mewling infant to his extreme discomfort. The airport is a Kafkaesque maze of corridors (fish-eye-lens photography where the natural architecture doesn’t help this concept). The immigration officer (James Coburn) is a redneck who doesn’t bat an eye at learning that Dennis is an artificial-insemination donor, but freaks out at his long hair and the revelation that he’s also a poet. All this cartoon stuff rubs our noses in the Horribleness And Philistinism Of American Life; but it’s pretty cheap and, worse, it’s obvious and unfunny. The novel could be accused of a xenophobic disdain towards what Evelyn Waugh may very possibly have regarded as one of the colonies, but it was done very stylishly and incisively, and it didn’t waste a word: the whole book was only a hundred pages. Terry Southern, like Tony Richardson (and it’s a toss-up which one is more the film’s auteur), aims wide. Where Waugh slipped the stiletto between the ribs, Richardson and Southern favour the blunderbuss, presumably on the grounds that you can hit more. They ignore the fact that you also get a lot of mess that way.

In Hollywood, Dennis moves in with his uncle, Sir Francis Hinsley, a once-famous painter with an art director’s job at Megalopolitan Studios. Sir Francis’s distressing inability to teach a cowboy star to speak with an English accent leads to his getting the sack (as does a huckster producer named Harry Glenworthy), and he hangs himself from the diving-board of his empty, rat-infested swimming pool. This, as it were, is where the story really begins, for the English colony in the city decides that Sir Francis must be interred at the town’s premier necropolis, the Whispering Glades Memorial Park. Proprietor of this fantastic empire of corpses is the Blessed Reverend Wilbur Glenworthy, twin brother of Harry; he is also the proprietor of a less select establishment called the Happier Hunting Ground, a pet cemetery where Harry is now employed and where Dennis also gets a job. Whilst stashing uncle underground, Dennis runs across a Whispering Glades cosmetician of great beauty and even greater naivete named Aimée Thanatogenos. He determines to seduce her, but he has a rival in chief embalmer Mr. Joyboy, a monstrous mother’s-boy faun of a man who swiftly rumbles that the poems with which Dennis serenades Aimée are in fact pilfered from Palgrave’s Golden Treasury. Appalled, and even more shocked by the revelations that (a) the Guru Brahmin, the agony columnist from whom she daily seeks guidance, is a drunken phony, (b) Whispering Glades is going to shut down and become a Senior Citizens’ Home, and (c) the Blessed Reverend is a sex-crazed con man, Aimée shoots up enough embalming fluid to turn herself into an instantly cosmeticized corpse, and gets blasted into outer space in a rocket to circle the world forever “in a celestial orbit of eternal grace” – as part of the Blessed Rev.’s new scheme, “RESURRECTION NOW!”.

It will be seen at once that large sections of Evelyn Waugh went thataway, and that large sections of Terry Southern took over the plot and carpetbagged it into something quite different. As a matter of record, the suavest jokes in the movie all come direct from the original: the Blessed Reverend’s creed (“And, lo! I had a dream….”), the amazingly vulgar statuary dotted about Whispering Glades, Aimée’s rundown on methods of burial (“Insarcophagusment is very popular just lately”), the obscene poem Dennis composes for his uncle’s funeral. But these are few. The other standard text on funerary rites in sunny Cal, Jessica Mitford’s nonfiction The American Way of Death, is also plundered, albeit with the authoress’s permission (she was an uncredited adviser on the film). Details from her book become the jokes that fill the film’s most solidly funny sequence, with Liberace as a coffin salesman (Mitford confirms that rigor mortis actually is known in the burial trade by the abbreviation “rigmo”). Elsewhere, the main source for screenplay plagiarism is … the collected works of Terry Southern. As Oscar Wilde said, to fall in love with oneself is to begin a lifelong romance. Clearly, the character of General Buck Brinkman is based on that other brinkman, General Buck Turgidson, in Dr. Strangelove. The panel game “What’s My Disease?”, devised as surefire TV fodder by Harry Glenworthy, is described at length in Southern’s 1957 novel Flash and Filigree. “Resurrection Now!” owes something to Dr. Krankheit’s bestseller Masturbation Now! in Candy, which book’s gay-bar scene seems the inspiration for the confrontation of the distraught Aimée and the Guru Brahmin. The sleekly manipulative Blessed Reverend is a distant cousin of that grand guy Guy Grand, and indeed the description of Grand in The Magic Christian makes him sound a dead ringer for Jonathan Winters, who plays both the Rev. and Harry.

Liberace as a coffin salesman
Liberace as a coffin salesman: the film’s most solidly funny sequence

A rather more distinguished writer seems to be within invoking distance of the movie in the Guru Brahmin sequences: Lionel Stander might fit snugly into a movie of Miss Lonelyhearts (not in the title role, but perhaps as the devilish newspaper boss Mr. Shrike). It is perhaps as well that Richardson never got his claws onto a Nathanael West novel for filming; he would have screwed up The Day of the Locust even more severely than did John Schlesinger. The Westian reference seems deliberate: according to Waugh’s biographer Christopher Sykes, the view of L.A. in his novel was heavily influenced by Locust, which Waugh had but lately read and much admired. A comparison with West works somewhat against the book’s favour, it must be said, and this is considerably more true of the movie. There is a crucial element missing from the film, the element of distance; and it also lacks any self-criticism. Richardson and Southern, not forgetting third-wheel Isherwood, have only contempt for everyone else in the world, but they sure do adore each other and their own sweet selves. Rather different from Waugh himself, whose dislike of the world also turned inwards: “If I were not a Catholic,”  he once told biographer Sykes, “I would scarcely be human.” Lacking this sort of self-perspective, Richardson, Southern, and Isherwood frequently seem pretty inhuman, too.

Dividing up responsibility among these three, one has to indulge in some guesswork. Isherwood has insisted that he gave but little to the final movie, but it seems likely that he rather than Southern contributed the lines of the British characters (Southern, as Blue Movie proves, has little or no ear for the speech of anyone not American), though here some dialogue is retained from the novel. There is one element in the film, however, which is wholly typical of Isherwood, and which constitutes perhaps the biggest defect and most distasteful aspect of the entire charade. If the film dislikes people, it positively hates women. Richardson and Southern seem perfectly happy to go along with an Isherwoodian notion of women as morons, bitches, castrators, slatterns, and lunatics. The females on display here are, without a solitary exception, grotesques. This isn’t just misogyny – I got the impression it was propaganda. One finds hints of this elsewhere in Richardson’s films, notably Mademoiselle (written by Jean Genet) and the amazingly botched adaptation of Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark. Southern, in turn, has elsewhere demonstrated a dangerous fondness for pre-feminist-era stereotyping: he conceives of females as being either “perfect little darlings”, like the heroine of Candy, or middle-aged ball-eaters – see, for instance, the portraits of Mrs. Ginger Horton and Guy Grand’s two aunts in The Magic Christian, or various female characters in Blue Movie.

And then the film is so campy. Pauline Kael remarked that all the men in the film seemed to be playing “satyrs or sissies or faggots”, and one does see what she means. The prime example is Rod Steiger’s truly bizarre performance as Mr. Joyboy. In this section of the film, acting in the conventional sense of the word stops and freakshow exhibitionism takes over. Although manifesting as many screaming-queen mannerisms as human decency can stand, Steiger’s Joyboy seems hot for Aimée. He also adores his mother – and she’s the mother of them all, a monstrous mound of human lard played with so much relish by Ayllene Gibbons that it comes close to being physically nauseating. Mrs. Joyboy exists primarily to stuff (and I do mean stuff) meals into her face whilst lounging in bed watching food commercials on TV. Her other companion is an ailing mynah bird called Gandhi (” ’cause he’s so thin”). Tom Jones gave us eating-as-prelude-to-sex; The Loved One offers eating-as-incestuous-rape, though who’s raping whom is a moot point. The whole sequence is pure, or rather impure, homosexual fantasy on a gigantic scale, I-Hate-Mommy writ large in every detail. “A heck of a lot of fun, isn’t she?” drools Steiger (that “heck” is, I’ll concede, nicely placed), all the while flouncing around in a tight-fitting apron. When he describes Mom as “every inch a queen”, you can practically hear the snickers. Mom’s main meal is roast suckling pig, and in case anyone in the world still hasn’t gotten the point of the sequence, Richardson & Co. insert a long monologue in which Joyboy describes a recurring nightmare in which Mom gets eaten alive by lobsters. God knows how many traumas this speech must have exorcised. And yet, in the midst of this offensive dross, there is one shot, just a split-second image in the middle of a seemingly endless montage of Mom stuffing herself with pork at her giggling son’s urging, which carries a genuine power and eccentric poetry – whilst the Joyboys shriek and swallow and Aimée retreats in disgust, the ignored (indeed, as we swiftly learn, dying) Gandhi cranes his beak forward and, quick as lightning, pecks out the piggy’s eye. I’m not sure why this instant should carry such surrealist potency, but it has an offbeat malign quality that lingers long after most of the film’s big set-pieces have disintegrated – as nearly all of them do.

The bogus contempt that the film’s makers feel for their audience is nowhere more clearly indicated than in the way they try to unload hoary old vaudeville japes onto the narrative in the unconvincing guise of razor-sharp satire. I mean, jokes about the oddly garbed types you find in a film studio? About Hollywood nepotism? Illiterate film stars? For the sock finish, we are introduced to a boy genius whose toy rockets have the properties of actual ones, and soar off into space with the Blessed Reverend’s blessing. Yet even within these lousy old ideas, odd slivers of wit, or hints of something better or stranger or more disturbing, can be found. That’s the damnable thing: every time you start feeling that you can condemn the movie unreservedly, you find you can’t, not quite. The same is true of most other Richardson films, albeit to a smaller extent. Time and again, he’s made films whose good parts, one thinks, might be the work of someone else, but whose bad parts are very clearly his responsibility. Yet the accumulation of the good parts over a wide range of films is such that Richardson must have some mysterious but definite talent – which renders his very frequent and extreme lapses not only even more irritating than they would normally be, but utterly baffling.

Rod Steiger
"Rod Steiger’s truly bizarre performance as Mr. Joyboy"

Here it tends to be the virtues of the film which are baffling. The boy-genius stuff is mostly coma-inducingly boring , but Paul Williams, who plays him, gives off, intangibly, enough charisma, enough individualistic weirdness, to explain the star quality he showed nearly ten years later in Phantom of the Paradise. The business of the moronic cowboy star trying to impersonate an ultra-aristocratic James Bond-type Englishman is truly dire, but has a certain jokey resonance when you realise the cowboy is played by the famous voice coach Robert Easton. Some of the virtues of the film are major by any standards: Haskell Wexler (also, curiously, the co-producer) does dazzling work as cinematographer, catching a lushly horrid and mesmeric dream-vision of Los Angeles which serves as the definitive depiction on film of that strange city (except for The Long Goodbye). Too many famous people are ill-used, but the best of the acting is first-rate. Not surprisingly, the best actor on display is John Gielgud, who, as Sir Francis Hinsley (a failed poet in the book, rather than a painter), treads the fine Waughian line between self-pity and self-disgust, and who hits a level of humanity no one else in the cast can attain. Next best – and I’m not kidding you – is Liberace, whose slimy, yet imperturbable, coffin-vendor is all the funnier because he doesn’t overdo it – he’s oleaginous without being greasy, somehow. Robert Morley, as the doyen of the English colony, Sir Ambrose Abercrombie (“You’ve probably seen him many times; he usually plays either ambassadors or butlers”), has real bite, and one can only be glad that Morley steadfastly refused to play a scene in drag, as was scripted; we see quite enough under-the-surface nastiness in Sir Ambrose as it is, without requiring a bit of infantile kinkiness.

Why Richardson cast an American, Robert Morse, as Dennis, instead of, say, James Fox or Alan Bates, is anyone’s guess; perhaps it has something to do with the inherent elfishness of his appearance. Having obtained the services of Jonathan Winters in two roles, why did Richardson confine him, for the most part, to the corny delineations of poor, sweating, desperate Harry Glenworthy, when the little-seen Blessed Reverend so much more brings out the glittering, dark idiosyncrasies of Winters’s perverse wit? Did Richardson and Southern really expect any 1965 audience to have forgotten the “pre-verts” line from the previous year’s Dr. Strangelove? It was funny when Keenan Wynn did the mispronouncing in Kubrick’s film, but here, when clumsily inserted into Dana Andrews’s sequence as mad General Brinkman, it’s merely embarrassing and tedious. One could go on about such miscalculations; there are lots more.

The Loved One was advertised as “the motion picture with something to offend everyone!”, and that’s the truth. I suspect that the only people who might not be offended by something in it would be persons as filled with self-love as Richardson and Southern and Isherwood seem to be. But there’s no shaking the diabolical fascination, no denying the nightmarish beauty of the death-loving images. The contradictions that seem to define a major element in Californian life are expressed more succinctly in the film’s most remarkable scene than in any other film I know. In this, Aimée takes Dennis to her slide-area home, supported over a huge fissure in the earth only by rickety timbers. Half the house is incomplete; rooms without walls loom over a chasm. Each step makes the structure shake and Dennis is terrified. But Aimée? In the midst of potential doom, this fragile girl is more full of life than we ever see her elsewhere. On a crudely-built child’s swing, she goes whooshing joyously to and fro across the abyss with not a care in the world. Here indeed is the obscene beauty of the grave calling to us. For just a moment, Richardson seems to perceive, as do we, the poetic fusion of love and death that should have been the key to this mad, sick, irritating, boring, hypnotic, hilarious and hideous film. The masterwork that might have been doesn’t exist, but here the occasional hints of it blossom into an extraordinary possibility.

© 1980 Pierre Greenfield

Direction: Tony Richardson. Screenplay: Terry Southern and Christopher Isherwood, after the novel by Evelyn Waugh. Cinematography: Haskell Wexler. Production and costume design: Rouben Ter-Arutunian. Editing: Antony Gibbs, Hal Ashby, Brian Smedley-Aston. Music: John Addison. Production: John Calley, Haskell Wexler.
The players: Robert Morse, Jonathan Winters, Anjanette Comer, Rod Steiger, John Gielgud, Robert Morley, Liberace, James Coburn, Paul Williams, Barbara Nichols, Dana Andrews, Tab Hunter, Milton Berle, Margaret Leighton, Roddy McDowall, Lionel Stander, Ayllene Gibbons.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.