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Cult Classic

Home / Comedy / The-loved-onePhoto: John Gielgud and Rod Steiger in The Loved One (1965)

comedy

The Loved One

1965 black and white comedy film. [Runtime: 122 Minutes]


How It All Began

Here’s how the story goes:

English novelist Evelyn Waugh reluctantly visits Hollywood to meet with MGM executives about adapting his most successful work, Brideshead Revisited, which none of the suits has ever read and the writer has no interest in bastardizing for a big studio paycheck. They can’t reach an agreement, and the trip is mostly a disaster.

In fact, Waugh hates everything about Los Angeles except for the sprawling Forest Lawn cemetery in the Hollywood Hills. His tours of the facilities and corporate offices lead to a (quite literal!) morbid fascination with the burgeoning American death-industrial complex. He writes The Loved One, an offbeat, biting satire of both Hollywood and funeral home culture that’s generally well-received but also deemed unfilmable by everyone who reads it. Even the great surrealist Luis Bunuel, the master of absurd cinema, couldn’t crack the book’s code.

HOLLYWOOD

F

ast forward almost twenty years later: another Brit, the director Tony Richardson, fresh off Oscar success, visits Hollywood to turn The Loved One into a feature film.

The same studio, MGM, this time says “Fuck it!” and rolls the dice.

Waugh trusts his fellow countryman and an all-star team of collaborators to get it right. Inevitably, the writer detests what Hollywood does to his novel, then dies shortly after the film’s release. A whole nest of ouroboros snakes is required to capture the chaotic fullness of the circle.

The Screenplay

The literary English novelist Christopher Isherwood, whose work served as the basis for Cabaret, and the American counter-culture satirist Terry Southern, who co-wrote Dr. Strangelove with Stanley Kubrick, work with Richardson on the screenplay.

Hal Ashby, who would become one of the great New Hollywood filmmakers in the next decade, helps edit the film. Again, Waugh is trusting his fellow countryman and this all-star team of collaborators to get it right.

On the subject of death

It’s fitting that Hollywood’s first film to tackle the American culture of death mostly fell flat. The best compliment it receives is legendary film critic Pauline Kael calling it “a triumphant disaster” – this backhanded remark remains the film’s highest professional praise.

A Cult Classic?

While The Loved One occasionally appears on lists of cult movies, it’s been overlooked by most serious film scholars. Yet if Richardson’s previous film Tom Jones is, as the writer Charles Taylor claims, the director’s attempt to apply the techniques of the French New Wave to a crowd-pleasing film, this movie represents his vision of a Hollywood film with the ethos of the French New Wave; in other words, if Tom Jones utilized the style of the French New Wave through jump cuts, then The Loved One captures the spirit of the movement with its frenetic, referential pastiche. The result is a film that eschews plot coherence and even objective reality for a work that confronts the viewer with a radical message about the nature of cinema itself.

 

Perhaps it’s the message that has alienated so many viewers over the years, a relentless assault on the constant packaging and repurposing of death into commercial products that seems to lurk beneath every aspect of American life and certainly in every frame of this picture.

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Maybe Waugh would have lived a little longer if he could have stepped outside his literary ego for long enough to join in the mirth.

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-Gus Greene
Once arrested for having Relations in Public.

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