Forgotten Film Review: The Loved One

"I wish my brother George was here."

"I wish my brother George was here."

Sir John Gielgud, Jonathan Winters, Tab Hunter, Rod Steiger, Milton Berle, Roddy McDowall and Liberace. Would you believe that there was a movie made in the mid-’60s that had all of these people in its cast? Well there was, and it’s called The Loved One.

Due to winning a contest with an airline, recent college graduate Dennis Barlow (Robert Morse) travels from his home in England to Los Angeles to visit his uncle Sir Francis Hinsley (Gielgud), a Hollywood acting coach who teaches British mannerisms to movie stars. Before Barlow can get acclimated to his new surroundings, his uncle passes away and he gets saddled with the duty of arranging the funeral. Without family, friends, guidance, a job or even a way home, Barlow finds himself surrounded by all of the oddballs at the Whispering Gardens cemetery and ends up with a job at a mortuary for the deceased pets of the Hollywood elite.
(In a retrospective featurette for The Loved One, one of the film’s producers described it as like The Graduate, but at a cemetery… which sounds pretty accurate.)

The Loved One was considered highly controversial when it was first released in 1965 (the studio execs in charge of the picture famously walked out of the movie when it was first screened to them), and amazingly, it still has some edge even today. The film is satirical of religion, Hollywood and the funeral industry, and a lot of the humor is so dark, it’s pitch black. Then again, maybe I’m the only one who sees humor in watching a mortician’s nonchalant (mis)treatment of already-dead animals, recklessly throwing them into an industrial freezer with an echoing THUD.

Without a doubt, the main draw of this movie is Rod Steiger’s character, Mr. Joyboy, head mortician of Whispering Gardens. Personal friends of Rod Steiger have said that Mr. Joyboy was one of his favorite roles that he ever played in his career, and it shows. Steiger rocks a blond perm, black-rimmed glasses and a nervously fussy mince in his walk to bring to life a character who single-handedly steals the show. Joyboy is the perfect character to demonstrate the rule that it isn’t what you say that’s funny, but how you say it. Not only that, but Steiger has given Joyboy many layers in his characterization, and as they peel away, he’s revealed to be one of the most fascinatingly dark and disturbing (yet strangely likable) characters in the film. Which reminds me….

Mrs. Joyboy, Mr. Joyboy’s mother, is without a doubt one of the most hilariously disgusting and repulsive characters I have ever seen in a film, and that includes Austin Powers’ Fat Bastard.

Despite the film having a lot of clever jokes, humor that’s right up my alley and a cast that begs the question, “How in the hell…?”, it’s hard to recommend The Loved One. The first third of the film is painfully slow with barely any hints at humor or setups of what’s to come. The final third goes off the rails completely; losing focus of the story and characters and having a climax that seems unfulfilling and kind of out of left field. However, the middle third is pretty inspired, so… it’s a toss up, really.

The Loved One has developed a small cult following, and given its hilarious anti-establishment attitude, crazy characters, non-sequitors and dark humor, it’s not hard to see why. But like a lot of other cult films, it has trouble with pacing and plotting, and it leaves you with a feeling of, “What the hell did I just watch?”

I’d give this film a rating like my past reviews,
but it seems kind of moot — it’s too weird to judge.
? out of 10

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4 Responses to Forgotten Film Review: The Loved One

  1. writeswithafist says:

    Hm. This all sounds very curious. And also implausible. They really made a movie like that, eh?

    Now I’m way curious. Would I get a kick out of this thing? Also, how did you see it? Was it in the libarry?

    And finally, do you think Gielgud, McDowall and Liberace had any gay boys’ nights out whilst filming? I could almost see that happening. And I could almost see Winters crashing the party, too.

  2. Boone says:

    Last part first: Tab Hunter was (secretly) gay, so he probably would’ve joined them. I could also see Winters crashing the party, but not in a mean-spirited way.
    And yes, I rented this film from the library.

    Now, the tricky part: “Would I get a kick out of this thing?”
    The good parts are really good, and I would say the middle hour (it’s two hours long) has moments that border on genius. That having been said, the rest is very, very meh. But knowing you personally and your affinity for old films and John Geilgud, I would recommend it to you.

    This is a film that you kind of have to be selective in your recommendation. I’d hesitate to give it a sweeping endorsement — I’d recommend it to people on a case-by-case basis. Not everyone could laugh watching a scene with two guys talking about relationship troubles while chucking dead cats into incinerators.

  3. Boone says:

    On an unrelated note, the movie is based on a novel by Evelyn Waugh, the author of “Brideshead Revisited”. I heard that the film sticks pretty closely to the book, except for the ending. I now plan on reading the book at some point in time.

  4. writeswithafist says:

    Which you can probably also find at the library.

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