Tony Richardson’s The Loved One (1965) was originally promoted as “the motion picture with something to offend everyone.” And though it was made before the advent of the ratings system, they weren’t kidding — which goes to prove that you don’t need an R rating if you’re determined to shake people up. The film is an adaptation — and extension — of Evelyn Waugh’s 1947 short novel of the same name, a book that Waugh wrote after his trip to Hollywood to discuss what turned out to be an abortive attempt to bring his Brideshead Revisited to the screen. (Hollywood bought the book because it was a best-seller — completely unaware that it was about Catholicism and contained homosexuality.) Waugh’s The Loved One offered his take on Hollywood and the bizarre Los Angeles funeral practices he witnessed there — with the accent on the latter. (The Hollywood British colony, pet cemeteries and phony guru advisors came under his scrutiny, too.) What Richardson’s film does — with help from screenwriter Terry Southern (and a little input from Christopher Isherwood) — is offer an updated version of the story, taking on the excesses of the intervening 18 years.
Despite the fact that the film tends to rile traditionalists, it really does follow the basics of the book quite faithfully. It is still the story of a hack (or scrupulous) English poet (Robert Morse), who find himself on his own in Hollywood when his uncle (John Gielgud) commits suicide after being dumped by the studio. He still disgraces himself with the British Colony, compounds the offense by taking a job at a pet cemetery and falls in love with a death-obsessed girl from the Whispering Glades (think Forest Lawn) funeral home. It just adds things — like Liberace as a coffin salesmen, funerals in space, 25-year-old Paul Williams as a boy genius and Jonathan Winters in the only role the movies ever gave him that tapped into his talents. Will it offend you? Oh, very likely. If nothing else, Mrs. Joyboy (Ayllene Gibbons) should do the trick.
The Asheville Film Society will screen The Loved One Tuesday, Sept. 17, at 8 p.m. in Theater Six at The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.