The influence of Fellini and Kubrick weighs heavily on Tony Richardson's nightmare black comedy, The Loved One (1965). The film's deep focus and high contrast, clinically analytical black and white photography, a tremendous achievement by Haskell Wexler calls to mind the pitch darkness and blasts of acetylene-white light in Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove -- the films share a writer: Terry Southern worked with Christopher Isherwood to adapt Evelyn Waugh's novel to the screen. Furthermore, both the Kubrick picture and Richardson's film are intensely invested in the details of the industry that they document -- there is a kind of neo-realist intensity of focus on the embalming rooms and cosmeticians' cubicles in The Loved One that is similar to the documentary imagery of SAC bombers and underground war rooms on the Kubrick movie. And, like Fellini, particularly in 8 1/2, Richardson's movie luxuriates in the grotesque, most notably in the horrific scenes involving Rod Steiger as Mr. Joyboy, a hapless embalmer hopelessly enmeshed with his vastly obese mother -- Richardson liked scenes involving jaws rending and tearing meat (there is a famous episode in his Tom Jones of that kind) and, in The Loved One, we get to see Mom Joyboy ravaging a full suckling pig. Mom Joyboy's meal, filmed in Soviet-style montage with canted angles, is overdone and not very funny -- on the other hand, that scene follows a hilarious monologue by the wet-eyed Steiger in which he applies his best method-acting technique to recounting a dream in which boiled lobsters devoured his mother. The contrast between Steiger's laugh-out-loud monologue and the grotesque and unfunny eating montage epitomizes the whole film -- about half of it is exceedingly funny and brilliantly realized; the other half is over-emphatic, hysterical, like a laugh-track gone berserk.
The Loved One was a big prestigious production and has a cast swarming with bizarre cameos -- Liberace plays a dapper, even, sinister, casket salesman: you expect him to be outrageous but, to the contrary, his performance is effectively understated. Jonathon Winter plays the Peter Sellers double-part in the film, acting both the role of a corrupt, if visionary, preacher and cemetery entrepreneur and his brother, a smarmy conniving Hollywood agent turned pet cemetery proprietor. Winters is funny in both roles, although the apocalyptic imagery associated with the corrupt evangelist is ultimately overdone to the point of absurdity: when the maniacal, ranting Reverend attempts to rape, the mortuary cosmetician, Aimee Thanatogenos, stained glass imagery on the walls of the cemetery chapel come to life as vivid, animated sex scenes and the Blessed Reverend, who has sponsored an orgy for military men in his casket showroom, hovers over the infernal landscape of Los Angeles, all throbbing freeways and dusty vacant lots, in a sinister black helicopter. Paul Williams, whose presence in films was always utterly bizarre and inexplicably weird, appears as a boy genius instrumental in the Reverend's idea of blasting "stiffs" into orbit, thereby, clearing out the tenants of his vast and gaudy memorial park so that it can be converted into a senior citizen's retirement and assisted living compound. Williams is particularly creepy because of his intensity and the fact that he seems to be no known gender and no particular age -- he is either a wizened boy-child or an inexplicably infantile old woman. John Gielgud plays the part of an expatriate English gentleman, apparently ripely homosexual, employed as a set decorator in the film industry. His firing by the blandly indifferent and boyish Roddy McDowell, acting the role of a studio executive, causes him to commit suicide and his obsequies sets in motion the plot. Robert Morse is the film's protagonist, the dead set designer's nephew, and a rival with the foppish embalmer, Mr. Joyboy, for the love of the sepulchral mortuary attendant, Aimee Thanatogenos, Tab Hunter appears briefly as a cemetery tour guide and grave-plot salesman. The film begins with "America the Beautiful" sung as an ironic counterpoint to planes landing at LAX, clearly a reference to the beginning of Kubrick's Strangelove showing the SAC bombers copulating in mid-air like immense ominous dragonflies, and, with due symmetry, not otherwise observed in this film, ends with Morse returning to England from the same airport, sadder, it seems, but not wiser. I saw this film on television in the late sixties -- the movie has some images that once seen will stick with the viewer for the rest of his or her life: at least this has been the case with me. The falls of Xanadu, a twinkling grove in the Forest Lawn-like celebrity cemetery glistens in the moonlight as Morse's character recites Keats -- "I have been half in love with easeful death"; the cynical owner of a pet cemetery spears small furry dogs with a kind of lance and casts the rigor-mortified beasts into a pet crematorium; Aimee Thanatogenos lives in condemned house tipped over the edge of desert ravine -- it's a slide area and her home is inexorably slipping into the abyss and, in the final shot in that sequence, we see her swinging on her porch, pumping her legs, to fly far out over the canyon as the home, supported by a few spindly beams groans and trembles underneath. Mr. Joyboy sends messages to Miss Thanatogenos by the expressions he sculpts into the faces of the deceased "loved ones" -- we see John Gielgud smiling demonically and another corpse with a hang-dog expression of utter dejection expressing the embalmer's sorrow at her rebuffing his advances. A subplot, derived from Nathaniel West's Miss Lonelyhearts involving a burly alcoholic playing the part of a faux Hindu guru offering advise to the lovelorn is less effective simply because those themes were managed much powerfully by West than in the film. The picture is a vast, dispiriting spectacle, a nihilistic epic, and, despite its innumerable flaw well worth seeing.