Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Loved One

Jonathan Winters died late on Thursday at the age of 87. I was only going to do the standard obituary that I do for most famous people who die, but when I was searching for the links to posts about the movies he acted in, I noticed that I apparently haven't done a blog post about The Loved One before.

Robert Morse shows up first. He plays Dennis Barlow, and English poet who is traveling to Hollywood to see his uncle, Sir Francis (John Gielgud). Sir Francis is member of the British expat community in Hollywood, which as I understand it was a real thing back in the day, although by "back in the day" I mean a generation earlier than the 1965 release date of The Loved One. Things turn tragic when Sir Francis, apparently unhappy with what life away from England has given him, commits suicide. Sir Francis' fellow Britons in Hollywood decide that, since Dennis is the closest person to Francis in the Hollywood community, Dennis ought to handle the funeral arrangements.

It's at this point that The Loved One turns to a way over-the-top satire. Dennis visits Whispering Glades, a funeral home/cemetery run by the mysterious Reverend Wilbur Glenworthy (Jonathan Winters), which promises people the ultimate in a funeral and final resting place for their loved ones. And boy is this place spectacular, with a burial grounds that includes tour guides (watch here for Tab Hunter), and almost any sort of funeral and memorial that one could want. Perhaps more disturing for Dennis is some of the people he meets. There's Aimee (Anjanette Corner), who helps prepare the dead bodies for their open-casket viewings, but really wants to be an embalmer, especially since it would make her the first female professional embalmer. As for the actual embalmer, that's Mr. Joyboy (Rod Steiger), a seeming psychopath with mother issues.

Along the way, Dennis realizes that, being out of a job, he's got to get work, and winds up working for Rev. Glenworthy's brother Henry (also played by Jonathan Winters). Henry has also gone into the funeral business, but providing funerals for pets instead. There are a lot of people out there who love their pets as if the pets were their own children, and go to great lengths to pamper their pets -- including in the way they handle their pets' deaths. (Documentary filmmaker Errol Morris covered this in his 1978 documentary Gates of Heaven.) Henry has decided to cater to the pet owners, and if he had the capital, he could do just as good a job as Rev. Wilbur. He doesn't have that, but he does get Gunther (Paul Williams), a precocious kid with an astonishing technical idea for a final sendoff....

I find The Loved One a bit tough to rate. Funerals are certainly a topic ripe for satire, and heaven knows there have been some outrageous funerals on film (the opening of Sunset Blvd. comes to mind), and phony funerals used as plot devices in comedies (the opening of Some Like It Hot). But at times the satire in The Loved One goes way, way over the top, as with the rocket funeral plot at the end. Sure, there are some funny scenes, such as one with Liberace, and excellent performances, especially from Rod Steiger. But many of the scenes left me a bit cold, with the feeling that the writers and directors had a lot of great ideas for scenes, but an overriding plot that's a bit incoherent, as if they're trying to stuff too much into the movie. A lack of a plot can work in some cases when you have a good framing story for a bunch of vignettes, as in Mr. Hulot's Holiday. Then again, part of my problem could just be a personal animus. A lot of the reviews that talk about how brilliant this movie is comment on how it skewered the sensibilities of society of the mid-1960s, and as I've mentioned several times, that aspect of the 60s is something I've never particularly cared about. So where I find The Loved One to be a movie with potential that doesn't always succeed, the rest of you may find a masterpiece.

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