Directed by: Tony Richardson (Tom Jones)
Starring: Robert Morse, Jonathan Winters, Anjanette Comer, Rod Steiger, Lionel Stander
Advertised as “The motion picture with something to offend everyone,” Tony Richardson’s 1965 film version of Evelyn Waugh’s 1947 novel has lost very little of its edge 43 years later. In fact, there very likely still is something to offend everyone. Admirers of Waugh are split on the merits of the film as an adaptation, and while Richardson and screenwriters Terry Southern and Christopher Isherwood take serious liberties in updating the story, the basics of the novel are intact. What they did, in fact, can be viewed as an extension of what Waugh did with the book in the first place.
Hollywood imported Waugh when they bought his novel Brideshead Revisited, which was purchased strictly because it had been a bestseller. No one seems to have realized it was about Catholicism. When they found out that this was the case, they promptly canceled the project and sent an amused Waugh back to England—but not before he’d amassed material for a scathing satire on Hollywood, celebrity cults, quasi-religious fads, Hollywood’s “British Colony” and, most of all, the remarkably tacky funeral practices of Forest Lawn (called Whispering Glades in the book). Like Waugh, Richardson was imported to make the film because suddenly Brits were hot properties—even if not wholly to be trusted (see the anti-British bit in the airport with James Coburn)—and British pictures were encroaching on American cinema. The logic was to make a British picture in Hollywood. Unlike Waugh, Richardson managed to bite the hand that was signing his paycheck while the pen was still in hand.
In the process, he gave us a disturbingly hilarious picture of ourselves—and provided comedian Jonathan Winters with the only good turn the movies ever afforded him by casting him as the utterly venal and pious fraud Rev. Wilbur Glenworthy (aka “The Blessed Reverend”), owner of Whispering Glades, and as his no-account twin brother, Henry, owner of the Happier Hunting Grounds Pet Cemetery. The plot is the same as the book, but times have changed to a point where Rev. Glenworthy realizes Whispering Glades would be more valuable (and have a lively turnover) as an old-folks home. The problem, of course, is that it’s a cemetery (“There’s gotta be some way to get those stiffs off my property”). See the solution for yourself. And also see Rod Steiger’s smarmy mortician and his amazingly obese mother (the refrigerator scene alone is worth it), Lionel Stander as the Guru Brahmin and Liberace as a sleazy coffin salesman. Just see it!
The Loved One, part of a series of Classic Cinema From Around the World, will be presented at 8 p.m. Friday, April 18, at Courtyard Gallery, 9 Walnut St. in downtown Asheville. Info: 273-3332.