The Loved One
Long before Six Feet Under there was The Loved One. Not that they have that much in common, as SFU is about a compassionate, family-run funeral home, and TLO is about the excesses of the Death Business, particularly in Southern California, very much lampooning such overblown and pretentious places like Forest Lawn.
There are so many personal associations for me in this movie I don’t know if I’ll have time to review the film itself. I first saw it in Chicago on a layover between trains taking me from East Lansing to Houston. I had some time to leave the station and spend most of the day in The Loop, which I’d never seen, and bought a ticket at this vast old movie palace. I thoroughly enjoyed it, though not as much as Tony Richardson’s previous movie, Tom Jones, on my all-time favorite list.
The female lead of TLO was Anjanette Comer, who was really gorgeous. I lusted after her. I learned some years later that she was born and raised in the little town of Dawson, Texas, which is about 20 miles from Corsicana, where my father was born and where my grandparents lived almost all their lives. Granddaddy managed a Duke & Ayres 5&10-cent store there, and among his all-female employees was Mrs. Comer, Anjanette’s mother! It’s even possible that I met her in the ’50s, though I don’t remember it. She was 8 years older than me. She had a brief movie career in mostly forgettable things in the ’60s, including another co-starring role with Robert Morse in Quick Before It Melts, before settling into a life of bit parts on TV. Her most recent screen credit is in 2003, so she’s still working. She was married for a while to Walter Koenig, ensign Chekov on the original “Star Trek.”
Later, living as a hippie in Hollywood in the ’60s, I was befriended by Peter Brocco, a character actor with an amazing 217 screen credits, most bit parts, but sometimes in real parts in classics like Radar Men From the Moon, Ma and Pa Kettle on Vacation, Tobor the Great, and Francis Goes to the Races (starring Donald O’Connor and Francis the Talking Mule!). He was also in Spartacus, Our Man Flint, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and The War of the Roses. He appeared in just about every television show of the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, from “I Love Lucy” to “Peter Gunn” to “Remington Steele.” He worked with most of the major stars in Hollywood at one time or another, though when he was in Big Jim McLain with John Wayne, it wasn’t in a “Hey, Duke, baby, what’s happenin’?” sort of way, if you know what I mean. He was blacklisted in the HUAC era for unspecified commie activity, but that was okay. Pete was an excellent potter, loved it almost as much as acting, and could support himself without theatrical work.
Anyway, Pete’s house was about 4 doors up from the Laurel Canyon Country Store (still there, and still a community gathering place), and a bit of a hang-out for minor film actors. One frequent visitor I met when I was crashing at Pete’s house was Robert Easton, who played the movie cowboy Dusty Acres in TLO. He’s still working, too, right up to 2007. He was a Whiz Kid in the ’30s and ’40s, and is known as the “Henry Higgins of Hollywood,” as a master of accents and dialect. Ironically, in TLO he played a cowboy trying and dismally failing to learn an English accent for a James Bond knock-off.
One last note. Paul Williams, the self-described “Pillsbury Doughboy of Song,” plays a boy genius, the apparent age of, let’s say, 12. He was 25 years old!
Now to the movie. It holds up fairly well, though Robert Morse mugs rather a lot, as is his wont. Richardson isn’t content merely to take on the funeral biz, he hits a lot of other targets as well, and some viewed the film as a snotty Brit looking down his nose at America. Maybe so, but there were sure a lot of things to poke fun at. Satire is the art of poking holes in ridiculous people, ideas, and institutions … and the trouble with it, as I have observed in 59 years of loving it, is that there are more and more of those things to poke at, that it takes bigger and bigger needles, and that the excess of a previous age quickly becomes the norm of the new. Stan Freberg, one of my heroes, could content himself with a sharp little pin in the buttocks of buffonery. Tony Richardson, in the ’60s, had to use a harpoon. Neither of them could imagine the day when the likes of Jon Stewart has to use a nuclear weapon to even get your attention. The level of hypocrisy, bald-faced lying, truly evil men against whom gentle satire falls to the ground like bullets off Superman’s groin, the escalation of incivility in an age of Rush Limbaugh (chairman of “Let’s Make Fun of the Handicapped Week”), Ann Coulter (unspeakable poisonous cunt) (and I couldn’t even say that in Freberg’s day), and all the chickenhawks in Washington … it makes old satire seem pretty tame. Satire does have a shelf life, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still enjoy Gulliver’s Travels, or Sullivan’s Travels, and that’s the case here.
One delight is seeing big names in small roles. Liberace plays a casket salesman, and is damn good at it. Rod Steiger plays the mega-creepy Mr. Joyboy, quite a departure for him. Roddy McDowell is a studio exec, Jonathan Winters plays two parts, Milton Berle is there, John Gielgud, Tab Hunter, James Coburn … a dream cast. And one bit of trivia: Both Paul Williams and Robert Morse garnered praise later in their careers playing Truman Capote in the one-man-show, Tru. Soon, all actors will have to play Truman Capote and all actresses will have to essay the role of Harper Lee. It’ll be like an SAT test for admission to Hollywood. You read it here first.