The film stars Robert Morse, Jonathan Winters, Anjanette Comer and Rod Steiger. Among those making appearances in smaller roles are John Gielgud, Roddy McDowall, James Coburn, Milton Berle, Dana Andrews and Liberace.
Young Englishman Dennis Barlow (Robert Morse) wins an airline ticket and visits his uncle Sir Francis Hinsley (John Gielgud) in Los Angeles. Hinsley has worked as a production staffer at a major Hollywood studio for over thirty years. His employer D.J. Jr. (Roddy McDowall) fires Hinsley, despite the old man's faithful dedication to the company. Hinsley commits suicide by hanging himself.
Dennis is swayed by a prominent member of the local English expatriate community (Robert Morley) to spend most of the money from his uncle's estate on a socially prestigious burial at Whispering Glades cemetery and mortuary. There, he meets and becomes infatuated with Aimée Thanatogenos (Anjanette Comer), a hopelessly naive and idealistic cosmetician who says she was named after Aimee Semple McPherson. Chief embalmer Mr. Joyboy (Rod Steiger) is also an admirer, but although Aimée respects him professionally, she doesn't have any romantic feelings toward him. Somewhat overwhelmed by the services offered at Whispering Glades, Dennis is led though the various burial options available to his uncle by a well-versed Whispering Glades "counselor," Mr. Starker (Liberace).
Aimée's idol is the Reverend Wilbur Glenworthy (Jonathan Winters), owner of Whispering Glades. Aimée worships the solemn and pious reverend, but in private he is a calculating businessman who regards Whispering Glades as just a business venture.
To raise money, Dennis begins working at Happier Hunting Grounds, a local pet cemetery run by the reverend's brother Henry Glenworthy (also played by Winters), who has lately been fired by the movie studio as well. Dennis courts Aimée with poetry, which fascinates her though she fails to recognize famous verses. When Aimée asks whether Dennis wrote these passages, he changes the subject. Dennis dares not let Aimée find out where he works since she considers the pet cemetery to be sacrilegious.
Aimée is increasingly frustrated by Dennis' cynical and disrespectful attitude toward Whispering Glades and is shocked at his suggestion that they marry and live on her income when she gets a promotion. So, acting on advice given by Guru Brahmin (Lionel Stander), actually a drunken staff writer at a newspaper, she accepts a dinner invitation from Mr. Joyboy, who secured her promotion. Thoughts of a serious relationship with Mr. Joyboy are dismissed when she sees his bizarre and unhealthy relationship with his morbidly obese mother (Ayllene Gibbons) whose only interest is food.
Again acting on the advice of Guru Brahmin, she becomes engaged to Dennis. She invites him to her home, a partially finished house built on a cliff, condemned and abandoned due to the danger of landslides. He cuts the visit short, alarmed at occasional ominous trembling and Aimée's lack of concern over her own safety.
Dennis and Henry Glenworthy meet their neighbor, a boy genius (Paul Williams) with an interest in rocketry, and they let him set up a lab at the pet cemetery. Mr. Joyboy brings in his pet myna bird to be buried and discovers the identity of his rival. He agrees to have the bird shot into orbit by one of the neighbor's rockets, instead of being buried. Mr. Joyboy brings Aimée to the ceremony and she is outraged when she sees Dennis performing the service; this greatly pleases Mr. Joyboy.
Reverend Glenworthy, seeing little profit in the cemetery once the plots have been filled, decides to convert it into a retirement home, but is unable to proceed without a plan for dealing with the bodies interred there. When he learns of his brother's idea of sending bodies into orbit, he recognizes it as a solution to his own problem. He proceeds to obtain surplus rockets by hosting an orgy at Whispering Glades with top Air Force brass as guests of honor. Dennis, in a desperate attempt to reconcile with Aimée, tells her that Whispering Glades is to be shut down. She flees, but is afraid that what Dennis told her might be true.
She seeks out Mr. Joyboy for comfort, but he has been called to the cemetery to prepare a body to be launched into orbit, an ex-astronaut nicknamed "The Condor". She tracks down Guru Brahmin in a bar, but he drunkenly advises her to jump out a window. Finally, she flees to the cemetery and finds Reverend Glenworthy, who confirms Dennis' story and tries to seduce her with promises of continued employment with higher pay at the new facility. Wholly distraught, since her faith in everything she held sacred has been shattered, she attaches herself to an embalming machine and dies peacefully.
Mr. Joyboy finds her body, but is afraid to report it because of the scandal it would cause, so he calls Dennis to dispose of her in the pet cemetery's crematorium. Dennis agrees, but only if Mr. Joyboy gives him a first-class ticket back to England and all the cash he can lay his hands on. Dennis also imposes the condition that Aimée be placed in the casket headed for space instead of the ex-astronaut, whose body is relinquished to the pet crematorium. After the televised funeral ceremony and launch, Dennis is seen boarding the first-class section of a plane back to England.
In 1947, Evelyn Waugh visited Hollywood when MGM offered him a six-figure sum for the film rights to his novel Brideshead Revisited, despite the fact that none of the studio bosses had read the book. When Waugh demanded complete veto rights over the finished product, the project was scrapped. During his stay in Los Angeles, Waugh became fascinated by the American obsession with the funeral industry, leading him to write first a lengthy journal article on the Forest Lawn cemetery and its founder Dr, Hubert Eaton and then his 1948 novel The Loved One. In the following years, numerous people attempted unsuccessfully to produce a filmed version of Waugh's novel, including the Spanish surrealist filmmaker Luis Bunuel and the comic writer/director Elaine May.
In 1961, British director Tony Richardson came to Hollywood to film William Faulkner's novel Sanctuary, with assurances from 20th Century Fox that he would be able to shoot on location in the American South and have complete control over casting and script. None of these promises were realized, however, and Richardson was left embittered, stating: "It is impossible to make anything interesting or good under the conditions imposed by the major studios in America. It is a totally impossible creative setup."
The film was shot in and around the Los Angeles area with Hollywood, the Hollywood Hills, Beverly Hills, Los Angeles International Airport and Burbank among the locations. "Whispering Glades" was drawn from Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale with the exterior and interior scenes shot mostly at Greystone Mansion. The condemned house scene was filmed at the house under construction at 3847 Oakfield Dr in Sherman Oaks.
The film received a rating of 53% according to Rotten Tomatoes.
Rod Steiger won the Sant Jordi Award for best actor in a foreign film.
The Loved One was re-released to DVD by Warner Home Video on August 20, 2013 via its Warner Archive DVD-on-demand service. On blu-ray from May, 2017.