In 1965 MGM released an adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One: An Anglo-American Tragedy. Directed by Tony Richardson, The Loved One starred Robert Morse, Anjanette Comer, and Rod Steiger, and featured an all-star cast that included everyone from John Gielgud to Liberace. Had events unfolded differently, however, The Loved One might have had a different cast. It might have starred Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and it would not have been directed by Tony Richardson.
The Loved One: An Anglo-American Tragedy would travel a very long road to the big screen. Oddly enough the book came about because of a potential motion picture adaptation of another one of Evelyn Waugh's novels. The success of Brideshead Revisited in the United States led to interest on the part of Hollywood studio MGM in adapting the novel as a motion picture. Evelyn Waugh and his wife then travelled to Hollywood for negotiations with MGM about bringing Brideshead Revisited to the big screen. In February and March 1947, then, Mr. Waugh found himself in Hollywood, paid $2000 a week while he was there. It soon became obvious to the writer that MGM was not interested in a faithful adaptation of the book, but instead a glossy, Hollywood version of it. Needless to say, negotiations between MGM and Evelyn Waugh broke down soon afterwards.
Mr. Waugh's time in Los Angeles was not wholly wasted, however, as the experience led to one of his most successful novels, The Loved One: An Anglo-American Tragedy. While there he visited the famous Forest Lawn Memorial Park, and was even given tours of the famous cemetery by its founder Dr. Hubert Eaton and his staff. Evelyn Waugh's experiences with MGM, his visits to Forest Lawn, and his persistent thought that there was a cultural gulf between Britain and America all provided fodder for The Loved On: An Anglo-American Tragedy. In the novel British expatriate Dennis Barlow finds himself at first in the middle of the American film industry and then the American funeral industry. MGM became "Megalopolitan Studios" while Forest Lawn became "Whispering Glades".
Despite the fact that it satirised American society through both its film industry and its funeral industry, The Loved One: An Anglo-American Tragedy proved very popular in the United States, much as it had in the United Kingdom. A film based on the novel seemed inevitable, even given Evelyn Waugh's vow after his experience with MGM that none of his novels would ever be made into films. It was then in the mid-Fifties that Spanish director Luis Buñuel bought the rights to The Loved One: An Anglo-American Tragedy with the intent of casting Alec Guinness in the lead role of Dennis Barlow. Luis Buñuel and screenwriter Hugo Butler (writing under the name "Philip A. Roll" as he had been blacklisted in Hollywood) even completed a screenplay for The Loved One. Unfortunately Mr. Buñuel and his partners took too much time and Alec Guinness was no longer available. Without Alec Guinness the project was dropped.
It was then in 1961 that cinematographer Haskell Wexler and producer John Calley, then working for Filmways, bought the film rights to The Loved One from Luis Buñuel. Tony Richardson was hired to direct the film after he finished Tom Jones, while Elaine May (then famous as one half of the comedy team of Nichols and May with Mike Nichols) was hired to write the screenplay. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton expressed interest in starring in the film, and producers Haskell Wexler, John Calley, and Filmways head Martin Ransohoff were all agreeable to the two starring in the film. One person who was not agreeable to the idea of Miss Taylor and Mr. Burton starring in The Loved One was director Tony Richardson, who complained, "They are not right for the parts!" Unhappy with the casting of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Tony Richardson then left the project.
As it was, a film version of The Loved One starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton would never come to be. For tax reasons Miss Taylor and Mr. Burton decided the the film would have to be shot in Spain. This provided some difficulty for the producers (Messrs. Wexler, Calley, and Ransohoff), who would then face the prospect of recreating the city of Los Angeles in Spain. Since filming in Spain would prove to be impractical, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton then left the project.
Of course, we know from history that a film version of The Loved One was eventually made. With Miss Burton and Mr. Taylor no longer starring in the film, Tony Richardson returned to the project on the condition that he be given complete artistic control. British novelist Christopher Isherwood and American novelist Terry Southern (fresh from having written the screenplay for Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb) were hired to write the screenplay. The Loved One, starring Robert Morse, Anjanette Comer, and Rod Steiger, opened on 11 October 1965 to largely negative reviews. It died very quickly the box office, making a meagre $2 million. Fortunately since then its reputation has improved considerably and it would become a cult film with a large following.
It is difficult to say what The Loved One starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor would have looked like. Although I have never read what roles they would have played, I am assuming it would have been that of protagonist Dennis Barlow and his love interest Aimée Thanatogenos (the roles ultimately played by Robert Morse and Anjanette Comer). If that was the case, I have to agree with Tony Richardson that they would have been miscast. In the book Dennis Barlow is 28 years old and Aimée Thanatogenos is also young. As of 1962 Richard Burton was 37 years old, a bit old to be playing the novel's young protagonist. While Robert Morse was 33 when he played Dennis Barlow, it must be pointed out that he looked considerably younger. At 37 Mr. Burton did not look considerably younger. As to Elizabeth Taylor, she turned 30 in 1962 and was then reasonably close to Aimée's age in the book. That having been said, she hardly seemed suited to playing the idealistic, naive, and ethereal mortuary cosmetician. In the end she just seems too sophisticated to play a young woman who is largely oblivious of the effect she has on men.
While I have always been a fan of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor's work, I think the actors ultimately cast in the roles of Dennis Barlow and Aimée Thanatogenos were much better than they would have been. Granted, Robert Morse seemed incapable of doing an English accent, but he looked the part and played it well. As to Anjanette Comer, as far as I am concerned she played the part of Aimée Thanatogenos so well that she could well have stepped out of the pages of Evelyn Waugh's novel. I rather suspect Mr. Burton and Miss Taylor's performances would have been very different from those of Mr. Morse and Miss Comer, and I also have to wonder that they wouldn't have gone far astray from the characters as portrayed in the original book. In the end I have to think a film adaptation of The Loved One starring Burton and Taylor would have been no more well received than the version that ultimately reached theatres.