Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Editing Corpses in Evelyn Waugh's Hollywood

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Editing Corpses in Evelyn Waugh's Hollywood

Article excerpt

The origins of Evelyn Waugh's novel The Loved One (1948) are well known. Having traveled (reluctantly) to Hollywood in February 1947 to discuss a film version of his novel Brideshead Revisited with studio executives at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Waugh found himself simultaneously disgusted and fascinated with the American film industry as well as the nearby Forest Lawn Memorial Park, a cemetery that, with its gaudy memorials and piped-in music, struck him as more like an amusement park than hallowed ground. Waugh subsequently published two articles, one ("Why Hollywood is a Term of Disparagement") an excoriating critique of the Hollywood studio system, the other ('"Half in Love with Easeful Death': An Examination of Californian Burial Customs") a mock-anthropological profile of Forest Lawn. He fictionalized both subjects in The Loved One, his blackly comic Hollywood novel about an undertaking business called Whispering Glades and a neighboring crematorium for pets known as the Happier Hunting Ground.

Death and the Hollywood film industry constitute the twin poles of Waughs novel and are related to each other in ways that I'd like to consider here at greater length than has yet been done. Critics of the novel have typically considered one of these two aspects at a time or else have only passingly theorized the relationship between them. In his reading of The Loved One, Frederick L. Beaty suggests that "Waugh obliquely indicates what he believes to be the essential similarity between the mortuary dream and the products of filmdom," and acknowledges that the American death industry shares "a close philosophical connection with the Hollywood of the moviemakers, which is also portrayed as a dream factory where mere shadows of reality are passed off as the genuine article" (172). Beaty stops here, however, and never returns to pursue further the relationship between the cinematic and the mortuary. Similarly, Christopher Ames has placed The Loved One within a tradition of British novels about Hollywood and death, arguing that Hollywood has figured as a "cultural dumping ground" (409) for works of British high culture such as Shakespearean drama. (1) Walter Wells has argued more surprisingly that The Loved One is, at bottom, not concerned with Hollywood at all, nor is it really concerned with the funeral business. According to Wells, "the studios and the cemetery took direct assaults in [Waugh's] earlier articles. The novel has a broader target The Loved One explicitly makes Hollywood a metaphor for the fate of western civilization in the mid-twentieth century" (181-82). Other readings of the novel such as Naomi Milthorpe's similarly discuss the novel's thematization of death in terms of a general attack on post-war American culture, where "the perfectability of the dead body has removed the fact of death" (211) from view.

It's that notion of removal from view that I would like to pick up on here in thinking about the relationship between Hollywood and the corpse. Although Waugh's attacks on American culture in The Loved One extend beyond the parameters of Hollywood, which is treated as the locus of nearly everything about American culture that Waugh found objectionable, Hollywood and the cemetery nevertheless serve as specific, carefully chosen objects of attention in The Loved One and should not be treated as arbitrary or convenient metaphors. They are the twin targets of Waugh's trenchant statement about the bodies that postwar American culture idealizes (those of the Hollywood star) and the bodies it most wants to disavow (those of the corpse), and about the ways in which those bodies are fashioned, (re) constructed, exhibited, and visually consumed. The ideological meaning of Hollywood cinema remains inextricably bound up in and mirrored by the burial rites of nearby Forest Lawn/Whispering Glades. And it is into this so-called "necropolis" that a stranger comes--someone who looks at both American cinema and the cemetery in all the wrong ways. …

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