Waugh wrote the book during an all expenses paid visit to Hollywood, where MGM was hoping to obtain the film rights for Brideshead Revisited. The writer had no intention of allowing his book to be adapted, and used the golden age of Hollywood setting to lampoon the movie industry, especially with reference to production companies' management of writers and actors. One discussion concerns the reinvention of a "Spanish" actress:
"poor Juanita has to start at the beginning again as an Irish colleen... She’s working ten hours a day learning the brogue and to make it harder for the poor girl they’ve pulled all her teeth out. She never had to smile before and her own set was good enough for a snarl. Now she’ll have to laugh roguishly all the time. That means dentures."This is surely based on Margarita Cansino, whose early image was "too Mediterranean". She found fame after changing her black hair to dark red, and her name to Rita Hayworth, playing on her mother's Irish roots rather than her father's Spanish ones.
The expat British community receives satirical treatment too, in the guise of its self-appointed leader Sir Ambrose Abercrombie, a pompous snob:
"Now, I don’t want to say a word against Barlow... He just hasn’t made good, I’m afraid... Barlow failed. As soon as I heard of it I went to see him. I advised him as bluntly as I could to clear out. I thought it my duty to you all. We don’t want any poor Englishmen hanging around Hollywood."It's said that this is a thinly-disguised portrait of Sir C. Aubrey Smith, who founded the Hollywood Cricket Club.
It's in the detailed descriptions of the lavish funeral arrangements that Waugh excels, where "Normal disposal is by inhumement, entombment, inurnment or immurement, but many people just lately prefer insarcophagusment." Less convincing is the farcical love story. The three love-triangle characters were shallow, and annoying. I was left unmoved by the humour whilst reading, although on explaining it out loud to a friend it raised some laughter.
What's missing from the book is background characterisation of both major and minor players. Waugh's prose may be delightful, but it's not enough to incline one to read more of his work. The Loved One is outdated in its treatment of Anglo American relations. It does serve as a memento mori, although Muriel Spark's so-named book does it better, and besides, who needs reminding of death in the age of Covid-19. Which leads me to conclude that it's just another of the tomes written by a privileged man for the privileged classes of England in the 20th century.