Monday, December 15, 2014

The Last of Sheila (1973)

          An oddity with a highbrow pedigree, this mystery/thriller boasts an eclectic cast of prominent actors and a labyrinthine plot that’s designed to be catnip for fans of games, puzzles, and riddles. Yet the most unique aspect of the film resides behind the camera: The Last of Sheila was written by actor Anthony Perkins and composer Stephen Sondheim, representing the only feature-film writing credit for either man. Apparently the two were longtime friends who entertained their showbiz pals by arranging flamboyant scavenger hunts, so The Last of Sheila plays out like a hybrid of an Agatha Christie whodunit and a treasure hunt. Describing all the intricacies of the storyline would spoil the fun, but the broad strokes are as follows.
          Movie producer Clinton (James Coburn) invites several Hollywood friends to his yacht, which is named after his late wife, Sheila, who died under mysterious circumstances. Each of the friends wants something from Clinton, so he manipulates their greed for sporting purposes. The friends include Alice (Raquel Welch), a movie star whose relationship with her manager/husband, Anthony (Ian McShane), is rocky; Christine (Dyan Cannon), an ambitious talent agent; Philip (James Mason), a director whose career has lost momentum; and Tom (Richard Benjamin), a desperate screenwriter whose wife, Lee (Joan Hackett), hides a terrible secret. Employing his immense wealth, Clinton stages elaborate treasure hunts in each port of call, and he issues provocative clues related to his guests’ peccadillos.
         Superficially, this is a jet-set caper movie, so director Herbert Ross provides plenty of eye candy thanks to exotic European locations (as well as copious shots of Cannon and Welch in bikinis). On a deeper level—well, as deep as this deliberately vapid movie goes, anyway—The Last of Sheila explores that trusty old theme of the avarice that drives Hollywood. Everyone in the movie is out to screw everyone else, whether professionally, psychologically, or sexually. Some of the actors capture the bitchy spirit of the piece better than others. The standout is Cannon, playing a role inspired by legendary talent agent Sue Mengers (also the inspiration for 2013 Broadway show I’ll Eat You Last, starring Bette Midler). Whether she’s fretting about her weight, maneuvering for an optimal negotiating position, or sizing up potential sex partners, Cannon perfectly captures the omnivorous nature of Tinseltown players. Benjamin, Coburn, and Mason lend interesting colors, Hackett and McShane provide solid support, and Welch does a better job of keeping up with her costars than might be expected.
          Filled with betrayals and lies and schemes—as well as the occasional murder—The Last of Sheila is a bit windy at 120 minutes, and some viewers might find the final revelations too Byzantine. Nonetheless, if there’s such a thing as thinking-person’s trash, then The Last of Sheila is a prime example.

The Last of Sheila: GROOVY


Booksteve said...

One of my favorite commentaries accompanies a release of this one from, I believe the '90s. A perhaps sightly tipsy Dyan Cannon alongside a deadpan Richard Benjamin, with edited in comments from Raquel Welch. Dyan is a hoot and she and Benjamin have great behind the scenes stories. Raquel's comments seem scripted.

Will Errickson said...

I discovered this a few years ago and *loved* it! A fave of the era now. Wish more movies were this purely entertaining. Loved the twists and turns and in-jokes (isn't there one about Mason and LOLITA?), and Cannon is a delight. Your last paragraph is dead-on.