A Forgotten Film to Remember: The Last of Sheila

LAST OF SHEILA, THE

Film historians often proclaim the 1960s and 1970s to be one of Hollywood’s most creative eras. Dubbed the Film School Generation, or New Hollywood, directors, producers, and writers enjoyed a level of creative control in the film industry that few filmmakers have experienced before or since. Directors such as Scorsese, Coppola, Penn, Nichols, Bogdanovich, Altman, Lumet, DePalma, Kaufman, and others were influenced by the work of European filmmakers, inspiring them to experiment with form and content. The result is an era of original films that as a group challenge, entertain, and provoke.

THIS POSTER PLAYS OFF THE PUZZLE-LIKE NATURE OF THE PLOT.

THIS POSTER PLAYS OFF THE PUZZLE-LIKE NATURE OF THE PLOT.

As much as I love the films of this generation of filmmakers, they were not the only game in town. The industry may have been in chaos as old practices and systems disappeared and new ones were yet to replace them, but the studios still managed to produce movies using conventional styles, traditional content, and glamorous movie stars. After all, John Wayne remained the number-one box-office star for much of this time frame, appearing in two of his best films—The Cowboys and The Shootist. Old-school movies such as Hello, Dolly (1969), Murder on the Orient Express (1974), The Poseidon Adventure (1972), Sleuth (1972), That’s Entertainment (1974), and The Man Who Would Be King (1975) boast a level of entertainment and craftsmanship missing from today’s corporate-created blockbusters.

A PROMO ITEM FOR THE FILM

A PROMO ITEM FOR THE FILM

The Last of Sheila, which airs on TCM this Friday, May 15, at 5:45pm, is an excellent example of traditional Hollywood fare from the 1970s. This star-studded mystery thriller was co-written by a movie star, directed by Herbert Ross, and beautifully shot on location in exotic locales. In other words, it was definitely not part of the Film School Generation. Sadly, The Last of Sheila garnered only mixed reviews and became a box-office disappointment for its studio, Warner Bros. Even favorable reviews deemed it “old-fashioned,” while contemporary reviews of its DVD release have dubbed it “campy.” Well, I have to not-so-respectfully disagree. I think the movie’s traditional use of the classic narrative style, continuity editing, lush production values, and movie stars have blinded reviewers (past and present) to its subtleties and subtexts. If the Film School Generation is praised for its “anti-Hollywood” approach and for its backlash against studio customs and practices, then The Last of Sheila needs to be reconsidered in this context, too. It also reveals an anti-industry sentiment, but the difference is that it comes from an insider’s personal perspective as opposed to a film-school graduate’s understanding of Hollywood in a historical context.

APPARENTLY, RAQUEL WELCH WALKED OFF THE SET DURING SHOOTING FOR REASONS THAT ARE UNCLEAR, THOUGH SHE GARNERED NO SYMPATHY FROM HER COSTARS FOR HER ACTIONS.

APPARENTLY, RAQUEL WELCH WALKED OFF THE SET DURING SHOOTING FOR REASONS THAT ARE UNCLEAR, THOUGH SHE GARNERED NO SYMPATHY FROM HER COSTARS FOR HER ACTIONS.

The Sheila of the title was a gossip columnist, who, like many a columnist, was feared for the kind of information she held over the heads of Hollywood’s elite. When the film opens, Sheila has been dead a year, struck down by a hit-and-run driver after leaving an industry party in Bel Air. Her husband, producer Clinton Green, invites six of her friends for a week-long cruise around the Riviera aboard his yacht, the Sheila. Clinton knows that one of the friends was Sheila’s murderer, and he has planned a complex game to reveal the killer in front of the group. Each night, the yacht docks onshore, where clues are hidden for the friends to uncover. In addition, each player receives a card with a dark secret printed on it—not their secret, but someone else’s past indiscretion. One friend was an alcoholic, another was accused of child molesting, etc. Most interesting is that one of the group had been an informer during the blacklist era—a transgression on par with child molesting. This latter detail reveals the lingering bitterness over the blacklist, in which coworkers and associates in the close-knit Hollywood Colony had turned on each other.

lastcardinformer

THE INFORMER—AS GUILTY AS A CHILD MOLESTER OR HIT-AND-RUN DRIVER

The film belongs to the classic mystery genre, or mystery thriller, in the tradition of Agatha Christie. Unlike hard-boiled detective fiction and films, solving the crime in a classic mystery is akin to playing a game or working a puzzle—except in The Last of Sheila, the game is downright devious, and the players quite nasty. Game-master Clinton Green, played by James Coburn, gleefully controls the fates and fortunes of his six friends, who are all Hollywood (arche)types, circa 1973. Raquel Welch portrays a sex symbol insecure about her acting abilities, who is married to an unlikable cad, played by Ian McShane. Richard Benjamin costars as a smarmy scriptwriter who lives off the income of his heiress wife, played by Joan Hackett. James Mason steals his scenes as the down-on-his-luck director, who needs a hit film, and Dyan Cannon makes the most of her one-liners as a smart-mouthed agent.

SCRIPTWRITERS PERKINS AND SONDHEIM ON SET

SCRIPTWRITERS PERKINS AND SONDHEIM ON SET

More interesting than the plot is the collection of Hollywood characters who seem familiar and yet somehow different—they are more prickly, more arch. You get the feeling that they have been warped by their Hollywood experiences; that they have sacrificed a part of themselves for the industry. They are the type of people so steeped in show business that when someone makes a joke, they remark on the effectiveness of the joke (“that’s beautiful”) rather than laugh. They communicate and compete through repartee and wisecracks. If the characters seem more than archetypes then it is because the film was scripted by Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins. That’s right, the master of Broadway musicals and the star of Psycho joined forces in the early 1970s to pen this insiders’ interpretation of Hollywood. The Last of Sheila was written for the big screen; it was not an adaptation of a novel or story, and it would be the only original screenplay by either Sondheim or Perkins. Apparently, Sondheim has always been addicted to crossword puzzles and games, and, during the 1970s, when he and Perkins were close friends, the two threw elaborate puzzle parties for famous associates and neighbors. Part of their decision to write a murder mystery was to exercise their talents for plotting complex whodunits. Originally, their story was set at a snowed-in Long Island estate, but the Riviera soon proved a better location for jet-setting Hollywood characters.

JAMES COBURN PLAYS SHEILA'S HUSBAND, THE GAME-MASTER

JAMES COBURN PLAYS SHEILA’S HUSBAND, THE GAME-MASTER

I suspect the insider information was Perkins’ invaluable contribution to the script. Though only 40 years old when he co-wrote The Last of Sheila, he had experienced a great deal as a Hollywood actor and had witnessed the upheaval caused by the death of the studio system. In the mid-1950s, he had been groomed as a leading man, only to change the direction of his career in 1960 with Psycho. Though some have speculated that his role as Norman Bates ruined his chances as leading man material, the truth is that the studio star-making machine had fizzled out by that time and Method-style actors began to flood Hollywood, changing the definition of “movie actor.” Perkins starred in several European films in the 1960s before returning to Hollywood to appear in a couple of provocative movies that easily fit the perimeters of the Film School Generation (Pretty Poison; Play It As It Lays). In his time, he must have witnessed the desperation of directors who could not transition from the old Hollywood to the new, the exploitation of sex symbols who had to show more and more skin as censorship relaxed, the insecurities of writers who were rarely respected in the industry, the cruelties of columnists and reporters who make up the Hollywood publicity mill, and the maneuvering of hangers-on to stake out a place in the industry. I am convinced the characters in The Last of Sheila were composites of people and situations familiar to Perkins.

THE WRITER, PLAYED BY RICHARD BENJAMIN, UNCOVERS A MACABRE CLUE.

THE WRITER, PLAYED BY RICHARD BENJAMIN, UNCOVERS A MACABRE CLUE.

The Last of Sheila is another film that pulls back the glamorous surface of Hollywood to expose the exploitive, deceitful nature of the industry’s long-standing tactics and practices—the star system, the studio system, the publicity machine. But, ironically, it does so in a film that is an entertaining, appealing product of those tactics and practices. I find this an appropriate approach, give that  The Last of Sheila is a dissection of Hollywood from the inside looking out, from someone who was both shaped and victimized by the culture of the industry.

13 Responses A Forgotten Film to Remember: The Last of Sheila
Posted By Bill : May 11, 2015 3:32 pm

Shame this failed, as the co-writers had another script ready, this time set in the thirties. They were such inveterate game players that the line “Who does your decorating, Parker Brothers?”, was actually said to them.It’s really deviously clever, starting with Coburn’s opening Ellery Queen-like challenge to the characters and audience, that you can solve the game “If you’re smart enough”. Among the myriad in-jokes is a written, and possibly visual one pertaining to James Mason’s previous role.And Coburn’s disdainfully referring to an Italian western as a “Fistful of LasAgna”, having made a “Fistful of Dynomite” himself.

Posted By Steve Burrus : May 11, 2015 4:02 pm

I dpon’t personally have TCM so won’t be seeing “The Last of Sheila” but where can I get the DVD of it?

Posted By CitizenKing : May 11, 2015 6:03 pm

the DVD is out there, I think I got it from Warner’s Archive collection

Posted By Emgee : May 11, 2015 7:40 pm

Apparently there could have been a real murder on-set, mainly because of Ms Welch’s star antics. What’s that, Mr. Mason?
“She was the most selfish, ill-mannered, inconsiderate actress that I have ever had the displeasure of working with”. Meow!

Posted By Susan Doll : May 12, 2015 12:01 am

Steve: I have not seen the DVD of the film. I saw it in a class, and then on cable a long time ago. But apparently, the audio commentary is pretty good. I am going to watch in Friday, and depending on how I feel, I may buy my own copy.

Posted By LD : May 12, 2015 12:56 pm

Saw this film many years ago and liked it, but not loved it. Glad TCM is showing it so I have the opportunity to see it again from the perspective of already knowing the ending.

Posted By fantomex9 : May 12, 2015 11:40 pm

Apparently there could have been a real murder on-set, mainly because of Ms Welch’s star antics. What’s that, Mr. Mason?
“She was the most selfish, ill-mannered, inconsiderate actress that I have ever had the displeasure of working with”. Meow!

No surprise there; she was crowned ‘The Worst Actress of all Time’ by the Medved brothers in the book The Golden Turkey Awards.

Posted By Steve Burrus : May 13, 2015 1:09 am

AAAAAAh but she, racquel welch, was indisputedly one of the most beautiful/sexiest actresses around during her “heyday”!

Posted By Emgee : May 14, 2015 9:15 am

@fantomex9: Of course it is possible to be a lousy actress but a nice person. Apparently La Welch was neither.

Posted By Benzadmiral : May 20, 2015 4:30 pm

Originally I saw this on the late show in the early ’80s, tuning in to see Racquel and Dyan in bikinis, and getting a superb thriller-mystery instead. I hardly moved for two hours, as I didn’t want to miss a detail. On Friday 5/14 I missed the first hour on TCM, found it, and again was riveted.

It helps that I’m a big Ellery Queen fan, and there are many echoes of the Ellery novels here: the false solution followed by the true, Mason’s character experimenting with a clue, and the deft puzzle with fair planting of clues. Was this the first Hollywood mystery film to use flashbacks during the explanation scenes, showing us the actual clues that the detective is mentioning? The technique was used in “Orient Express,” I believe, a year later; and it had shown up in the TV “Banacek” series in ’72. But this might have been the pioneer use of it in a film. Anybody know?

Posted By swac44 : September 13, 2015 1:24 pm

Found my copy–a regular retail one, not a Warner Archive DVD-R–in a discount store bargain bin, so it shouldn’t be too hard to find one of those. I remember seeing a photo of Sondheim in his home years ago, and he had antique board games on the wall, displayed as artwork (oddly enough, I used to have a Twister sheet on the wall of my first apartment, until I had a roommate who hated it and tore it down), so it’s not hard to see how he would have had fun with this story. I love that one of the games shown in the credits is Cluedo (the UK version of Clue), as there is definitely an element of that in the story, right down to putting clues in envelopes.

Interesting to note that the photo of the cast under the word SHEILA (which is also the name of the boat, as well as Coburn’s character’s ex-wife) doesn’t match up with the way we see the photo taken in the movie, but that’s one of those things that no one would have noticed in the pre-VCR/DVD days.

One of my favourite bits of trivia (gleaned from IMDb) refers to James Mason’s line about how one of the locales for their game, an abandoned monastery, “looks like something out of a Hammer movie.” Loved the Hammer reference, which made me wonder if Sondheim or Perkins ever watched any, but then I learned from IMDb that it goes deeper, as Yvonne Romain who plays Sheila in the opening of the film starred in a couple of Hammer titles, Curse of the Werewolf and Captain Clegg (a.k.a. Night Creatures).

Layer upon layer, this is definitely a film that bears repeated viewing to get all the references and in-jokes.

Posted By swac44 : September 13, 2015 1:29 pm

Funny…this article on Sondheim’s love of puzzles was published only a week ago in the SF Chronicle:

http://www.sfchronicle.com/music/article/The-puzzling-master-of-Broadway-6481568.php

Posted By Susan Doll : September 13, 2015 4:22 pm

Great info on Yvonne Romain. I heard the Hammer line but did not realize Sheila was Romain.

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