Thursday, February 19, 2015

THE LAST OF SHEILA 1973

“Just goes to show what can be accomplished when a bunch of closeted gay men put their heads together!”                     Overheard following a screening of The Last of Sheila


In 1973 Stephen Sondheim, Anthony Perkins, and Herbert Ross - three closeted gay men in show business who knew a thing or two about keeping secrets - collaborated on The Last of Sheila, an Agatha Christie-esque murder mystery with a touch of All About Eve vitriol set aboard a luxury yacht on the French Riviera. 
The Last of Sheila came about after Herbert Ross, one-time choreographer (Funny Girl) turned director/producer (The Owl and the Pussycat, The Turning Point), persuaded composer Stephen Sondheim (Company, Follies) to channel his extracurricular passion for inventing elaborate games and puzzles into a movie project. To that end, Sondheim, who at the time was working on the Broadway musical A Little Night Music, sought the help of friend and frequent game collaborator Anthony Perkins (then filming Play It as It Lays) and the two devised a brain-teasing murder mystery thrilling enough to be entertaining and intricate enough so that audiences can play along with the characters in the film.

An early first-draft from these two first-time screenwriters had the mystery take place over the course of a snow-bound weekend in Long Island between business associates. But at Ross’ suggestion, the locale was changed to the more photogenic south of France, and the game-playing participants changed to a glamorous, in-joke cross section of Hollywood movie industry types.
James Coburn as sharkish movie producer Clinton Green
Joan Hackett as heiress and Hollywood outsider Lee Parkman
Richard Benjamin as floundering screenwriter Tom Parkman
Raquel Welch as glamorous movie star Alice Wood
Ian McShane as Anthony Wood, Alice's ambitious manager husband
Dyan Cannon as pushy talent agent, Christine
James Mason as once-famous director Philip Dexter
A year after his gossip-columnist wife Sheila Green (Yvonne Romain) was killed in a hit and run accident near their Bel-Air home, movie producer Clinton Green (Coburn) invites six friends – five of whom were guests at his house that fateful night – to spend a week aboard his yacht (The Sheila) in the Rivera. A gathering that promises to be part vacation, part memorial, and part career-carrot dangled under the noses of a gaggle of show business opportunists willing to subject themselves to week of sadistic game-playing in hopes of being offered a job on Clinton’s planned film about the life of his late, not-exactly-lamented wife. A film to be titled, “The Last of Sheila.”

This being a murder mystery, the murder half gets under way when, in the course of playing an elaborate, subtly cruel, detective/gossip game in which each player is assigned a gossipy secret the others must discover first, one of the participants winds up dead. The mystery revolves around the true inspiration for Clinton's game  - the public exposure of the identity of his wife's killer - and whether or not that person or persons is willing to go to even greater lengths to keep their secret a secret. The stage has been successfully set (an isolated group of people seeking to discover who among them is a killer) for a rise in the body count, the typical-for-the-genre tearful revelations, several heated incriminations, and skeletons tumbling out of closets faster than you can say whodunit. 
The ability to watch and rewatch The Last of Sheila on DVD has revealed it to be a much sharper and smarter film than it was credited with being when first released. Virtually every single frame and bit of character business reveals information pertaining to the overall mystery.

The Last of Sheila is a cinema rarity: a real corker of a murder mystery which plays fair with the viewer and doesn’t tip its hand in the first five minutes. It’s a nesting-doll of a murder mystery in which characters who initially enter into a game just for the fun of it, must eventually draw upon similar gamesmanship wiles to unearth the answers behind  what turns out to be an actual murder mystery. A mystery which, in itself, is one we in the audience are invited to participate in solving (Sondheim and Perkins are our literal “Clintons”…peppering the film with visual and verbal clues which, should we be swift enough to pick up on, lead us to the solution to the mystery).

And if, as many critics cited at the time, The Last of Sheila lacks the humanity necessary to make this murder mystery scarcely much more than a fun intellectual exercise (the common critical complaint was that the characters are all so despicable, you don’t give a hoot about trying to solve the mystery because you couldn’t care less whodunit or who it’s about to be done to); the passing of time and its availability on DVD has been kind to The Last of Sheila experience.

And by that I mean, not only is it a kick to see folks like Richard Benjamin, Dyan Cannon, and Raquel Welch all in the same film, but the characters and their deep, dark secrets seem almost quaint when compared to celebrities get away with these days (and happily tweet about). Most significantly though, the ability to rewind, rewatch, and reexamine The Last of Sheila, a film about whose mystery critic Rex Reed wrote, “…requires a postgraduate degree in hieroglyphics to figure out,”  has made watching it a considerably less frustrating experience than it was back in 1973.
Let the Games Begin
The original boat sank before filming. Original cinematographer Ernest Day (A Clockwork Orange) was fired after a week. Joan Hackett refused to say certain lines and was nearly replaced by Lee Remick. Arab terrorist group, Black September, threatened to blow up the set. James Mason couldn't stand Raquel Welch. Welch ruffled the feathers of costume designer Joel Schumacher (later the director Batman & Robin) by arriving with her entire wardrobe already designed and fitted by boyfriend, Ron Talsky. Welch (my, her name does keep popping up, doesn't it?) temporarily halted production when she walked off the film threatening to sue director Herbert Ross for assault and battery.

The Last of Sheila was made in the 70s, so it almost goes without saying that a post-Watergate cynicism and asserted preoccupation with exposing the ugly side of the lives of the Rich & Famous runs like an undercurrent throughout the film .
Hollywood is never at its most naïve than when it thinks it has to ratchet up the heartlessness in an attempt to dramatize for us plebeians what a phony, anything-for-a-buck business it is. The joke of course has always been that only Hollywood thinks its celluloid soul and cash register heart are well-kept secrets. Most of us over the age of ten grasped long ago what an assembly line of falseness the movie industry is, and after years of “seedy underbelly” exposés  (S.O.B., The Day of the Locust, Burn Hollywood Burn, The Bad & the Beautiful, Sunset Blvd., The Player, Two Weeks in Another Town, A Star is Born, The Oscar, etc.) I’m STILL waiting for a film to really capture just how callous and venal it can be…something perhaps possible only if the movie is conceived as a horror/porn film with traces of science fiction.
The Last of Sheila 
Gossip columnist Sheila Green (Yvonne Romain) moments before she,
as Christine so tactfully puts it "...got bounced though the hedges." 
The busy schedules of Sondheim and Perkins prevented the two from having many opportunities to actually write the script while in the same room, thus the bulk of The Last of Sheila was done through phone calls and courier (Perkins has said only two scenes were written while both were in the same room at the same time), Sondheim handling the particulars of the game (natch), Perkins working hard to infuse Stephen’s academic brain puzzler with scare elements and Hollywood insider atmosphere. The result, while entertaining, sometimes feels as choppy and disjointed as the process of its creation.

The Last of Sheila, is the result of the combined efforts of a composer not exactly known for his warmth; a tortured, somewhat embittered actor whose promising leading-man career was derailed and forever haunted by the spectre of Psycho’s Norman Bates; and a famously grumpy director whose idiosyncratic relationship with his actors rivals that of Otto Preminger. With nary a sympathetic character in sight, The Last of Sheila is a unified cold front of a movie desperately in need of a few genre chills and perhaps some script tweaking to help raise the modest level of high-toned bitchery to a level of wit and bite worthy of the intellectual wizardry of Sondheim’s puzzle.


Stephen Who?
With A Little Night Music opening on Broadway in February, a Newsweek Magazine cover story in April, and a June release set for The Last of Sheila; 1973 marked the beginning of Stephen Sondheim's emergence as a household name. (Center) Perkins and Sondheim on the Cannes set of The Last of Sheila.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
To have Joan Hackett, that darling of idiosyncratic vulnerability, in the same film with the magnificent Raquel Welch, a startlingly uncraggy and boyishly cute Ian McShane, and the comically raucous Dyan Cannon, is quite a treat. But the real star of The Last of Sheila is its twisty murder mystery plot and the cunning “game” motif which runs throughout the film.
From the start, an atmosphere of narrative disequilibrium permeates every scene. 
All the characters are such phonies with ulterior motives behind everything word and action, it’s clear any number of games are already well underway long before Clinton bullies everyone into participating in what he calls “The Shelia Green Memorial Gossip Game.” Once the real game does begin, it becomes harder and harder to know who to believe, who to trust, or who’s reality you're seeing. 
Elaborate Clues Are Part of the Game
And if, in the end, the frequent scenes of lengthy exposition and reenactments necessitated by the complexity of the puzzle have the effect of leaving scant room for fleshed-out performances or dimensional characterizations (in Craig Zadan's book, Sondheim & Co., Perkins conceded to he and Sondheim "writing too much" and having to excise some 100 pages of the script before filming); one at least gets to console oneself with the not-unpleasant fact that The Last of Sheila is a fun, difficult-to-solve mystery that respects the viewer’s intelligence and rewards attentiveness.
One of what I can only assume was a series of The Last of Sheila character promotional pinback buttons 

PERFORMANCES
It’s unlikely anyone seeing this now 42-year-old film today knows or even cares that the characters in The Last of Sheila are based on and cobbled together from real-life Hollywood notables (equally unlikely is that anyone could identify them). But at the time of its release, the whole “Who is that supposed to be?” element was just one more of the many games The Last of Sheila set before the viewer.

Of those rumored, Orson Welles was said to have inspired James Mason’s failed director character (even the casting of Mason, Lolita's memorable Humbert Humbert, a mystery clue). Richard Benjamin was Anthony Perkins' surrogate, and the sex-symbol and pushy husband portrayed by Welch and McShane were presumed by many to be Ann-Margret and Roger Smith. Although more popular opinion favored the filmmakers somehow getting Welch to agree to play herself (and then-husband Patrick Curtis), the character’s oddly unglamorous name (Alice “Wood”) being a sly allusion to  the writers' opinion of Welch’s acting ability. However, it was no secret that Dyan Cannon was playing  super-agent Sue Mengers (Bette Midler portrayed Mengers in a one-woman show on Broadway in 2013), as the actress’s lively impersonation was a major point of publicity at a time when Mengers ruled Hollywood with her client list of Barbra Streisand, Anthony Perkins, Richard Benjamin, Ryan O’Neal, Dyan Cannon, Faye Dunaway, et al.
Any movie that affords the opportunity to hear Dyan Cannon laugh is a worthwhile endeavor
Like pawns in a chess game, the somewhat overqualified cast of The Last of Sheila are there chiefly to be in service to the riddle of a plot, the minimal requirements of their roles rarely rising above TV-movie competency. So even if few are offered opportunities to really shine (Dyan Cannon has the best lines and the most to work with) all are in fine form and The Last of Sheila offers up an attractive gathering of some of the most familiar screen faces of the 70s. My particular favorites are James Coburn and Dyan Cannon, with the always-terrific Joan Hackett giving the film a much-needed dose of humanity. (With this film, The Group, Five Desperate Women, and The Class of ’63, Hackett must be the queen of reunion-themed movies).
Hunting Clues In An Abandoned Monastery

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
I was 15-years-old when I first saw The Last of Sheila, dragging my family to see it the first week it opened (smug in my film/theater geek certainty that I alone among my high school peers knew who Stephen Sondheim was). I recall being very taken with the film as a whole, this being the first time I ever saw the traditional Agatha Christie drawing room mystery setup played out in anything resembling a contemporary setting.
I’m not sure how audiences respond to it today, but in 1973, the mystery plot worked especially well because, outside of James Coburn, no one else in the cast had ever been typed as a villain. What with the Riviera setting and Hollywood types featured, it all seemed very glamorous and sophisticated to my adolescent eyes, the only dissonant chord being how old-fashioned all the name-dropping seemed. In the 70s Hollywood of Jane Fonda, Warren Beatty and Ali MacGraw, chummy references in the script to Steve & Edie, Kirk Douglas, Yul Brynner, and Sandra Dee seemed very Old World and out of touch.
Oh, and The Last of Sheila introduced me to Bette Midler. She sings “Friends” over the film's closing credits and I so loved the song, I immediately went out and bought The Divine Miss M album. I've been a fan ever since.
Christine tries to convince Anthony that two heads are better than one

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
As much as I loved The Last of Sheila, poor advance press (it opened out of competition at Cannes to disappointing word of mouth), mixed reviews (claims of it being indifferently directed and aloof were outdistanced by critics throwing up their hands saying the whole thing was just too damned confusing!), and perhaps the overall sourness of the film's tone, kept it from being a hit. It disappeared from theaters rather rapidly and for years you could mention the title and nobody would lay claim to having heard of it, let alone seen it.
Now available on DVD,The Last of Sheila has developed  quite a cult following. Worth checking out if you've never seen it before, worth revisiting to discover all the giveaway clues you missed the first time out.
Friends?
A fun bonus on the DVD is the commentary track provided by Welch, Cannon, and Benjamin. Cannon and Benjamin are obviously watching the film together and having a blast, while Welch (who always comes across more relaxed and funny on the commentary tracks for her films than she does in the films themselves) recorded hers separately.

Little in the way of inside information is imparted - 42 yeas is a LONG time - but in its place is a nostalgia among the actors which appears to have erased memories of the troubled, over-schedule and over-budget shoot, replacing them with diplomacy (Cannon alludes to a person causing a long delay because they were dissatisfied with their outfit...one can't help thinking of Ms. Welch) and fond recollections of the experience.
Everyone cops to having found the complex script very hard to follow during filming, and amusingly, Dyan Cannon (who had to gain weight for the role) can't seem to get over how fat she looks, while Raquel Welch laments that she herself looks too thin. All the while Cannon and Benjamin make references to Perkins and Sondheim in such a manner as to suggest perhaps they were a couple for a time.
I certainly hope so. I'm sure that both gentlemen would be pleased if told their sole screenwriting collaboration still had a few gossipy secrets to impart.
Games People Play

THE AUTOGRAPH FILES
Ian McShane - 1980




Copyright © Ken Anderson

33 comments:

  1. Wow, I need to see this again (in it's pristine glory.) I rented it on VHS about 25 years ago! I'm sure plenty of it went over my head. Welch, at this time, was more than a little controlling and demanding. She also showed up to the shooting of "The Three Musketeers" with her own costumes, reportedly of a different era than the ones Yvonne Blake created for Faye Dunaway, Geraldine Chaplin et al, though few could deny that she looked great in them nonetheless! It's good to know Cannon was well showcased here since she was hideously underutilized in the prior "Doctor's Wives." Thanks for that photo of Sondheim and his HAIR! Crazy...

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    1. Hi Poseidon
      The one consistent through-line in almost every Raquel Welch production iseems to be her self-protectiveness. Maybe it's business smarts, maybe it's paranoia, but every time I read about one of her films there is some instance of her looking out for #1 so completely that she alienates her fellow cast members, threatens with a lawsuit, or walks off the set.
      I hadn't heard that about "The Three Musketeers" costume stuff but (in an instance where her litigious nature was vindicated) I read she was the one behind the lawsuit that eventually got all the actors paid for appearing in TWO films when the producers cagily filmed so much footage on Three Musketeers and later decided to release it as two separate films while only paying the cast for one.
      Maybe her behavior is no more controlling than say what a Steve McQueen would do...but you usually have to back up that level of dominance with some boxoffice clout or acting chops.
      I always have liked Dyan Cannon, but after "Bob & Carol..." you can't say she was particularly blessed with good screen roles. This and "Heaven Can Wait" are my favorites, although Otto Preminger's weird "Such Good Friends" gives her a good role in a mess of a film.
      This film is fun to revisit if you haven't seen it in a while, and while it's never as scandalous or naughty as it likes to think itself, it's a marvelously fun and complicated mystery.
      Glad you appreciated the look of young-ish Sondheim...the piano virtuoso hair gets me too!

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  2. This is undoubtedly one of those movies for which the "rewind" function was made. I hadn't seen it for decades when we watched it on DVD last year--and my kids loved it as much as I did! It's great fun, plus being a wonderful puzzle. There was an element of sadness watching it, though, seeing so many of the actors are now dead-- and in the case of Joan Hackett, so tragically young.

    A bit of an aside (but when has that ever stopped me): when I was in my teens, I came across a book called Thank You for the Giant Sea Tortoise. I still have the battered paperback. It is a compendium of all the winners and runners-up to New York Magazine's word games. Stephen Sondheim was a frequent winner (go figure!). I didn't know anything about Sondheim, so a few years later when I read that he wrote "Send in the Clowns", I said, hey, that's the guy who won all those New York Magazine contests!

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    1. Hi Deb
      The personal "aside" stuff you include is what I live for on this blog. Without it we just have a bunch of movie trivia, which is never that much fun without the human element.
      In researching this piece I came across a word game Sondheim and Perkins devised that was supposed to have played a part in this film, but due to over-plotting, they donated it to New York Magazine (Jan 21, 1974. Now from your post I learn that Sondheim has had a longtime association with New York Magazine! He would probably love that you knew him as a gamesman before you knew of him as a composer.

      Very cool that you watched this with your kids and they found it an enjoyable mystery. It's definitely a film that benefits from "rewind".
      And yes, more and more of these 70s films I watch -which i associate with my youth - are comprised of casts with people no longer with us. Hard not to feel a twinge of sadness when isee Hackett, even as a teen she was a big favorite of mine.

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  3. Hi Ken - fun movie! One of Dyan Cannon's best roles...she is a very underrated comedienne...LOVE her in Heaven Can Wait and in Deathtrap.

    Raquel was certainly the demanding diva in her day, wasn't she? She never wore the mantle of Sex Symbol easily (I guess nobody really likes to be objectified that way) and never got the type of acting roles she craved to attempt. I think she's a brilliant comedienne, though - her greatest role in my opinion is as Myra Breckinridge. Also a talented singer and dancer...she took over for Lauren Bacall in Woman of the Year and earned some of the respect she craved.

    I just recently saw the wonderful Joan Hackett in Neil Simon's Only When I Laugh with Marsha Mason...I forgot how marvelous and charismatic she was...what a shame we lost her too soon.

    For me, Sheila is entertaining though a trifle cerebral...like much of Mr. Sondheim's work...the all-star cast is what makes it fun for repeat viewings.

    Ken, you are on fire in 2015! Loving your movie choices and the lively conversations they inspire!

    -Chris

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    1. Hi Chris!
      Perhaps if anything contributed to its poor performance at the boxoffice, i think its what you stated...that the film is very cerebral. Perkins and Sondheim could have definitely benefited from a script doctor who could invest what is essentially a filmed game with enough humanity and emotion to engage viewers who need to relate to human beings when they see movies.
      I love the film, but it really could have been something had half as much attention been paid to the characters as to the mystery.

      I like Raquel Welch a great deal, but I've always felt she's been her own worst enemy. I never knew who or what took the icy Candice Bergen in hand and helped her embrace her funnier side, but I've always wished someone could do the same with Welch. She's such a hoot on DVD commentaries and is even likable on talk shows, but OY! what happens when a movie camera is pointed at her.
      I think she's great in Myra and "The Wild Party"
      I never got the chance to see her on stage (save for that tiny bit from "Woman of the Year" she did on the Tony Awards. But I remember the hubbub her being castas a replacement for Julie Andrews in the stage version of "Victor Victoria"...I think maybe it was a Village Voice critic who exclaimed, "What are they gonna do with those tits??"

      Had this film been a hit, I wonder if Dyan Cannon would have received a Supporting Actress nod. Some find her hammy, but I think she's the life of the film. And Joan Hackett had a tlent for making underwritten characters more interesting than they appear on the page. Thanks a heap, Chris! Happy to have you be a part of these comment conversations!

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    2. Maybe they should have bumped off Welch and called it "The Last of Raquel"!

      Like Joan Collins, I like Rocky when she is funny, but find her deadly as a dramatic actress.

      Been thinking of this movie and wondered if it was on DVD...I'm on it! Thanks for another great post, Ken!

      Rick

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    3. Thanks Rick!
      Until "The Three Musketeers" came along and gave her career a much-needed boost, this movie WAS almost "The Last of Raquel"! The DVD commentary is fun in listening how Cannon and Benjamin jump through hoops trying not to say anything bad about Raquel. I always wonder if she hadn't felt so defensive about her limited range if she would have had a longer career. By the time she was booted off of "Cannery Row" she had such a bad reputation, nobody wanted to work with her..

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  4. Another of my favorite murder mystery movies! I really enjoy how its being rediscovered all over the internet these days. In the past three years I have read numerous reviews of THE LAST OF SHEILA on various blogs, mostly by young people seeing it for the first time. And they are all blown away by it's intricate plotting with a lot of to be expected dishy remarks about 1970s styles from bloggers whose parents weren't even college graduates in 1973!

    I saw it on TV for the first time (probably in 1975) as a teenager and I had a pencil and memo pad next to me trying to figure it all out. How an adult found it confusing is beyond me. For anyone who loves old fashioned puzzle type whodunits it is a feast! Murder mystery fans don't find it confusing at all. I was especially proud of myself when I stumbled onto one of the biggest clues to the mystery after writing out a certain group of words. And the movie's title is one of the cleverest clues of all! Better say no more before I ruin things. Aside from GREEN FOR DANGER (1946) this is one of the finest examples of a mystery movie where the viewer can actually figure out the solution based on how the movie was shot. Other murder mystery movies do their best to present information and clues in the dialogue but there are very few that use the camera to present vital clues without being obvious.

    James Coburn is so vibrant and larger than life in this. It's a shame he gets knocked off. Cannon was robbed of an Oscar nomination. Joan Hackett is achingly poignant. I'm still haunted by her performance (that breakdown scene!) in this movie and her work in the remake of LES DIABOLIQUES she did on TV with Tuesday Weld. Did she ever play troubled women well! And was Benjamin ever as menacing again?

    I'm going to hunt down that DVD for the Benjamin/Cannon commentary alone. Thanks so much for another fine and entertaining review, Ken!

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    1. Hi John
      It is funny how this film has caught on with a different generation. And I really can't imagine how quaint the fashions must seem or the film's antiquated attitude about a certain deep dark secret (which, admittedly caught a lot of flack even in the 70s).
      What I like about the film is that it consistently plays fair. When you view it again you notice things that seem very obvious (like the title element) that completely fail to grab your attention the first time.
      I don't think much of Herbert Ross as a director, but I do commend him (or someone) for resisting the temptation to visually underline every clue. Most movie mysteries are no fun to revisit because their obviousness overwhelms. "Sheila" is remarkable in that it makes a second viewing feel like a whole new game (one of those "how many items can you find in this picture" puzzle).
      I think your observation that so many of the film's clues are visual must have been one of the contributing factors (along with out-of-sequence filming) in the actors never being quite sure about what was going onwhen they were making it.
      I wasn't aware that you liked Joan Hackett in that TV movie remake of Diabolique! She's great in the Anthony Perkins TV-movie "How Awful About Alan" which is a pretty good mystery itself.
      by the way, I love the idea that you watched this on TV and kept on top of the clues with a memo pad!
      I love when people immerse themselves in movies. Glad you enjoyed the post and thanks so much for always stopping by and commenting!

      I've never seen "Green for Danger" but will check it out. Good mysteries are hard to come by.

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    2. Hi Ken, Just a quick note to tell you that "Green For Danger" is well worth your time. For a quick taste go to YouTube and look up Tired Old Queen At The Movies, where he tells you all about it. Great movie.

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    3. Thanks, Mark H
      I found that they have the full film on YouTube so I'm going to check it out. It sounds terrific!

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  5. When I first discovered your blog last year (eventually going through and reading all the entries), I was surprised that you hadn't covered this movie--it was almost conspicuous by its absence.

    I like this film a lot--it can seem cold, but the story's engaging and the cast is full of favorites. And it forces you to pay attention--there's a lot going on and a lot that can be missed.

    James Coburn is an actor who I've only recently come to appreciate, especially after watching Harry in Your Pocket, which immediately became one of my favorite 70s movies. He's very good here, especially at the beginning when he's all smiles, but you don't know what his ultimate aims are.

    I never knew Ross was a difficult director. I always associate him with slick, professional, usually crowd-pleasing movies, so I pictured him as an efficient pro.

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    1. It's very correct and very Agatha Christie of you to have gleaned that "Sheila" was a perfect "fit" for my taste based upon the films covered in this blog. Poirot would be proud!
      I liked it a great deal when I first saw it and several years passed before I got it in VHS and discovered all I missed in my initial viewing.
      You used the phrase "forces you to pay attention" and that's a quality i like in movies. When filmmakers assume their audiences are idiots, the movies are so one-dimensional. When they are made with an eye to the smartest person in the audience and filmed with a confidence that what needs to be seen will be noticed by those paying attention...well that always produces a film that warrants repeat visits.
      As for Ross being difficult, I think since he passed away and the chances for libel suits have disappeared, in my research I came upon account after account of some actress decrying what a bully he could be. Some say it was merely to get performances out of people, others say it has to do with his task-master history as a ballet choreographer. The more I read about Hollywood though, if seems that if someone has reached a place of power and success, no two people seem to share the same opinion about them.

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  6. Great post on a one-of-a-kind movie.
    I remember seeing "Sheila" with a very small crowd during its very brief original run. For me a major bump occurs during the climax when Benjamin is meant to be menacing but uses those puppets as gloves - the audience giggled during that moment.
    But Cannon and Hackett are terrific and the deluxe backdrop is so much fun.
    I think the movie was eclipsed - and then almost forgotten - because of "Orient Express" the following year, which had a puzzle mystery and a high glamour quotient, too, but lots more warmth.

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    1. Thanks, Joe!
      When I was 15, that "glove moment" made me jump. When I saw "Sheila" at a revival theater many years later, as with your audience, it got a laugh.
      Those puppets are a good example of why shooting "The Last of Sheila" must have been a bit of a headache (and why rewind on DVD has been a godsend) they're glimpsed right at the beginning of the movie at the airport in a scene where most eyes will be trained on Welch. The reappear in an argument scene, and then...without cheating...they make their final, plot-specific appearance.
      Juggling all those celebrity egos and plot particulars couldn't have been easy for Herbert Ross.
      I think you're right about how and why "Sheila" just fell through the cracks. Six moderate level stars were no match for the baker's dozen gathered for "Orient Express."
      On the commentary track on the "Day for Night" DVD, Jacqueline Bisset spoke of making that film not very far from where "Sheila" was set up, and feeling rather pleased to be working with a director like Truffaut when, given the trajectory of her career at the time, she could have wound up with the Raquel Welch role.

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  7. Hello Ken, I watched "The Last of Sheila" again last night. It was fascinating to read your review with all the background information on the film. I'm surprised that this film wasn't as well known and loved like those 1970s Agatha Christie films. "Sheila" is as intricately written as the Christie films and has a cast of stars. It was entertaining with lots of funny lines. Dyan Cannon was the liveliest of the bunch. Joan and Raquel added glamour. The men acted well but couldn't Perkins, Sondheim and Ross have found some really handsome guys to show? I found none of them attractive!

    The plot went a little over my head the first time I watched it. Perhaps it's a film that gets better after repeated viewings and the audience back then couldn't afford to see it twice. Maybe what was missing was some real tender romance between some of the characters?
    - Wille

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    1. Hey Wille
      Thanks for coming back and letting us know what you thought of the film. It's interesting to hear what first-timers (I assume you haven't seen it before) come away with.
      I had to laugh when you said that the men in the film weren't really your idea of handsome! Benajamin and Coburn don't do much for me, but McShane I thought was very cute. Let's leave James mason out of this.
      Just from an outsider looking at the film, I think the plot (which isn't as complicated as it seems) comes off as more complex because it fails to pull you "into" the story.
      If I don't care about any of the characters, I don't pay attention as closely as I might if there was some compelling reason for me to care if any of them lived or died.
      For my money they were all such opportunists (save for Hackett) and a film full of people you don't like can feel pretty academic.
      Also, I don't know that real people relate or identify with characters in the film business. to most of us, what they do doesn't really feel like labor, and what they produce is so rarely of value. So when you set up a plot where people are willing to do ANYTHING to work in a film, I think the stakes don't feel very high, and it keeps me at a remove.
      The movie quite well-made, so I think it's failure might have something to do with what people go to the movies for...to be drawn in and made to feel something. "Sheila" is like an exercise in style and cleverness.

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  8. Hi Ken,

    After you last two vastly entertaining takes on cinematic Titanics it was a treat to look in today and see that you've turned the spotlight on one of my favorite films! As a matter of fact I just watched it last week, ironically to sort of cleanse my palette after the fiasco of Mame!

    As you said the film benefits from repeat viewings. The first time I watched it I enjoyed it but it was that second time around that really hooked me. Knowing the resolution I was able to focus in on the intricacies of the film on that second view and was amazed how pretty much everything is a clue, even as some of the publicity trumpeted "Even the title is a clue!!"

    As fun and clever as the mystery is the real selling point for me is the cast. I'm not a big fan of Richard Benjamin usually but his fox faced oiliness is perfect for the manipulative Tom. Speaking of oily charm Coburn pretty much had a corner on it around this time and he seems to be delighting in being able to gear it to a more humorous slant.

    After all this time being familiar with his weather beaten lived in looks it's always a bit of a surprise to see Ian McShane here in his burly but handsome youth. I was struck watching this time how similar in body type he was to two of his contemporaries, Oliver Reed and Alan Bates. I suppose they represented a type that was emergent in the 60's and 70's, the rough hewn semi thug.

    As good as they are it's James Mason and the three ladies who I enjoyed the most. I'm a huge fan of James Mason, he's one of my top five favorite actors and in this he is so sly and dry of wit if in fact his character is based on Welles he is expert in merging his personality with Orson's well known traits. His delivery of lines is a study in the precision of timing.

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    1. Hi Joel
      You state it well when you say that seeing the film again, after knowing resolution, allows you to focus on the fact that virtually everything included in the film serves as a clue, foreshadowing, or some form of information you could have used to solve the film had you known where to look.
      When i saw the film a second and third time, I was made aware that each character is introduced in ways that inform us of their secret even before we know any secrets are involved at all.
      I like the term "fox faced oiliness" in your description of Benjamin, and your description of McShane's physical similarity to Reed and Bates is on point.
      I didn't know you were a James Mason fan. I came to appreciate him later in life. He's quite amazing. I recent;y saw the 70s film "Child's Play" with Mason and Robert Preston...my god, what a fantastic performance!

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    2. I've LOVED James Mason for as long as I can remember, probably since my first viewing of A Star is Born. His innate class and silky voice made him so versatile, he was an ace villain but able to be the sympathetic leading man as well. I've tried to see as much of his filmography as I can, like most actors he did many projects to keep working but he definitely has his share of great films. Aside from Sheila and Star I have a special fondness for The Reckless Moment with Joan Bennett, Odd Man Out, North by Northwest and Georgy Girl. Child's Play is unfortunately one I haven't caught up with yet.

      My favorites have always been a bit skewed towards the classic era. I have so many that I admire it's tough outside of my top 10 or so to rank them but along with Mason those top slots would be: John Garfield, Richard Widmark, Robert Ryan, Mason, Daniel Day-Lewis, Alan Bates, Clifton Webb, Claude Rains, Robert Mitchum and William Holden pretty much in that order. I could easily list another 50 and don't even get me started on actresses!!

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    3. Such a great list of interesting actors. I have a lot of catching up to do when it comes to classic films, but every time i see John Garfield I think he's terrifically charismatic.

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    4. I agree Garfield was incredibly charismatic, the advantage he had over the men who had a similar onscreen vibe, Cagney and Edward G. Robinson great though they were and who had a pugnacious charm was that he was very sexy. I'm guessing you've seen The Postman Always Rings Twice and none of his films are really bad but the ones I'd recommend catching are Humoresque with Crawford, Dust Be My Destiny, Body and Soul, Saturday's Children, where he plays a much more subdued character than his usual lot, and two personal favorites Between Two Worlds and The Breaking Point, I think this one is his best performance and Patricia Neal is great in it too.

      There's also We Were Strangers, directed by John Huston on a somewhat off day, probably my least favorite of his films but it does co-star Jennifer Jones-as a Cuban revolutionary!!-and I know you are much more fond of her than I am.

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  9. Now as for the three women, Raquel is probably the weakest though she has her moments but her character is a sketch at best. I'm surprised in this most moviecentric of pictures that they would give her the unexciting name of Alice Wood especially during a time when name changing for performers was still standard, it sounds like a secretary-Alicia Elwood or some such seems more likely for a sex symbol.

    It does seem the relationship between McShane and she is based more on her own marriage than Ann-Margret's. I remember her husband being looked on as a hanger-on user whereas Roger Smith had a pretty successful career, not as strong a one as A-M's but decent which he chose to put aside to manage her. She does seem to have been quite a handful back then but with the years has loosened up and has quite a sense of humor about herself now and who she was then. It's funny that she thinks she's too thin in this. She's slender and looks beautiful and healthy, how sad is it that now there are women who would consider her not thin enough.

    I've spoken before of my deep adoration of the quirky, exposed nerve that was the ill fated Joan Hackett. It's a close call whether she or Dyan Cannon are my favorite part of the film. I hadn't heard that there was a chance of her being replaced by Lee Remick, now I revere that wonderful actress but talk about poles apart! Lee always exuded a resolute level headedness and even when she came unglued on screen there was a sense that deep down she was still in control. Joan on the other hand when she melted down it was an all out collapse with every shake and voice quiver having a meaning. I don't think the part would have had quite the same impact without her. I love that you mentioned Class of '63! I remember it fondly, it would be wonderful to catch up with it again but at least for now it seems unavailable.

    Lastly there is Dyan Cannon having a whiz bang time as barracuda agent Christine. Like James Mason it's all in her line readings. From her first moment on screen she's on point, when she deadpans to her dykey assistant to disguise her voice as a woman and then turns all kittenish to tell her boss she wants to go to the south of France she makes every line a delight. I've listened to that commentary track and it is wonderful, it's a shame the three of them couldn't do it together but I'm guessing long simmering resentments are still in place. Anyway the part where Dyan mentioned that she had to loop her scene fresh from the sea really impressed me. That had to be incredibly difficult and it's such a great scene for her. I agree she has the most fully developed character and aside from Joan Hackett is the most compassionate person despite her rather ruthless nature.

    The fact that it's set on the yacht helps it have a more timeless feel since except for some hideous upholstery it isn't really dated. Even the clothes they wear aren't that period specific since most of it is cruise wear. I think that makes it more accessible to modern audiences and the few times they hit dry land the scenery is beautiful. I've recommended it to more friends than I can remember and every single one of them has loved it and commented on the fact that they were unfamiliar with it but would definitely be telling someone or another to catch it. If only that good word of mouth had happened when it was out originally.

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    1. part II: I like the more movie-star sounding name for Raquel's character (and it keeps the "wood" joke!), which as is, does indeed sound like the name of a librarian or something.

      Although I liked Lee Remick a great deal in "The Days of Wine and Roses" as far a vulnerability goes, I have to I agree with in that she radiated a level-headedness that wouldn't have given the film the same heart Hackett provides (and which the film so sorely needed).
      I look on YouTube for "Class of 63" every now and then. I haven't seen it since when it first aired.

      Dyan Cannon is indeed terrific, and yes, the news that she had to loop that scene was very surprising to me, since it's such a strong, complicated on for her. Given Herbert Ross' strength as a director, and Cannon saying she "pleaded" not to have to do it, I can imagine that provided more choppy waters for the filming of "Sheila."
      Since the film has become available on DVD, my experience recommending it to friends has been similar to yours: they have never heard of it, and they always tell me later how much they enjoyed it.
      The whole "timing" thing must be a constant frustration to people in the arts...you know you've done something of quality, but for one reason or another the public isn't biting. Years pass, the product has remained unchanged, but what was once revived is now revered.
      Sounds like a recipe for a lot of "I told you so's"
      Thanks Joel! Nice to hear the film is a favorite, and funny you watched it so recently after having suffered through "Mame"!

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  10. Been great reading all the posts about "Sheila."
    I just had a little flash: I wonder if Benjamin's floundering screenwriter and Hackett's sad rich wife are a nod toward Dominick Dunne (producer of Perkins' Play It As It Lays) and his heiress wife Lenny. Dunne was just about to go over the Hollywood ledge with Play It and yes, Ash Wednesday! He also sorta came out late in life when Dominick made a comeback as a writer. There's some fascinatin' synchronicity here ; )
    Sheila and Mame are now in my reactivated Netflix queue. Thanks, Ken!
    Rico

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    1. That's a great theory you have there with Dominick Dunne and his wife! It's one I've never heard broached before but it's very sound.
      Good game playing, Rick! I think you might have come up with something there!
      Thanks for keeping the game playing fun of this movie alive, And happy Mame and Sheila watching!

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  11. I have religiously watched this no less than five times on my DVD copy but I still can't make heads or tails of what happens in that confessional on the island!

    Could someone on here explain it, maybe using Victim/Pretend Murderer/Real Murderer designations so has not to give away the mystery? Plus that knock on the door to pass on the clue happens when in the timeline?

    So other than plainly stating my stupidity, I just wanted to say that the overacting from the ladies really gets on my nerves (well except Raquel who doesn't act at all) but I find Mason and Coburn genuinely compelling in this. I'm still freaked out though by the cavalier way nobody in the film or on here was horrified by the pedophile character!

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    1. Hi Mangrove
      I think a LOT of people have trouble deciphering the plot. Even when you know why certain things were done, it's not particularly easy to piece together just how.
      Rather than risk spoiling things for readers of this blog, here's a link to a site that claims to fully explain all the plot details. I hope it helps :
      http://www.moviepooper.com/6/2588lastofsheila.html

      And yes, the characters in the film are rather cavalier about that shocking "secret" ( in fact, they're cavalier about everything that doesn't pertain to their own selfish interests...no one, not even Clinton, is all that broken up over Sheila's death), but people not referencing here I think has more to do with not wanting to divulge many of the film's secrets.
      The movie is over 40 years old, but it's still so unknown to so many people.
      Watch your DVD for a 6th time after visiting that link, and see if everything adds up!

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  12. I first saw this when I was 11-12 during my big year of Sondheim discovery and I admit... it kinda baffled me. Since then, I've come to love it. (What IS odd is that the past few years have constantly brought gossip of a remake... I mean I know every single slasher film ever has gotten a remake by now, but this just seems a surprising choice if there's any truth to the rumours.)

    I admit one thing that threw me was, despite what some critics think, I always found so much humanity and even heart in Sondheim's shows and scores. And there's zero of that here. Remember in the 90s he had the Broadway show Getting Away with Murder (also called The Doctor is Out,) which was a non musical mystery written with his sometimes collaborator George Furth... It was a spectacular flop and savaged by critics. I never saw it but have read the published script and it suffers from the least appealing elements of Sheila (hateful and cliche characters, etc) but doesn't have the satisfying cleverness--in fact Act I if I recall correctly ends on a preposterous twist (I seem to recall it involved certain characters not actually being dead, etc.)

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    1. Hi Eric
      Indeed, every few years I hear rumors of a remake of this film. Just why - beyond the usual Hollywood remake-mania - is as a big a mystery as the film itself.
      I too think Sondheim's work has a great deal of heart, but when movie people seek to satirically grind some kind of Hollywood axe (like Blake Edwards) their bile gets in the way and they forget that a couple of hours spent with unpleasant people is often little more than that. Also, the barbs can get a little strident after a while.

      The cast and setting saves this movie a great deal. Can't imagine who could even be in a remake.

      I'm unfamiliar with "Getting Away With Murder" but your description makes it sound like i'm not missing much.
      Thanks again for commenting and visiting so many older posts! Fun to read what you have to say on each film.

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  13. Discovered this flick a few years back, can't remember how, and fell in love with it! Loved all its '70s flavor and Dyan Cannon, wow. Great review!

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    1. Hi Will
      Yes, all those flare-legged pants and ribbed-knit tops just broadcast 70s all over the place. It is a fun movie, and nice to hear you enjoyed it. Even nicer to hear you enjoyed this post. Thank you so much!

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