By Craig Leask
The Last of Sheila is a brilliantly clever thriller which tries (and succeeds) beautifully in combining the best of a bitchy Hollywood self-satire, mixed with a traditional whodunit. Ultimately the film is tongue in cheek homage to both the murder mystery genre and the cutthroat world of movie making. It’s about playing a game, both as a diversion as well as means of controlling, manipulating, and undermining desperate people, their self-esteem, and their careers. The film is very well structured and as such, it is not a movie for those who like their plots to be obvious – the writing requires the viewer to pay close attention to each clue, plot twist, nuance, and strategically placed red herring – and trust me, there are many. Virtually every line of dialogue and visual reference, including the most blatant which is revealed later into the film, is designed to assist the viewer in playing detective.
The screenplay came from the unexpected collaboration of actor Anthony Perkins (Psycho) and composer Stephen Sondheim (of Broadway fame), who had based the film on their penchant for elaborate scavenger hunt parties the pair hosted for their show business friends in New York City in the 1960’s and 70’s. A guest to one of their parties was producer and director Herbert Ross (The Goodbye Girl, California Suite) who encouraged them to write a script based on the party and its roster of famous guests. Ultimately this conversation led to the development of the The Last of Sheila. Although there is a very clear Agatha Christie vibe to the premise, the writers wanted to differentiate their murder mystery with any others: they wanted no detective. The participants were to be isolated, and they alone were to solve the crime. This was the only film script written by either Anthony Perkins or Stephen Sondheim. Herbert Ross stepped in to direct.
The plot centers around movie producer and game-aficionado Clinton Greene (James Coburn) who invites a diverse group of business contacts and associates for a one-week cruise aboard his yacht off the southern coast of France on the one-year anniversary of the death of his wife, gossip columnist Sheila Greene (Yvonne Romain in her final acting role). Once the ship is under way, Clinton announces to the passengers that they will all partake in “The Sheila Greene Memorial Gossip Game” in which each of the six guests will be assigned “a pretend piece of gossip” on an index card, to be kept hidden from the other passengers. The object of the game is simple: discover everyone else’s “gossip” through a series of carefully planned events and clues, while protecting one’s own secret. Each night a planned event on shore will reveal the holder of one of the secrets. Following the conclusion of the first night’s activity, cumulating with revealing of the first card, “You are a SHOPLIFTER”, realization begins within the group that each guest’s card may not be a “pretend” piece of gossip as initially stated, but instead an actual, embarrassing secret about each participant.
To further tease and flaunt his dominance over the Hollywood B-List invitees, Clinton announces he is about to begin a new film project and is offering each guest the opportunity to participate in the project – with the better billing awarded to those who score higher in his game. It is no secret that being involved in a Clinton film project is precisely the lure each of the guests need to repair their damaged careers and restore their tattered reputations.
As the game progresses, the evenings begin to evolve into a macabre game of clue, with guests each sparring over who owns each dirty little secret as they compete for top billing in the elusive film project. In the midst of a particularly eerie session of the game, set in an abandoned monastery, someone protecting their own damaging secret rewrites the rules resulting in the death of one of the participants, leaving the surviving guests to play murderous musical chairs in a proverbial floating drawing room.
It is interesting to note that this really is a game to each of the guests; collectively they do not waste time grieving over another’s death, they merely clean up the blood and write off one more loser against their desperate yearning for a win.
The cast of guests / suspects and their players have been carefully and well selected for the film, including: attention starved secretary-cum-talent agent Christine (Dyan Cannon in a role based closely upon talent agent Sue Mengers); starlet Alice Wood (Raquel Welch) and her talent-manager husband Tony (Ian McShane) who holds leafy aspirations of becoming an associate producer; pessimistic “has-been” film director Philip Dexter (James Mason); Tom Parkman (Richard Benjamin), a screenwriter frustrated with only doing rewrites of others’ work and Lee, Tom’s wife, who is basically just bored and rich. These characters have been developed to represent a cross section of Hollywood personalities: people who are proud and narcissistic, who maintain their status and dominance through developing and spreading rumors about the faults of their competition. They each portray a surface air of stability and contentment, while diligently working on their social status, desperately seeking to connive their way back on top in the eyes of the Hollywood power establishment. This is what actually differentiates this film from your basic “bring a group of people together, isolate them and make one a murderer” plot, is the writers are concerned as much with who the characters are and how they interact as they are with murder itself.
Although the character conflicts and the backstory to whom-does-what-to-whom doesn’t always seem justified, the performances as demonstrated in the ever-competitive personality game, are clever, sharp-edged, quick and very entertaining. I did however find Rachael Welch as the starlet “Alice” to be quite unremarkable. She added little to nothing to the plot and in my opinion her and her character didn’t need to be in the film at all. James Mason did, howeve,r famously refer to working with her on the film, stating she was “the most selfish, ill-mannered, inconsiderate actress that I have ever had the displeasure of working with.”
Ironically, the film ends to Bette Midler’s song “Friends,” playing over its closing credits.
In 2012 New Line Cinema, division of Warner Brothers Pictures, announced a remake of The Last of Sheila was in the works, helmed by producer Beau Flynn. The project appears to have fizzled out shortly after this announcement as no further mention of the remake has been made.
From as far back as Craig can remember he has been passionate about architecture and the atmosphere that can be created through a well-designed building. In movies, he fulfills this passion by gravitating to films where the production infuses the location into the plot as one of the characters. Be it the long dark shadows of mysteries and haunted house films, to classics of the 40’s and 50’s set in big old houses, grand Italian plazas, or remote villages. It’s the locations Craig is drawn to, so much so that, on occasion, he has even been accused of overlooking plot failures and weak directing, having been so engrossed in the set design and location. What he hopes to accomplish with his writing is to share this passion and encourage others to see for the first time – or revisit – movies where the architecture plays as pivotal a role as a character in the plot.