Inside Hollywood dirt, parlour games, egos and a murder mystery.
The Last of Sheila is a fine whodunit with a top flight cast, a twisty plot with well placed clues, and some fascinating names behind the scenes. The story revolves around Hollywood insiders and has-beens, so you get characters with neuroses and hangups, huge egos and bigger secrets. James Coburn plays a man whose wife Sheila (Yvonne Romain), a gossip columnist, is killed in a hit and run accident. One year later, Coburn invites a circle of industry friends to vacation aboard his yacht in the Mediterranean, ostensibly to discuss his idea of making a movie about his late wife’s death and the mystery surrounding it. It soon becomes clear that he’s really invited them all to participate in a puzzle, a role playing game, a scavenger hunt/what’s my secret/musical chairs hybrid that he believes will expose his wife’s killer, with the added thrill of exposing other scandalous details that will wreck these peoples’ careers and lives. The folks he invites are screenwriter Richard Benjamin and his wife Joan Hackett, director James Mason, super-agent Dyan Cannon, starlet Raquel Welch and her husband Ian McShane. As you might expect, that combo and caliber of actors nicely fulfill these juicy parts and do a lot of scene stealing besides. The game soon goes off the rails and completely out of Coburn’s control as the guests start to realize why they’re there and try to keep the others from digging up their dirt. Murders ensue.
Everybody (well almost) does a great job with the acting, totally putting across their shallow self-interest, and clearly having so much fun, which is always great to watch. The one weak spot is Raquel Welch who plays it SO concerned and preoccupied that it goes beyond what’s fitting for her character’s secret and just makes her look absent and detached most of the time. She brings nothing much to the role and reads her lines in an whispery, breathy voice that feels like a caricature of Marilyn Monroe. On the flipside, Dyan Cannon veers into the histrionic a couple times, mostly in her breakdown scene right after she almost gets murdered by the yacht propeller, but in her case being mean, uninhibited and high strung totally fit the character. Joan Hackett is sweet and sensitive, probably the only decent person there, but even so, seems to be hiding something huge.
The highlights are the two James. Coburn’s wide gleeful grin is perfect accompaniment for the maniacal torturing and teasing of his guests. He’s like a kid, filling the yacht lounge with every board game available, planning his scavenger hunts, sauntering about the settings he’s picked out (like an abandoned monastery on a remote island) planting clues and props which are practically art installations, they’re so complicated and ingenious. He even cross-dresses to look like Raquel at one point, and is just devilish fun to watch. James Mason is just wonderful playing his serious role, in which he tries his best to remain distinguished and above this whole mess, but when he gets ruffled or attacked he gives us some laugh out loud moments. We’re introduced to him as he’s directing a dog food commercial while talking to his wife on the phone: “I am sorry dear but I must hang up, a cast member is peeing on my leg.” You later get to see him in an intellectual standoff with the killer that involves darts and hand puppets.
The movie was cowritten by Anthony Perkins and Stephen Sondheim, who were known to hold parties where famous guests would play these type of gossip/identity games. Their inside knowledge adds fun layers to the script, so that you not only get a bunch of well written characters but thinly disguised versions of real Hollywood people as well, plus incisive and revealing humour. The clues are intelligent and well placed so the solution makes sense and seems obvious once it’s explained. Fun end credit to spot is wardrobe by Joel Schumacher, and we’re talking some gloriously 70’s colour schemes, the wicked sisters Poly and Ester, and flowing bell bottoms. The film was directed by Herbert Ross (The Goodbye Girl, Footloose, Steel Magnolias) and features the ironic use of the song “Friends” by Bette Midler. Yes, friends who mostly can’t stand each other, are either trying to stab one another in the back professionally or murder each other literally, whether they think the reward is just top billing in Coburn’s movie or their very careers and reputations. The Last of Sheila is a very fun and smart film that piles loads of entertainment industry skewering on top of a fun puzzle and a clever mystery and satisfies on many levels.