I found ‘The Last of Sheila’ on ex-rental and was surprised by its high entertainment value. It’s one of those films that people seem to know about, but somehow if you ask them, they may not have seen it. ‘The Last of Sheila’ deserved more of an audience on its first release but it may now be getting a second chance with the new technology which to me is poetic justice. It is clever, entertaining and succeeds in doing things a little differently. The film was co-written by Anthony Perkins (with Stephen Sondheim); as an actor Perkins is so self-effacing it seems only with the passing of time that we remember how quirky and interesting he actually was. Unfortunately for the audience he doesn’t have a role in front of the camera, but there are a number of once famous, (infamous?) names who make their presence felt, in roles, some would say that are a little close to the bone. The cast includes James Coburn, Raquel Welch, Dyan Cannon, Joan Hackett, Richard Benjamin and James Mason.
The film is set on a luxury yacht and its environs, mainly the Greek islands which look spectacular. The narrative is revealed as a series of pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. A famous movie producer (Coburn) brings a party of his friends together for a sea cruise on his million dollar yacht in order to find out which one has done the dirty on him in a very unpleasant manner.But curious questions keep popping up: which member of the party may have been responsible for the death of his wife Sheila? And how much does Sheila’s husband know and is willing to reveal, about the members of the party? The method in which the plot is revealed to the audience is a lot of fun as we find out one by one, what it is the characters have to hide and how prime they may be as suspects in the murder of Sheila. (As an afterthought since she is not a character in the film, this setup reminds me of ‘Rebecca’, a character much talked about but never actually seen in the film of the same name.)
It’s all very post-modern and self-referential, with a lot of Hollywood in-jokes that the audience can participate in and laugh about. The characters include a struggling screenwriter who is broke and will do anything for a hit (Benjamin); a powerful female agent (based on legendary agent of the ‘70s Sue Mengers) who knows the dope on everyone but isn’t telling (Cannon); an over-the-hill actor with strange sexual penchants (Mason); and a sex symbol angling for a part that she may never live to play (Welch). The dialogue is what used to be referred to as ‘sparkling’ (‘my mouth is so dry honey, they could shoot ‘Lawrence of Arabia in it’), and there are a lot of plot twists and turns that are fun but shouldn’t be revealed in order not to spoil the surprises.
If you believe what this film is saying, being part of the in-crowd is definitely not what it’s cracked up to be, and also may be injurious to one’s health. A good cast seem to be enjoying themselves, and it’s a mystery to me why this film , once upon a time, so rare to find on video, is also today, (at least as far as I know), not available on DVD.