The Last of Sheila

Mysteries within mysteries
★★
☆
Released: 
1973
Director: 
Herbert Ross
Starring: 
Richard Benjamin, James Mason, Dyan Cannon, Racquel Welch, James Coburn
The Setup: 
An Agatha Christie-style thing in which there are a bunch of people on a yacht, and one of them is a murderer.
Discussion: 

I had read a review of this that led to me to believe that it would be a campy homo-fest, mostly because I knew it was written by Anthony Perkins and Stephen Sondheim [it also has costumes by future fuck-up director Joel Schumacher]. But I was surprised to find that while there certainly campy elements, the whole thing is quite serious and dark. Tonally, the barely-concealed malice and ill-will place it squarely in the Sondheim sensibility.

So James Coburn plays a movie producer whose [wife? Girlfriend?] Sheila is killed in a hit-and-run accident in the first scene. Quite some time later, he sends invitations for about 8 of the people who were at the party the night of the murder to come join him for a week on his yacht. There are a wide variety of professions and personalities, but all of them work within Hollywood. Coburn tells them they are going to play a game in which everyone gets a card with a secret on it, and they’re going to play a game in which they seek to discover everyone else’s secret. He also tells him that he is planning on making a movie about the departed Sheila entitled “The Last of Sheila” [Sheila, by the way, is also the name of the yacht]. As we will find out, all of the people involved have a great need to be in or work on this upcoming movie, hence they need to go through with the game and they need to be nice to the James Coburn character so he’ll give them a job on it. Sound complicated? They haven’t even begun playing the game yet.

I could go into what happens from here but I think I’ll leave it for you to watch, if you’re going to. I will tell you that it is soon discovered that the secrets on the cards don’t match the person they were given to, so all of the characters know something about another of the group, though without, at first, knowing who. I will tell you that I was surprised that one character is supposedly a child molester, and later we find out who it is, and then this whole thread passes uncommented-upon. Playing the game causes the group to prey upon each other and expose their secrets, and this, in part is the revenge of Coburn character. It's pretty wicked and clever in it's own way, and makes for a satisfyingly complicated scenario.

Richard Benjamin is one of the more prominent characters, a writer who is married to a mousy woman but who seems gay and it turns out had a homosexual affair in his past. Dyan Cannon plays a brassy, overbearing bitch in huge glasses, and she has many speeches and scenes that are a hoot to watch. She also gets to throw a wonderful soliloquy / monologue after a certain very prominent boating accident. The ever-delicious Raquel Welch, who I grew to really like after listening to her plain-spoken vivaciousness on the Myra Breckenridge commentary, doesn’t have a whole lot to do here, but also gets a long soliloquy of her own. James mason is also on hand.

Though this film isn’t the gay camp-fest I was expecting, there is a great deal of the gay about it. It’s not too much in the subtext or, well, the text, but just a general gayness throughout. You have Chamberlin’s earlier experience, you have James Coburn in drag for an extended, oft-repeated sequence, you have a brief glimpse into a French lesbian bar [interesting, above], and a lot of other little details like that that… you just don’t find in other movies. Not necessarily worth renting the movie for, but, ultimately, this does seem like the work of Anthony Perkins and Stephen Sondheim.

So it gets very complicated, it gets a little nasty, there are mysteries inside of mysteries… and it doesn’t really amount to much. In the end I found I was thinking about it much harder than was really necessary, but I guess that’s what these sorts of mysteries are all about. Heh, not bad.

Should you watch it: 

If you like these kind of intricate drawing-room style mysteries. It’s pretty good, but you could definitely live without it.