The Last of Sheila
|The Last of Sheila|
Original movie poster
|Directed by||Herbert Ross|
|Produced by||Herbert Ross|
|Written by||Anthony Perkins|
|Music by||Billy Goldenberg|
|Edited by||Edward Warschilka|
|Distributed by||Warner Bros.|
|Box office||$2,200,000 (US/ Canada rentals)|
The Last of Sheila is a 1973 mystery thriller that was directed by Herbert Ross and written directly for the screen by Anthony Perkins and Stephen Sondheim. It starred Richard Benjamin, Dyan Cannon, James Coburn, Joan Hackett, James Mason, Ian McShane, and Raquel Welch.
On a one-week Mediterranean pleasure cruise aboard the yacht of movie producer Clinton Greene (Coburn), the guests include actress Alice Wood (Welch), her talent-manager husband Anthony (McShane), talent agent Christine (Cannon), screenwriter Tom Parkman (Benjamin), Tom's wife Lee (Hackett), and film director Philip Dexter (Mason). The trip is, in fact, a reunion; with the exception of Lee (who was "sick of Santa Barbara"), all were together at Clinton's home one year before, on the night a hit-and-run accident resulted in the death of Clinton's wife, gossip columnist Sheila Greene. (Yvonne Romain, a former Hammer horror actress, appeared as Sheila Greene in a cameo performance.)
Once the cruise is under way, Clinton, a parlor game enthusiast, informs everyone that the week's entertainment will consist of "The Sheila Greene Memorial Gossip Game." The six guests are each assigned an index card containing a secret (in Clinton's words, "a pretend piece of gossip") that must be kept hidden from the others. The object of the game is to discover everyone else's secret while protecting one's own.
Each night the yacht anchors at a different Mediterranean port city, where one of the six secrets is disclosed to the entire group. The guests are given a clue, then sent ashore to find the proof of who among them holds the card bearing that night's secret. The game for that night ends when the actual holder of the subject secret discovers the proof. Anyone who has not yet solved the clue receives no points on Clinton's scoreboard for that round. Following the revelation of the first card, "YOU are a SHOPLIFTER," suspicion begins that each guest's card does not contain "pretend" gossip but in fact an actual, embarrassing secret about each guest.
On the second day, Christine is nearly killed when someone (not revealed to the camera) turns the boat's propellers on while she is swimming near them. The second game session takes place in an abandoned, derelict abbey during a thunderstorm, where the second card is revealed to be "YOU are a HOMOSEXUAL." When Clinton does not return from the second evening's installment of the game, the guests return ashore the following day and discover his corpse.
Although the group initially assumes that Clinton perished when a stone column collapsed during the storm, Tom points out several clues that suggest otherwise. The blood where Clinton was struck came from a stone at the bottom of a pillar, not the top, meaning it could not have fallen on him from a great height. Furthermore, a piece of wood landed in his jacket from where he was sitting earlier in the evening, implying he died there and was moved underneath the column. Finally, there was a burnt cigarette butt at his feet, despite Clinton being a non-smoker. Tom surmises that one of the six killed him where he sat, then dragged the body to one of the pillars and dropped a stone (mistakenly from the bottom of the column) on his head to make it seem like an accident.
Next, Tom reveals that his card reads, "YOU are a HIT-AND-RUN KILLER." After getting everyone else to reveal their cards (the others are EX-CONVICT, INFORMANT and LITTLE CHILD MOLESTER), he confesses to having had an affair with Clinton, revealing himself to be the homosexual and suggesting that one of the secrets belongs to each of the others. It is implied that the hit-and-run killer murdered Clinton to conceal his or her guilt in Sheila's death.
This begins a macabre game of musical chairs of sorts, with guests jousting over who lays claim to which dirty little secret. Eventually, it becomes clear that Christine was the informant, Alice the shoplifter, Anthony the ex-convict, and Philip the little child molester. Lee tearfully confesses to having killed Sheila while driving drunk the previous year, and having accidentally killed Clinton the previous night after he provoked her by blaming her for Sheila's death. She locks herself in her cabin, and Tom is unsuccessful in reaching her. Shortly thereafter, she is found dead with her wrists slit, and the case seems to be closed.
On the final night of the cruise, the crew and most of the guests go to a party on the shore, but Philip, who brought no money, remains on the ship. Tom returns to find him thinking over loose ends of the earlier events. Philip experiments with stamping out cigarettes, speculating that it was Clinton who attempted to stamp out the cigarette but was unable to in the dark. This further implies that he only had one try at it; Philip posits that, while he looked down and tried to put it out, the killer murdered him. Lee could not have killed him in this way, and therefore Philip suspects that Lee had "killed" a dead body. He further speculates that someone else - presumably the actual killer - stayed there after Lee fled and rearranged the scene to implicate her instead. Finally, Philip realizes that the six clues (Shoplifter, Homosexual, Ex-convict, etc.) spell out "SHEILA," and that a picture taken the first day has each of them standing under a letter of Sheila's name that corresponds to their clue - except for the final "A", which breaks the pattern. (The use of the acronym also explains the redundant "LITTLE" in Philip's own clue; "CHILD MOLESTER" would have divulged Philip's secret guilt well enough, but the "L" from "LITTLE" was necessary for the photograph.)
With this, it becomes clear what had actually happened: after Alice (with whom Tom had been having an affair) confessed to being a shoplifter to Tom on the first night, he realized the pattern and saw an opportunity. He changed out his own card - "YOU are an ALCOHOLIC," the missing A - for a more condemning one, "YOU are a HIT-AND-RUN KILLER," knowing both secrets applied to Lee. He arranged for Lee to see his card and think the game's purpose was to expose her for her role in Sheila's death. Then he murdered Clinton on the second night, planning to frame Lee for the deed - made much easier after (impersonating Clinton) he taunted Lee into attacking the corpse. Thus, all of his detective work that day had been based on the crime that he himself committed. After Lee's guilt was "established," he spiked her bottle of bourbon with sleeping pills and, after she drank it, dragged her into the bathtub and slit her wrists, making it seem like a suicide. Her estate, worth $5 million, therefore went to him and freed him to pursue other romantic interests. Philip is himself guilty of attempted murder, having attempted to kill Clinton with the boat's propellers in order to prevent his secret from coming out. After Philip deduces Tom's guilt, Tom attempts to strangle him, but their fight is broken up by the arrival of Christine, who had listened to the entire series of events. Philip blackmails Tom into financing a film with the money from Lee's estate, employing the various guests in roles related to it but keeping Tom on only in a very minor capacity.
- Richard Benjamin as Tom Parkman
- Dyan Cannon as Christine
- James Coburn as Clinton Greene
- Joan Hackett as Lee Parkman
- James Mason as Philip Dexter
- Ian McShane as Anthony Wood
- Raquel Welch as Alice Wood
- Yvonne Romain as Sheila
The movie was inspired by an irregular series of elaborate, real-life scavenger hunts Sondheim and Perkins arranged for their show business friends (including Lee Remick and George Segal) in Manhattan in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Herb Ross also took part in the treasure hunts with his wife Norma; he says one of the clues was spelt out by icing on a cake which had been cut up into different pieces.
The climax of one hunt was staged in the lobby of a seedy flophouse, where participants heard a skipping LP record endlessly repeating the first line of the Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer standard One for My Baby ("It's quarter to three ... It's quarter to three ..."). The winning team eventually recognized the clue—2:45—and immediately headed for room 245 of the hotel, where bottles of Champagne awaited them.
Sondheim later recalled:
The idea for the movie grew out of two murder games I devised some time ago. One was for Phyllis Newman; the other for four couples just after I got out of college. A murder game? No, nobody gets murdered. With the four couples, I told each person to think of a way to kill one of the others over the weekend we would be spending together in the country. Then we passed out envelopes and inside one was an 'X'. That person was the only one who was to carry out his plan; the others were to spend the time avoiding being murdered.
Herb Ross made the film for his own production company; it was distributed by Warner Bros. Ross:
If you have a group of people on a ship, the ship becomes a metaphor for existence, you can't help it. It's not a symbol one strives for, but it does happen. It's not a picture about film people, it's about people... I'll tell you what this picture is about. It's about civilisation and barbarism. You cannot make up for the absence of civilisation.
Herbert Ross originally offered the role to Mengers herself, but she turned it down, claiming too many of her clients were out of work. Instead she pitched her client, Dyan Cannon, for the part. "But they came and took pictures of my office to see what a lady agent's office looks like," says Mengers. "It's filled with ferns and plants. They want to construct a set just like it over in Nice."
Cannon later said she did not want to do the film at first as she did not like the part on the page - "the script seemed too broad, everybody caricaturised, especially my part. I mean, Sue Mengers is wild, but not that wild. There seemed to be no humanity in the women's roles." However she says Mengers talked her into it as "it'll be a chance to show them you've got something more than your obvious assets". Cannon gained 19 pounds to play the role. She said the part was "finally changed, deepened. I still had to bring a lot to it, and I think the result's unlike anything I've ever done."
James Mason played a washed-up film director, who was reportedly based on two real life directors. "Steve and Tony insist they wrote the part for me," said Mason. "If they did, they did it for a ready-made image. If the passé director is played by someone who makes constant appearances on The Late, Late Show, it helps. Consequently I'm playing it as everybody's idea of James Mason."
Raquel Welch played a movie starlet and Ian McShane her manager-husband. Welch said the two were based on Ann-Margret and her husband Roger Smith but Sondheim later said the part was actually based on Welch herself and her one time husband Patrick Curtis.
The movie was shot in the south of France. In an interview for a fortieth-anniversary screening of the film, Cannon said that filming on an actual yacht proved to be too difficult, and so production was halted, stranding the cast on location: "So we had to wait in the south of France while they built a set at the Victorine Studios [in Nice] for us. We had to spend our days lying on the beach and going to lunch and shopping. It was a hard job!" 
There were also complaints about Raquel Welch's behaviour. In turn, she announced she was suing Herbert Ross for assault and battery as a result of an incident in her dressing room. She claimed she had to flee to London during the shoot "to escape physical harm". However she then returned to Nice to shoot the film's final scenes, although she was provided with a bodyguard. Warner Bros later issued a statement supporting Ross and criticising Welch for her "public utterances".
James Mason told a newspaper at the time that Welch was "the most selfish, ill-mannered, inconsiderate actress that I've ever had the displeasure of working with."
Perkins and Sondheim's script was novelized by Alexander Edwards. The critical reception for the film was mostly positive. The film currently holds an 85% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 13 reviews. In The New York Times Vincent Canby called the film "an old-fashioned murder mystery" that "makes murder, as well as life, more interesting." Raquel Welch later said she was "good" in the film "but being good in a bad movie doesn't do anything for your career."
In 1975 Tony Perkins said he and Sondheim were working on another script, The Chorus Girl Murder Case. "It's a sort of stew based on all those Bob Hope wartime comedies, plus a little Lady of Burlesque and a little Orson Welles magic show, all cooked into a Last of Sheila-type plot," said Perkins. He later said other inspirations were They Got Me Covered, The Ipcress File and Cloak and Dagger. However, the film was never made.
In the 1980s Perkins and Sondheim collaborated on another script, the seven part Crime and Variations for Motown Productions. It too was never made.
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