THE LAST OF SHEILA —–smart and engaging 1973 mystery, directed by Herbert Ross, written by Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins. They took inspiration from intricate parlor games they designed for their friends and developed this whodunit, poking malicious fun at showbiz types, being catty in the chichi setting of a yacht cruising ports in the sunny Mediterranean.
Sarcastic host and movie producer ‘Clinton’ (James Coburn) arranges elaborate gossip & reveal games for his interconnected guests, all of them dealing with some kind of career issue and each with a nasty secret to keep. Of course, murder is eventually on the menu. The guests/prey: a sharp but flailing screenwriter (Richard Benjamin) and his alcoholic heiress wife (Joan Hackett); a once-hot director (James Mason) reduced to doing TV commercials with tots; a loud, vulgar and aggressive talent agent (Dyan Cannon); a knockout but talent-shy actress (Raquel Welch) and her leech’y husband & manager (Ian McShane).
The serpentine plot requires an abacus to follow, but the fun comes from the acid, industry-aware dialogue, the enticing French Riviera locations and the good work from the cast—well, almost everyone. Coburn and Cannon are both required to play it big; they’re okay–for me, it’s a wee overboard (her horsey laugh is enough to put out a fire). Mason is flawless as ever, his sly diction tailor-made for this sort of repartee. The best work comes from Benjamin (not his usual dweeb, much more likable) and Hackett, who delivers in assured depth the only character who earns much sympathy. And then, there’s ‘The Movie Star’: Welch looks great, but a half-decade and 18 assignments after Fantastic Voyage she still couldn’t handle lines much better than Jill St. John. Watching her and James Mason sharing the same scene is the biggest in-joke in the film. Her facial expressions register well enough, but that insincere can-and-ship voice sounds like it emanates from a hologram. *
With more-than-decent reviews, the ingredient-rich truffle still failed to find much of an audience appetite, its $6,700,000 gross pulling just 53rd place for the year. Makes a neat diversion for 120 minutes.
* Using insider knowledge to coat their rapier wit in arsenic, Sondheim & Perkins based Cannon’s character on legendary super-agent Sue Mengers, Mason’s on a couple director’s they knew and told Welch that the people she and McShane were playing were modeled after Ann-Margret and her husband & manager Roger Smith, but Sondheim later fessed they took the plot Raquel from Welch herself. As insecure and demanding as she was photogenic and sexy, Welch’s diva behavior was a huge pain for all concerned. Mason told the press she was “the most selfish, ill-mannered, inconsiderate actress that I’ve ever had the displeasure of working with” and McShane added “she isn’t the most friendly creature. She seems to set out with the impression that no one is going to like her”. She scored much higher, with critics and audiences, if not with co-workers, with her other 1973 role, showing some surprising, long-hidden comic chops in The Three Musketeers.
Cannon dropped the pounds (variously reported as 19 to 30) she put on for the part and went on to score big with Heaven Can Wait. As for Our Man James, after 1967s In Like Flint, the dull sequel to his signature hit Our Man Flint, he headlined a dozen projects that failed to find favor critically or commercially (more critical). Some were good, like The President’s Analyst, most lousy—hands up, who saw or cares to remember Hard Contract, The Carey Treatment or Duffy ? This one’s on the plus side of the ledger.