The Last of Sheila has the most constantly deceptive structure I’ve seen in a while. Watching the time code on the DVD player (and on the laserdisc and VHS players before it, and the clock for televised films even before those inventions) really changes the way one experiences a film. I’m always telling my fiancée we watch films at home and see them at the theater. It’s a measure of control. One can pause, rewind–and stop (I guess this website is more about video-watching than theatergoing, otherwise it’d be called The Walk Receipt or something–it’d actually be called The Golden Ticket after a particular theater’s refund ticket). Anyway, during The Last of Sheila I kept frequent note of the time. It’s a mystery with a cast of familiar stars going somewhere and… mystery ensuing. Since it’s a closed location (a yacht) and Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins wrote (don’t know why I’m attributing this assumption to them, but I am), I figured it’d be stagy, like an adapted play. Obviously, I shouldn’t have made that assumption, just because the film’s all about Hollywood people. The film isn’t traditional–one could sit and use the time code alone to discuss how the story works. Lots of things happen at the thirty minute mark and then a lot happens around ninety minutes. It’s a two hour movie. Even with that frequent observation of the time code, I couldn’t tell where The Last of Sheila was going. I guessed at the culprit, but I never guessed at the eventual resolution, or how the film got there. It’s remarkable, especially since the film started out with director Herbert Ross doing all the lame stuff I associate with his name and it’s incredibly unfortunate Sondheim and Perkins didn’t go on to anything else. It’d be impossible for them to have topped Sheila, because one would have expected it from them–and the casting is incredibly important in ways I can’t possibly discuss without spoiling something–but I would watch a film, written by those two, about two kids who decide to open a pickle-farm. I imagine it would have been wonderfully effective.
As I said, talking about the cast is difficult, but there are some people I can point out. Obviously, Joan Hackett is quite good, but so is Ian McShane, who was once young and slim. James Mason is good. James Coburn I’ve never been able to figure out. He’s good in some stuff, but in other stuff he’s unbearably campy. I thought he was going to go campy for Sheila, but doesn’t. The only weak actor is Raquel Welch, who’s essentially playing herself. She can’t do it.
I was going to say one would have to be familiar with some film history to fully appreciate The Last of Sheila, but that judgment was wrong. It’s just a really good mystery. Even if the locations (and sets) bring more to it than Herbert Ross did.
Directed and produced by Herbert Ross; screenplay by Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins; director of photography, Gerry Turpin; edited by Edward Warschilka; music by Billy Goldenberg; distributed by Warner Bros.
Starring Richard Benjamin (Tom), Dyan Cannon (Christine), James Coburn (Clinton), Joan Hackett (Lee), James Mason (Philip), Ian McShane (Anthony) and Raquel Welch (Alice).