The 1973 film The Last of Sheila has quite the interesting origin story: written by actor Anthony Perkins (Psycho) and Broadway composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, it was inspired by scavenger hunt games the two would host in New York City during the 1960s. Herbert Ross, one of the participants of a “murder” game they devised, directs the film.
The film opens during a Hollywood party in Bel Air. Sheila Greene (Yvonne Romain), a gossip columnist and current wife of movie mogul Clinton Greene (James Coburn) runs out after an argument. While walking down the road, she is killed by a hit and run driver.
A year later Clinton invites the attendees of the party on a week-long Mediterranean pleasure cruise aboard his yacht, named after his dead wife. They include actress Alice (Raquel Welch), her manager-husband Anthony (Ian McShane), talent agent Christine (Dyan Cannon), director Philip (James Mason), screenwriter Tom (Richard Benjamin) and his wife Lee (Joan Hackett), an heiress. Only Lee is not in the business, though she is very supportive of Tom’s career and wants Clinton to help him.
All agree to attend because each is in a career slump and wants to work for Clinton. He obliges by announcing there will be a film called “The Last of Sheila.”
Refusing to talk more business, Clinton reveals he has devised an elaborate game where each participant receives a card with a “secret.” They have to go ashore each night with a clue to try and solve who among them is keeping the secret.
The first round goes well as the participants enthusiastically try to solve the puzzle. Only Alice is uninterested, because the first secret is about her. This makes the other participants nervous about what secrets about them are going to be revealed.
The game is brought to an abrupt halt on the second night when Clinton is murdered. Left on the yacht together, the game participants try to work out who murdered Clinton and why.
Murder mysteries with all-star casts are always fun. The Last of Sheila is no exception. Add to that the clever plot showcasing Perkins and Sondheim’s ability to build an intricate puzzle, and you’ve got a very entertaining two hours. The game the characters play is so intriguing, in fact, that it’s almost a shame it has to stop because of the murder.
Add to THAT the Hollywood background, with backstabbing, bitchy people doing whatever they can to get what they want, and it’s even more enjoyable. It’s quite likely that some of the characters were inspired by real-life people. Christine is probably meant to be a take on the talent agent Sue Mengers. Alice could have been inspired by Welch herself.
Tom is possibly partly inspired by Perkins, as it is revealed he’d once had a homosexual encounter. We now know he had a long-term affair with actor Tab Hunter. Perkins had first-hand knowledge of how a secret could threaten a show business career. (Indeed, Sondheim and Ross as well, as they were also closeted during much of their careers.)
Coburn is terrific as the powerful and easy to hate Clinton. (Philip calls him a “minor-league sadist.”) Dyan Cannon also shines, particularly in a scene after a near-death encounter, where she alternates between true hysteria and trying to laugh the whole thing off. The dialogue is often delightful. (Christine (while suntanning): I have to do 25 minutes on my stomach. Lee: To make up for the 25 minutes you spent on your back last night?)
The film famously closes out with Bette Midler’s “You’ve Got To Have Friends” playing over the credits. When we think of a pleasure cruise with a group of people, we tend to believe they must all be friends. The characters are not friends. Clinton may have missed seeing justice done for Sheila, but punishes all by binding them together through their secrets.