19 June 2002 | Citymars
A Personal Reflection On "The Last Of Sheila"
In 1973, at age 17, I walked into a movie multiplex (three theaters under one roof) in a neighboring city with little more on my mind than to kill a couple of hours before an appointment. I'd never heard of "The Last of Sheila" and therefore had no preconceived notions about it, but the starting time was right. I then had the rare and happy experience of seeing a movie I knew absolutely nothing about -- and loving it.
I subsequently dragged my friends to see it and was even inspired to host a "game" of my own (similar to the movie's central event) in my small home town. Granted, central Illinois is not as glamorous as the south of France, but we made do.
So the other night (many miles away and nearly 30 years later) when I saw the videotape at the neighborhood rental store I was almost reluctant to rent it and risk ruining a good memory. Would the movie hold up?
I have to say that while no longer quite so passionate about "The Last of Sheila" (or anything, for that matter), I'd still recommend it.
"The Last of Sheila" is, first of all, wonderfully of its period. The cast includes Richard Benjamin (Portnoy's Complaint), Dyan Cannon (The Love Machine), James Coburn (In Like Flint), Joan Hackett (Support Your Local Sheriff), James Mason (The Mackintosh Man), Ian McShane (Pussycat, Pussycat I Love You), and Raquel Welch (Myra Breckinridge). Add an early Bette Midler hit song and you have a quintessential early 1970's experience!
The screenplay is by film actor Anthony Perkins and musical theater lyricist and composer Stephen Sondheim. Combine the sophisticated intricacy of Sondheim's song lyrics with Perkins' long association with macabre cinema and you have the tone of "Sheila": witty, complex, dark and ironic.
I remember a magazine article from the time about Sondheim's passion for games and how it influenced the screenplay. This movie is like a game the viewer can play -- but don't expect to win. This is a fun, fast moving murder mystery with lots of clues and lots of red herrings, and its perhaps best just to sit back and pay attention to the scenery and bon mots.
One can forgive some lapses (personally, I cringe when Raquel opens her mouth) as overall the film is so interesting.
Conversely, I have to put in a plug for the lovely and vulnerable Joan Hackett, who is virtually unknown today but who is one of my favorite actresses from the era. If you've never seen her work, I recommend this film as well as "Will Penny" and "Support Your Local Sheriff." As Leonard Maltin says "Hackett had a special quality - along the lines of a Jean Arthur or Margaret Sullavan - that was simultaneously truthful and enchanting."