Dec 10, 2021

On Blu-ray: Stephen Sondheim & Anthony Perkins Take Real-Life Games to the Screen in The Last of Sheila (1973)

When I learned that the hugely influential composer Stephen Sondheim had died, I immediately went to watch Dean Jones' soul-stirring performance of Being Alive from the original cast recording session of Company name. After being suitably destroyed by that, I wanted a change of mood, and I found it in a Warner Archive Blu-ray I happened to have on hand for review: The Last of Sheila (1973). Co-written with friend Anthony Perkins, this was the only time Sondheim attempted a screenplay and it is a winner. 

The Last of Sheila takes place for the most part on a yacht. A Hollywood producer has gathered an assortment of friends, or at least industry acquaintances, on his luxurious vessel on the anniversary of the hit-and-run death of his wife, Sheila. Unbeknownst to the guests, he has devised a game that he has created in hopes of forcing the criminal driver, which he guesses is among them, to confess. As often happens with elaborate games, things unfold in a way dramatically different from his plans. 

The story grew out of the real life games that Perkins and Sondheim would create for their friends. They were so elaborate and exciting, that the pair were encouraged to create a story that played off that excitement. It’s a great tale, twisty, funny, suspenseful, and always slightly confusing because it’s so full of details and unexpected detours. 

As marvelous as the script is, it is the cast that makes this production exciting. They all deserve to be named: James Coburn, Richard Benjamin, Dyan Cannon, Joan Hackett, James Mason, Ian McShane, and Raquel Welch all have their moments, which is remarkable when there are so many vying for the spotlight. 

The commentary in the special features (a DVD carry-over) is a must-listen; on one track Raquel Welch carefully and prettily describes her experience, while on the other Richard Benjamin and Dyan Cannon have a blast (you hear plenty of that famous Cannon laugh) discussing their craft, their love for (most) of the actors, and the messy excitement of making the film. It is well known that Welch made life difficult for everyone on set (Mason famously commented on his disapproval of her behavior) and Cannon and Benjamin don’t name names, but they do make allusions and cannily avoid saying anything particularly nice or nasty (at least directly) about Welch while praising everyone else. 

With or without the commentary, the film is a lot of fun and must be watched multiple times to be fully appreciated. From tricky plot points to the delightful flourishes of a lot of fabulous performances, it has much to offer.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review.

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