Monday, June 3, 2013

The Dangers of Improvisation

You wake up one day in this town and suddenly decades have gone by while the path that originally brought you to Los Angeles stretches further back into the past. The road you’ve been on, mixed in with all those people you’ve met up to this point, is now so crooked that you can’t tell where it came from and what lies in front of you seems even hazier. Released in 1973. THE LAST OF SHEILA is a film where barely a few minutes are actually set in L.A. and yet it seems like one of the most perfect films about this city where I live, or at least what I still imagine it to be. It’s a film about friendship and yet it’s the most cynical film imaginable. Perfect for the decade when it was made. Perfect for now. A number of weeks ago—4/9/13 to be exact—I surprised some people on my Facebook and Twitter feeds by saying I was at the 40th Anniversary screening of THE LAST OF SHEILA. They weren’t aware of the event and, truthfully, I was a little taken aback that I was there myself. This particular path began when I started following actress Susan Blakely on Twitter since, after all, she was in THE TOWERING INFERNO so doing this made perfect sense. She actually followed me back and responded to a few things I said on there, which led to a few friends of hers on Twitter starting to follow me. This included Lynda Erkiletian who may be known to some out there as one of the Real Housewives of DC and among other things is also the executive director of the James and Paula Coburn Foundation which supports charitable organizations devoted to the arts and sciences. It had put together this special night designed to celebrate the legendary James Coburn as part of the KCET Cinema Series. I suppose they enjoyed the unabashed film geekness of my tweets and that led to being invited to the event but I’m not entirely sure I follow along with this myself. After my platonic date cancelled due to not feeling well I decided that maybe it was best to traverse this particular evening alone since I wasn’t sure what I was in for. I arrived early, maybe earlier than I needed to, and it was about this time while I seated in the reserved section that I left the status updates and got people wondering what the hell was going on. Soon enough the theater started to fill up and before I knew it Susan Blakely sits behind me. I introduce myself, she excitedly gives me a hug, introduces me to her husband and friends which included Sally Kellerman. Lynda Erkiletian then appeared, very happy to meet me as well. What was I doing here? Even after all these years, what am I doing in this town, anyway? But as much as I may have worried that there had been some terrible mixup, it was very real. All this led to that night’s screening of THE LAST OF SHEILA shown in 35mm something which I imagine isn’t going to happen again very often. Part drawing room mystery, part dry character comedy, part look behind the curtain at the movers and shakers of Hollywood, on the surface the film might resemble any number of international productions from the 70s, the kind which feature the actor’s faces in boxes at the bottom of the poster. But THE LAST OF SHEILA is more than that, not only one of the best films directed by Herbert Ross in his long career but notable as being the one film written by the screenwriting pair of Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins in their only collaboration which certainly adds to the interest as well as the intrigue of what this movie really is. It's a lot more than that as well and there are all sorts of things to compare it to but, really, there aren’t many films like THE LAST OF SHEILA. Exactly one year after the mysterious hit-and-run death of his wife Sheila in Bel Air, film producer Clinton Greene (James Coburn) gathers six of his friends for a cruise aboard his luxury yacht in the South of France. The group includes film director Philip Dexter (James Mason), screenwriter Tom Parkman (Richard Benjamin) and wife Lee (Joan Hackett), movie star Alice Wood (Raquel Welch) and husband-manager Anthony (Ian McShane) as well as powerful agent Christine (Dyan Cannon). Once the group has assembled Clinton announces that the week’s cavorting will consist of an elaborate game he calls “The Sheila Greene Memorial Gossip Game” to commemorate the anniversary of her passing, handing out cards to each person listing a secret that the others are meant to uncover. The secrets make a few of them uncomfortable, getting everyone to wonder what Clinton really has up his sleeve, in addition to his proclamation to make a movie about Sheila’s death, but the game has barely gotten underway when somebody actually turns up dead. It’s not only up to those who remain to determine who the killer is, but what the cards that were handed out might have to do with the answer and what happened to Sheila a year ago. I'm trying to be as cagey with certain plot details as possible. Inspired by games that the two screenwriters actually played with their famous friends, THE LAST OF SHEILA is a puzzle movie about people aware they’re assembling a puzzle. As is typical in the Agatha Christie tradition the victim is hated enough that they aren’t missed at all beyond those that are still there feeling compelled to assemble the mystery of what happened, with cocktail hour coming right on schedule. And at least part of what the film seems to be about is how they’re not missed, how it’s populated by people who are well aware they’re moving on to their own insignificant troubles after just a few moments. But in this case their absence is also keenly felt, just one more hole in the lives of these people who have their own disappointments already, as indicated by the cards handed out by Clinton that display their darkest secrets. They’re all members of the Hollywood jet set but maybe one bad decision away from being tossed out and as one character puts it, they’re friends who all know stuff about each other, they just don’t know the same stuff. It’s well-known by now that legendary agent Sue Mengers was the model for Dyan Cannon’s character and it’s not a stretch to imagine how part of the back story of the film’s stars are part of this giant shell game as well--Cannon herself had already been nominated for an Oscar at this point but had also been married to one of the most legendary movie stars in history, Raquel Welch’s actress doesn’t seem all that jazzed in taking part in the fun and games Clinton the movie producer is engineering which seems appropriate for someone trying to move away from the bikini stereotype (she appears in one anyway since she’s Raquel Welch after all), while James Coburn himself makes a disparaging joke about one of the other characters doing a rewrite on what he dubs “A Fistful of Lasagna” just a few years after starring in DUCK YOU SUCKER aka A FISTFUL OF DYNAMITE. For all I know one of the key secrets eventually revealed comes from Anthony Perkins and his own secret life as well. But even on its own THE LAST OF SHEILA is a mystery that takes continuous pleasure in twisting around the expectations—appropriate for such a puzzle there are any number of pieces that someone might catch on first viewing without knowing right away how they’re going to fall into place. The dialogue includes various asides that sometimes have nothing to do with anything (or maybe they do, like the weirdness of those puppets) as well as lines which will certainly have greater meaning when seeing the movie multiple times, like one particularly nasty piece of foreshadowing that jumps out if you’ve seen the movie before. As much as the moderator during the Q&A afterwards made the observation that movies like this only come out near the end of the year for possible Oscar consideration these days it’s not at all an insult to say that THE LAST OF SHEILA isn’t an awards-type movie—that said, it could easily have deserved a screenplay nod—but instead is the sort of adult entertainment which was once more the norm, featuring movie stars in a sly film that displays their talents set in a far-off locations slinking its way through a plot that forces us to stay on our toes. There’s a bite to the approach in how it reveals the characters through their wisecracks even down to expressing how some of them are more amused by that sharpness than others. THE LAST OF SHEILA is entertaining all the way through and manages to become more so, more resonant, when seeing it again. Ross’s staging of this script is continually expert, knowing just when to emphasize certain touches over others and zero in on what we should pay attention to. Plus a surprising amount of subversive elements within the quiet moments such as one of the uglier secrets held by the characters which doesn’t seem to inspire much more than a shrug and even how things are resolved in the end provides a sting of how people are willing to turn their back on certain actions by people since, after all, there’s a movie to get made. Maybe, according to the film, the worst possible punishment in life is to do exactly what you were doing already. As the host of this week in the Riviera, Coburn’s famous toothy smile has a particularly demonic shine in this context (he’s even in drag at one point which deserves a mention) and his presence is such that when he’s not onscreen it almost feels as if that image is subliminally burning its way through the frame regardless. Along with the layers of the story the very title has multiple meanings—not just Sheila’s death but how it becomes clear that the characters will never be rid of everything surrounding all the problems that entered their lives through her and how it will always be with them. Almost seeming slight as a mystery at first, the intrigue of THE LAST OF SHEILA as we stare at those “YOU ARE A…” cards over and over holds all the way even through its laughs but its bite leaves a mark as well, one that stays with you as the layers reveal themselves on multiple viewings. There’s fantastic work by all involved and it’s a treat to watch a few of the actors involved in the drawn-out explanations of the second half (to avoid spoilers in this twisty plot I’m even trying to not mention who those are) play mental chess with each other. Everyone is a joy here—James Coburn’s relish as he chews his way through his speeches, Dyan Cannon’s energy, Richard Benjamin’s canniness, James Mason’s gradual awareness of what’s going on around him. Their differing energy works for the film like how the different energy of Joan Hackett (particularly good) makes her seem like the one genuine human being of the entire group and the intentionally less flashy personalities of Raquel Welch and Ian McShane (I guess he didn’t just pop into existence when DEADWOOD began production) provides just as much of an effect. The end credits song “Friends” is sung by Bette Midler and feels like just the right bitter bill to take after all this—incidentally, Midler is now playing Sue Mengers in a one-woman show on Broadway. The film that night was followed by an enjoyable Q&A with stars Richard Benjamin and Dyan Cannon in which they recounted various tales about its making such as when the unpredictable nature of shooting on the water forced the production to rebuild the yacht interiors at a studio in Nice—Truffaut’s DAY FOR NIGHT was filming there at the same time—so the actors had to wait around for a few weeks in the south of France, which doesn’t sound too bad. Going along with the theme of the evening emphasis was placed on memories of James Coburn—maybe my favorite anecdote told involved Benjamin remembering driving along in a fast sports car Coburn had just bought when on a whim he suggested they drive to Italy. Benjamin said he didn’t have his passport on him but Coburn told him not to worry. Sure enough the Italians weren’t going to let them across the border but when Coburn flashed that famous smile they exclaimed, “Ah, Signor Flint…” and waved them right through. At the reception afterwards Susan Blakely brought me around introducing me to various people so I can now say I've met Richard Benjamin and Dyan Cannon. It was a thrill to be there celebrating such a bitterly funny, cynical film about the nature of friends in Hollywood (or, what the hell, friends everywhere) so my thanks to Susan Blakely and Lynda Erkiletian for making me feel so welcome on this night that felt something like an odd comedy and mystery in itself. I once heard somebody say that it was a shame Sondheim and Perkins never collaborated on another screenplay and while that may be true at least we have THE LAST OF SHEILA, a film which deserves to be celebrated all these years after it was made--it’s available at the Warner Archive, so treat yourself. Sometimes one film is all that matters, especially if it’s as good and sharp as this one is. Just like certain evenings can matter as well, becoming one more unexpected detour through that road which starts and ends in the city of Los Angeles, or at least what I imagine it to be even after all this time.


your fiend, mr. jones said...

Literally, my second favorite film of all time. Thank you for your great appreciation of this amazing movie. I would say more... but i'm almost dead on my feet.

Ben Ripley said...

This is also one of my favourite films of all-time. I never tire of it.

Unknown said...

You're quite correct that this is not a film that can be fully digested in one sitting, though that's all I have at this point. I think I rented this from Netflix, but its about time I purchased the film from the Warner Archive Collection. Thanks for the reminder and the great write-up on the film.