Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Last of Sheila


My Sink For Your Supper concert tour opened last night and could have gone just a little bit better. The motorized iceberg that carried me onstage in my stunning Gaultier gown seemed to have a mind of its own. During my first number ( The Morning After ) it kept spitting smoke. During Nearer My God to Thee , it wandered around the stage haphazardly and nearly decimated the string section of the Schenectady Philharmonic. The poor little man in the follow spot booth nearly gave himself a hernia as he attempted to keep me bathed in soft blue gels. As a grand finale, the leather loops on the bodice of my dress caught on the acoustic shell backing the orchestra. I was unable to free myself and the iceberg continued downstage taking my skirt and train with it, before falling into the orchestra pit. I was left to finish My Heart Will Go On hanging half way up the backdrop clad only in bodice and panties. The headline on this morning’s paper was 'Vicki Lester Leaves Schenectady Crowd Hanging in Suspense'.

The audience, however, loved the moment and Joseph, my manager, has told me I need to work it into every show from now on. If I do, I will need to get some appropriately spangled panties, as I really dislike showing J.C. Penney's cotton in public. Bob Mackie has promised to run me up some. I returned home, tired but elated. Norman had seen the photographs in the early edition of Daily Variety but all he could ask was why I was flying at half-mast. I gave him a Valium and told him to take a nap.

As I have had boats on the brain for the last few weeks, I decided it was time to watch another boat movie and so I popped The Last of Sheila into the home theater system. This film has been in my collection for some years as I am a Stephen Sondheim aficionado but I had not revisited it since playing Anne Eggerman in a Midwest touring company of A Little Night Music The Last of Sheila was written by Sondheim and actor Anthony Perkins in the early 70s, just as Sondheim was achieving his great Broadway successes with Harold Prince and it contains lots of references to the theatrical/movie community of the period and to Sondheim's notorious love of games.

In the film, James Coburn plays Clinton Green, a wealthy Hollywood producer whose much younger wife Sheila, is killed by a hit and run driver as she leaves a Hollywood party. The grieving Clinton, obsessed by games, especially the kinds of games that involve other peoples' lives, deduces that the guilty party is one of six guests. A year later he invites the same six people to join him on a luxury yacht cruise off the Cote d'Azur aboard a yacht named, appropriately enough, Sheila. His guests include a failing writer (Richard Benjamin) and his wealthy wife (Joan Hackett), a pushy agent (Dyan Cannon), a has-been director (James Mason), an up and coming actress (Raquel Welch) and her sponging manager husband (Ian McShane).

Clinton has discovered a dirty little secret about each of the six and designs a game to be played over the course of the week in which each of the secrets will be revealed. Each guest is assigned one of the others' secrets and every evening they will be given clues as to who holds what peccadillo. It doesn't take long in this manipulative atmosphere for very nasty little mind games to start taking place and no one is in the least surprised, especially in the audience, when Clinton turns up dead.

The movie is a combination of a 'who'lldoit' and a 'whodunnit' and the literate script twists and turns like a Chinese puzzle box before all of the secrets are revealed. The secrets and the mechanisms are, in fact, so dense, that it takes several viewings to determine if it all hangs together (it does). Sondheim, as a composer/lyricist and as a writer, is several levels above the average human's head and some will be mystified, as the dots are not connected with words of one syllable. Herbert Ross, an old Broadway collaborator, directed and keeps things moving.

The locations are lovely and there is an inventive use of the landmarks of southern France, especially an abandoned monastery brooding on a tiny islet. The film is nearly undone by Joel Schumacher's costumes (which seem to be big on ribbed turtlenecks in the summer heat and really hideous 70s color combinations) but I may be reading too much into it. His later atrocious work as a director may be coloring my feelings.

The performances are great across the board. Coburn has the right combination of menace and childish glee in his games playing to make an interesting villain and to keep the audience detached from his death. We want to be interested in the mystery, not feeling sorry for him. Amongst the suspects, the standouts are James Mason with his patented world-weary air and Richard Benjamin as a conniver. Dyan Cannon actually looks better thirty years later than she does in this film. 70s hair did nothing for her but she's very funny as the loudmouth of the group.

While this is not in the same class as the masterpieces Sleuth or Witness for the Prosecution , it's worthwhile for fans of the mystery genre and for those who think that Sondheim's wordsmithing is limited to ingenious rhyme.

Cigarette smoking. Missing ice pick. Gratuitous Bette Midler song. Sunbathing. Silver keys. Monks' robes. James Coburn in drag. Gregorian chants. Group photos.

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