NOT YOUR AVERAGE AGATHA CHRISTIE: A LOOK INSIDE THE RAZOR-SHARP MYSTERY THE LAST OF SHEILA
Written by Andrea Cardenas, AFS Creative Careers Intern
This summer, the Austin Film Society will be presenting THE LAST OF SHEILA with a special member mixer on June 30 before the film.
On a fateful night in 1968, musical theater titan Stephen Sondheim and actor Anthony Perkins organized one of their famous and beloved treasure hunts. The pair were known for their ardent love of puzzles (Sondheim frequently wrote crosswords for New York Magazine) and often arranged elaborate games for their celebrity and socialite friends. This particular game included limousine rides around Manhattan, tea and cake, Perkins’ mother, and bottles of champagne for the winning team. One of the attendees was Herbert Ross, an up-and-coming choreographer and occasional actor, who enjoyed the game so much he encouraged Sondheim and Perkins to write a screenplay about it. A seedling was planted, and years later, THE LAST OF SHEILA premiered in 1973. The final version of the script deviated from Sondheim and Perkins’ innocent treasure hunts and morphed into a deftly crafted meta-whodunit, all while poking fun at the frivolity and ridiculousness of Hollywood. The film resulted in the duo’s sole writing credit, Ross’ sophomore directorial feature, and would go on to star some of the biggest actors of the time, among them Dyan Cannon, James Coburn, and Raquel Welch.
The premise is straightforward enough for a standard murder mystery: on the one-year anniversary of a hit-and-run of the eponymous Sheila Green, a group of showbusiness friends — all present on the night of her death — are summoned by her Hollywood producer/widower for a vacation along the Mediterranean coast, lured under the guise of potentially making a movie based on Green’s life. Once aboard the yacht, they’re all invited to participate in the “Sheila Green Memorial Gossip Game;” cards with the sordid secrets of those onboard are distributed among the guests, and the goal, through a series of sly clues, is to match each card with its respective sinner. A murder comes soon after, along with a mysterious extra card, and the whodunit unravels in typical fashion. What sets the film apart, however, is its cleverly layered script, elevated by sharp performances and the added element of Hollywood satirization. Sondheim and Perkins imbue the film with their acerbic humor, unabashed queerness, campy indulgence, and insider knowledge of Tinseltown.
The duo pulled inspiration directly from their inner circle when writing the protagonists. The cast of characters consisted of movie producer Clinton Green (James Coburn), based on Sondheim; struggling screenwriter Tom (Richard Benjamin) and his wealthy wife, Lee (Joan Hackett), based on Perkins and his wife, heiress Berry Berenson; bombshell actress Alice (Raquel Welch), based on Welch (although she was told otherwise); her husband Anthony (Ian McShane); director Philip (James Mason), an Orson Welles-like figure; and most notably, brassy talent booker Christine (Dyan Cannon), a caricature of the infamous Sue Mengers.
Though most are only rumored to be based on their real-life counterparts, Cannon’s fictionalized Mengers, the raucously funny Christine — the film’s true stand-out — is played with a sharp wit and boldness that elevates the film from a fantastic mystery to a hilarious comedy. The larger-than-life Mengers was perhaps the biggest Hollywood agent of the time, with star clients from Barbra Streisand and Faye Dunaway to Ryan O’Neal and Candice Bergen. She was known for her brash and irreverent nature, earning her way to the top through her unorthodox work style and vibrant presence. The booker even had direct participation with the film, as she represented Cannon, Perkins, Ross, Coburn, and Benjamin.
Though not a financial success, the film was positively reviewed — Roger Ebert referred to it as a “devilishly complicated thriller of superior class” — and celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. It has since garnered a cult following and had a major influence on the genre, most famously cited by Rian Johnson as an inspiration for his KNIVES OUT franchise of films, KNIVES OUT (2019) and GLASS ONION (2022), the latter of which featured a cameo from Sondheim in homage. Fans of the film will undoubtedly recognize shades of Cannon’s character in Kate Hudson’s GLASS ONION performance and be able to draw parallels between the complex, puzzle-like plots. And like Johnson, Sondheim and Perkins had plans to continue the series — or at least continue writing murder mysteries, collaborating on at least two more projects that were never realized. However, if the universal love for Johnson’s mystery franchise are any indication, we can expect to see the influence of THE LAST OF SHEILA for many years to come.
The delightfully eccentric and brazen THE LAST OF SHEILA screens June 30 & July 1 at AFS Cinema