Another night at the movies with an old friend from the 1970s. “The Last of Sheila” is a terrific murder mystery set among the Hollywood elite and on the French Riviera. It features an all star cast and a delightfully convoluted plot that finishes with one of the most cynical endings you will ever encounter.
The most interesting aspect of the film from my perspective is that it was written by Composer Stephen Sondheim and Actor Anthony Perkins. The moderator of the discussion last night, told us he had visited Sondheim’s apartment to interview him on several occasions and that the entry hall was filled with puzzles and games. Sondheim and Perkins were famous for throwing parties that featured elaborate mystery games and scavenger hunts. It seems that they were encouraged to adapt their hobby into a script that could be made into a film based on the kinds of puzzle searches that made up for their parties. Of course there has to be a spine for the story and that is provided by the types of people that they would have at their parties, you know, Hollywood types and entertainment professionals.
There are seven principle performers in the story. James Coburn is a movie producer, who’s rich wife was killed in a hit and run accident a year before. He plans an elaborate week on his yacht in the South of France for six guests who were at the party the night his wife died. He has discovered a variety of secrets about them and he uses those as cruel clues to torment his guests as part of the game. The main reason that they put up with such bullying behavior is that they each need something from their friend, a job, financing for a film project, or paying off a long held personal favor. The story then plays out through the game over the days cruising the ports and nights playing scavenger hunt puzzles to solve the game.
Of course there is a murder and everyone is suspect. During the course of the film, there are lots of clues dropped as characters interact and scramble to solve the puzzle. Actor Ian McShane, who is a ubiquitous presence in movies and tv shows these days, plays the hanger on husband of starlet Raquel Welch. He looks incredibly young and handsome in contrast to his older craggy self in films like the John Wick series. Raquel is the weak link in the film, whispering most of her lines but still looking the part. Her best scene is her final brushoff of her secret lover.
Dyan Cannon plays an talent agent based on her own agent Sue Mengers, a legendary Hollywood figure. Cannon is always a hoot in the films she appears in. Her role in this movie is mostly for comic relief as her character has only minor connections to the murder plot. If you are interested in seeing her in a more developed part in a murder mystery, I strongly recommend “Deathtrap” where her costars are Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve. She was one of the guests for the conversation following the screening so more on her later.
The late Joan Hackett has a sympathetic and juicy role as the rich wife of screenwriting hack Richard Benjamin. They played off of one another really well and the complicated little game they play between each other regarding their consumption of beverages is one of the clues that move us forward in the game.
The film however, belongs to three performers who take the screen and make it crackle in dialogue, emotional desperation and cleverness. Richard Benjamin as the needy screen writer is also the clever guest who appears to be at the head of the pack when it comes to playing the game. The greatest moment in the film comes from his character Tom, when he explains that he doesn’t have any gloves. I nearly bust a gut at that moment. Coburn is brutally charming and repellent simultaneously. He uses his amazing smile as a weapon to deflect responses from the victims of his cruel asides. His manipulation of everyone else still does not justify what happens but each time he is on screen, the tension level for all the party guests goes up.
No one will be surprised that James Mason’s fading director is the acting apex of the film. He feigns interest in the game quite effectively, but on his face you can see he is really evaluating all the other contestants more that the clues. In the confrontation sequence in the climax, as he explains what has been happening, his voice never waivers but his eyes and body give way to the insecurity he suddenly finds himself in. His denouement is perfect in reflecting the cynical power structures in Hollywood, I loved his performance.
After the film had screened, film Historian Foster Hirsch interviewed the two guests for the evening. Dyan Cannon and Richard Benjamin. Both of them were engaging and free with stories, although most of the information they shared was already well known.
Cannon talked about how she modeled her performance on her friend and agent Sue Mengers, who knew that she was in fact the inspiration for the character that she was asking her client to play. Dyan told us about enjoying the time filming on the beaches of southern France and about adding some pounds to her frame to play the agent, still not unflattering.
Richard Benjamin recounted how he traveled one day on a break from filming with his costar James Coburn in his newly acquired Ferrari. Neither of them had their passports with them as Coburn flew down the coast at 140 mph toward the Italian border. When asked for their papers Coburn took off his sunglasses and smiled and the border guard said “Ah, Mr. Flynt, welcome” and waived them through. When they returned to France, virtually the same thing happened with the gendarmes controlling the French Border.
Benjamin also mused about how much luck was involved in the business. He was fortunate to be cast in a play, that lead to several other jobs and ultimately allowed him to direct as well. He mostly allowed events to move him into the job of director. Dyan Cannon, who has also directed a few things contrasted his experience with her own, a woman in the 1970s trying to get a directing gig needed a much more organized plan.
Cannon has several projects she is working on, the one she spoke of at the TCMFF a couple of years ago is still on her plate, a musical based on her life. The play will include material on her life as Mrs. Cary Grant and she intends to star in it. She looks like she could nail it, she seemed to be a healthy octogenarian with good doctors and plenty of energy. Benjamin quipped that he was available.
I also had the pleasure of being seated with one of my podcasting friends Kristen Lopez from Ticklish Business and Journeys in Classic Film. She was there with her mother who was a big fan of the film, and there was a small service dog who sat quietly next to me on Mom’s lap through the whole film. We chatted a bit before the movie and I said good bye to them as we moved through the lobby of the Egyptian Theater. Had I waited a few more minutes I might have been rewarded, Kristin posted a picture of herself with Dyan Cannon that must have been taken just a little while after I said goodbye. Nice for her.
The original plan was to see “Kiss Me Deadly” and try to squeeze in a program called “Crackin’ Wise” and finish off the day with a nitrates screening of “Spellbound”. None of those three things happened. This was still a jam packed day and there were other programs to see that held all kinds of allure for me.
His Girl Friday
The first change of the day began before anything had really started. I was with my daughter and while we are not locked at the hip, I do enjoy taking in the films at the festival with her as much as possible. Although I wanted to keep a Noir thing going by seeing the Mickey Spillane based “Kiss Me Deadly”. I have seen it before however and missing it was not going to hurt that much. Amanda had not seen His Girl Friday before and that’s where she was headed so I chose to tag along. There was another reason I chose this, my friend Michael, who is a blogger here in Southern California, was going to see this and I hadn’t seen him in almost a year so this would be a good chance to catch up because he was going to see Rosalind Russel and Cary Grant as well.
Sure enough we caught up with him and we spent several screenings together for the rest of the festival.
Cary Grant and Rosalind Russel are great in this rapid fire remake of “The Front Page”. The switch in gender and relationship from the previous film works really well, and Ralph Bellamy gets pushed off as a third wheel in another picture that he stars in. Author Cari Beauchamp, an Academy Scholar and contributor to numerous publications, walked us through some background on the film and mentioned something that particularly interested me. The average person speaks at a rate of 120 to 150 words a minute, according to Beauchamp, Grant and Russel both exceed 200 words a minute in most of their scenes. Even with that active pace and shap direction, because of the two late nights in a row, I dozed in a couple of spots. I may have missed five to ten minutes of the film, fortunately, I’ve watched it a number of times. Amanda was very entertained by the whole thing.
Jaqueline Bisset was scheduled to appear at this which was one enticement to see this movie, but she had to cancel at the last minute for a family emergency. Host Eddie Muller was particularly disappointed, but vowed to try to get her on the program next year. [My suggestion is a screening of “The Deep”]. Miss Bisset however was not the main reason I wanted to see this screening. The car chase that begins and ends all car chases was the main draw. This looked like the movie that was going to have the biggest crowd at the festival, despite being perceived by many of the fans as outside the “classic” studio period. I had just seen a story on CBS Sunday Morning about the Mustang that was featured in the film.
Amanda also has the wits to recognize McQueen as the King of Cool. She dotes on him almost as much as her favorite, Robert Shaw (tomorrow). McQueen’s image was everywhere at the festival, including the “Essential” passes that we wore around our necks for admission to every Festival activity.
The sound design on this movie is tremendous and when the Charger and Mustang take over the streets of San Francisco, it is a wonder to behold and especially to hear. I saw “Bullitt” in it’s original theatrical release in 1968. My older brother Chris took me, it was playing with a long forgotten George Peppard film, “House of Cards”. I remember describing to my friends on the playground the violent shotgun killing of the witness, but especially detailing the car chase.
McQueen looks so cool in his turtleneck sweater and blazer, the sunglasses cap off the effect and you have an authority figure that the rebel generation of the 1960s can relate to.
An Invisible History: Trailblazing Women of Animation
This was flat out my favorite program at this years TCM Film Festival. The gathering of talent and history was incredible and the stories these women shared were fascinating insights into the world of animation, particularly at the Disney Studios.
Mindi Johnson introducing Ruthie Tompson
To begin with, author and animation historian Mindi Johnson, introduced us to Ruthie Tompson, who as a little girl was a model for the kids featured in Disney’s original Alice shorts, which mixed animation and live action, before Mickey Mouse. If you can do math, you will have figured out that Miss Tompson is not exactly a kid. Here she is in her 108 years of glory. She sounded great and made just a couple of remarks as an introduction to the rest of the program. She ended up going to work for Walt and did ink and paint on the first real Mickey Mouse short, “Plane Crazy” which was screened as part of the audio visual presentation put together by the host.
What followed that introduction was a long line of innovators in the animation arts. Mindi Johnson described the bungalows that the inkers worked in and showed us a variety of pictures that illustrated the labor intensive process that was required to get these cartoons in shape. When color entered into the scene in more abundant ways, the painting process became more complicated and the women who participated in putting these shorts together began to be designers in addition to the detailed ink work they did.
On the program, there were women who contributed to every Disney Feature Film ever released, including Pixar films and Roger Rabbit.
After the presentation, there was a book signing at the Roosevelt Hotel Lobby. Amanda and I scrambled over there, bought a beautiful copy of Mindi Johnson’s book, and then had it signed by all the women on the panel.
I frankly pity any animation fan who was not there for this wonderful look at the hidden history of outstanding women in the field.
Heaven Can Wait
We headed back to the Main Chinese theater and reconnected with Michael for our next screening, the comedy “Heaven Can Wait” which was nominated for nine Oscars in 1978, including the big one, but walked away with just the prize for set decoration. This film had Warren Beatty’s influence all over it. Three of the actors were nominated [including Beatty] and the film was co-directed by Beatty and Buck Henry , who was one of the guests for the presentation. We saw Henry last year at a screening of “The Graduate”, and he was a little more mobile then. This year he did not get out of his wheelchair. He was also a bit more cryptic and slow with his answers, but when he interjected a comment, the wit and sharpness are still there.
Ben Mankiewiczlead the discussion and Dyan Cannon, nominated for her role in the film, took the lead on most of the background, allowing Buck to participate when he was good and ready and not before.
This film is a loose remake of “Here Comes Mr. Jordan, which was screened last year at the festival although I missed it. This was the 40th anniversary of the film, although Dyan Cannon did not want to acknowledge that, I know what she means, it just does not seem possible that it was that long ago.
The movie is a featherweight story of a heavenly mix up with some body swapping comedy and slapstick humor from Charles Grodin and Miss Cannon. Amanda had never seen it before and she enjoyed it while recognizing that it was largely a frothy entertainment from the decade of cinema that she most loves. Ben made mention of the fact that Cannon was at one time married to Festival favorite Cary grant, and she quikly volunteered that their love life was great. It was a big laugh and she does have a book coming which looks back on that time so that should be interesting.
The Big Lebowski
The one thing that could lure me away from the nitrate screening of “Spellbound” that was was originally planning on, was the last minute addition of Jeff Bridges to the line up of guests to talk about the Coen Brother’s stoner film noir. Lebowski is twenty years old this year, and I know many classic film fans would probably find it’s inclusion problematic because of it’s recent vintage. I did hear a few people complaining because there is a Fathom Screening in conjunction with TCM coming up later this year so maybe this showing was superfluous. Forget that, the movie is entertaining as hell and still completely weird. Which was pretty much a description of Jeff Bridges as well.
Just as Mel Brooks and William Friedkin had, Bridges barely sat during his time in front of the audience. He roamed the stage and actually lead us all in a Buddhist style chant before the interview actually began.
Eventually, Ben managed to corral him and get him to sit for some questions. It is probably well known that much of The Dudes” costuming came directly from Bridges own closet, including the sweater jacket that is so iconic. Bridges mentioned that co-star John Turturro was not quite sure that the film was something he thought much of, but after several years he has come around and it seems that it may be his most recognized part.
Bridges had very nice things to say about the late Ben Gazzara, who had been a contemporary of his father. Even though the subject might have called for it, and in California, the laws do not frown on it, I did not detect the scent of herb in the air. Bridges loopy conversation might suggest that he was taking advantage of the new policy, but I suspect he was mostly high from the warm reception he got from the crowd at the festival.