Hollywood, or The Big Toilet Bowl: "The Last of Sheila"

A friend of mine here in L.A. tells a story about when he first arrived in the city, intent on making his way in Hollywood as a writer. He was bright-eyed and rosy-cheeked, had loved movies ever since he could remember and was full to the brim with ambition. Every time he met someone in the industry he asked for advice. Here's the piece that strikes him all these years later as being the most important, delivered by a grizzled older writer whose face carried the deep crosshatching of scars (psychic if not physical) the industry inevitably produces:

"This town is a big toilet bowl, kid. You spend your life trying to climb out, and someone up above keeps flushing, again and again."

Truer words, as they say, were never spoken. Hollywood is a cutthroat place. And folks with artistic talent have just about the lowest amount of influence in it. Like virtually everything in America, the movie business is ruled by money. The logic of the dollar cannot be challenged. The goal is to make the most profit with the cheapest inputs available, and competition is not so much a matter of creating the best product as it is of trying to force everyone lower down in the hierarchy to slit each other's throats in such a way that you can ensure you have to face the minimum of competition yourself.

A meritocracy it is not. The sad truth – common knowledge here but mostly hidden behind the glamorous veil for people outside this town, it seems – is that the two greatest assets you can have in the movie business are not talent and work ethic. They are connections and family money.

It's a rich kids' town (which is, incidentally, why it has such difficulty making non-condescending films about poor and rural folks: there's almost no one here – other than the grips and teamsters and the rest who are omnipresent on every set but expected to be invisible and inaudible – who knows what it's like to be poor or to grow up outside the centers of power), and the success of an astonishing number of people is attributable to the fact that they had an uncle or a mom or a friend who got them their job.

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All this creates, on the ground, a particular kind of despair. On the one hand there are the dreams and the glamour and the joy of movies themselves. On the other is the daily street fight – with knives and tire irons and lengths of chain, meathooks and baseball bats and garrotes – that is the process of auditioning for roles or selling a script or getting a whole film off the ground. It’s a war conducted against the forces of finance, against smooth-talking dimwits who’ve failed upwards through every fault of their own, against sickly film princelings whose studio exec parents guaranteed them a place at the table.

It's a war with no rules and no honor, victims strewn everywhere. There's a comedy writer I talk to now and again who cautions me, inevitably, every time we talk, and apropos of nothing: "Man, just don't get your ideas stolen." He says it with such agony that I'm always tempted to ask him what happened to him. But either out of decency or fear of calling that curse down on myself, I never have.

Perhaps you, dear reader, are not astounded by this. Perhaps you're saying: "That sounds a lot like my life too!" And indeed, I think there's much to be said for the fact that the struggle in Hollywood isn't much different than the struggle many Americans face daily in our contemporary world. The big toilet bowl is trying to drown us all, strive as we might to scale those porcelain heights.

But do not despair! Because there's another truth to this town: an astounding amount of artistic talent resides here, and of all the things in which one should have faith in this life of ours, art is near the top of the list. No actor or director, no matter how successful, gets to live free of the Hollywood meat grinder for long, but on occasion they do get to do something that folks in other industries do not: comment on the big toilet bowl itself.

Knife-in-the-back films in which Hollywood holds up a mirror to itself appear periodically and always contain a kind of intense energy, at once bitter about what the town does to people and triumphant in their ability to, for once, call it by its name. A glance at the names of some of the films in this genre says a lot: The Big Knife, The Day of the Locust, The Player, What Just Happened? They tend to be sad, sardonic, satirical, and furious. And none more so than the parlor mystery / Mediterranean noir extravaganza The Last of Sheila, from 1973.

The script for The Last of Sheila was written by Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins, and the film was directed by Herbert Ross – industry veterans all. It's an astoundingly complicated mystery (which I'm about to spoil the hell out of, by the by) about a Hollywood producer who invites six guests, all strivers who stand beneath him in the film industry pyramid, to his yacht off the south of France in order to torment them...and perhaps find out which one of them is a murderer.

It opens with a woman named Sheila storming out of a party in Bel Air, only to be killed in a hit and run. She's the wife of the aforementioned powerful and sadistic producer Clinton Green (James Coburn); the following summer, he invites six people who were at the party to his yacht in the Mediterranean. These guests are struggling screenwriter Tom (Richard Benjamin) and his wife Lee (Joan Hackett), past-his-prime director Philip (James Mason), socially voracious talent agent Christine (Dyan Cannon), and starlet Alice (Raquel Welch) and her husband and manager Anthony (Ian McShane).

On the yacht, Clinton announces that he's got a new project in the works: a big budget biopic about his dead wife Sheila, who was a gossip columnist. He's going to call the film The Last of Sheila. This announcement sends his guests into a frenzy, each hoping that if they stay in Clinton's good graces he’ll bless them by letting them be involved in the project.

Once he's got them on the hook, Clinton reveals the elaborate game which is to be the entertainment for the week. Each of the guests gets a card with a made-up personal secret on it – one will pretend to be a shoplifter, another will pretend to be an ex-con, etc. – and each night they’ll go ashore for an elaborate treasure hunt which will reveal one person's secret.

As the fun and games begin, though, it becomes clear that there's more going on than Clinton has admitted. The guests start to suspect that the secrets are not invented at all: they just belong to someone else on the yacht, and Clinton means to embarrass them all by revealing these tidbits he's dug up. On top of this, after the agent Christine is almost killed in what seems like an arranged "accident," it appears that someone’s taking all the gossip and jockeying for position very seriously indeed.

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And behind it all, of course, lies the sneaking suspicion that Clinton has set the whole thing up as a trap to reveal the person who killed his wife Sheila the year before. What follows is a series of events that richly deserves the adjective labyrinthine.

On the second night of the game, someone murders Clinton. The director Philip and writer Tom take it on themselves to figure out who's responsible. They put together clues from the scene and deduce that the killer is the person responsible for the hit and run; this precipitates a showdown in which each party guest reveals the secret that really belongs to them. Finally, Tom's wife Lee admits that she killed Sheila a year ago, and then killed Clinton during the game.

In despair, Lee locks herself in her cabin and commits suicide. The mystery seems to have been solved. But Philip isn't quite satisfied. He revisits the events surrounding Clinton's murder and realizes that Clinton in fact never meant to reveal the identity of the hit and run killer at all: the whole thing was all just a game to humiliate them. The closer Philip examines the clues, the more he realizes they point to Tom.

Eventually, Philip figures out that Tom knew the entire time that his wife Lee was the one who killed Sheila, and that he’d been waiting for a chance to knock her off so he could inherit her fortune. When Tom learned about Clinton's game, he arranged things to make it seem to Lee that her crime was going to be revealed. Tom then killed Clinton himself, convinced Lee that she was responsible, and finally drugged her and slit her wrists to make it look like suicide.

Confronted with this truth at the end, Tom attacks Philip, intent on strangling him. They're interrupted by Christine; she and Philip come up with a plan. Since the truth about what happened benefits nobody, they might as well use it to help their careers. They will announce that Clinton's final desire was to see the production of The Last of Sheila go forward. They will produce it, Philip will direct, it will feature Christine's clients, and Tom will be given nothing more than uncredited rewrites – the hell of the ambitions writer.

Ordinarily, I would give a much briefer synopsis of the film, but in The Last of Sheila the razored satire lies precisely in the details. There are so many of these that it's impossible to recount them, and they're often very small – from a producer hawkishly watching Philip film a commercial in the opening, to Christine humiliating a female secretary in her office by asking her to try to sound like a woman when she makes a call – but they all tend to revolve around power, ambition, and money.

The power dynamics between the characters are laid out clearly from the start. As each of the guests receives the invitation to Clinton's yacht, it's clear that they see it as an opportunity for advancement in a way that is particular to Hollywood: a great deal of career success comes not from the work you do but from whom you find favor with socially. In this, it's not so far from the image of life at court portrayed in something like Dangerous Liaisons, full of gossip and backbiting and obsequity. Once on the yacht, this is laid out plainly for us: Clinton taunts his guests with their lack of success, and hints openly that enthusiastic participation in his game will be rewarded.

Beyond this, though, are the more subtle jabs. The real source of money in the film doesn't come from success but from inheritance. Lee is the daughter of an old-school Hollywood studio boss, which is why she controls the fortune that Tom kills her for. And even Clinton's money is not his own. It's revealed in a quick line of dialogue that Shelia came from a family that made its money in real estate; when she was killed Clinton found himself in possession of her wealth, which is what allowed him to buy the yacht in the first place.

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The metaphor here is so literal as to not really be a metaphor at all. The point of all the competition and striving and game playing is to chase something that is only tangentially available to the people who are doing the chasing. The goal for the participants – all of who are involved in the talent side of film production – is to win the game which has been put on by the producer. What they want is the chimerical success that leads to money. But even the producer himself has money not because he has been successful, but because his social truimph (in marrying Sheila) has led him into it.

And the desperation inherent in the guests' ambition – a desperation familiar to anyone who has spent time in or around the film industry – is similarly real to the characters, woven into an ironic metaphor, and pared down to its roots. They are artists and associates of artists. And they would like advancement in an industry in which advancement is continually at threat. There’s always someone younger and better looking coming up behind you, and a single flop can put your entire career in jeopardy.

To do what they would like to do, therefore, they are forced to play a cruel and flippant game staged by a person a step above them in the hierarchy. Success – meaning participation in this big new project The Last of Sheila, which could be a boon to their careers – is right there in front of them. But slowly they come to the realization that this game, in which they are forced to participate if they want to be able to make their art, is not really designed to give them a chance at winning. Instead, it's a sadistic enterprise intended to humiliate them. A more pure metaphor for the feeling of trying to make it in Hollywood has perhaps never been created.

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But perhaps the most fascinating irony buried in this layering of ironies is – and this goes to the tone not just of the ending but of the whole film – that the game is also clever, brilliantly staged, and ultimately...enjoyable.

The scenarios for the treasure hunt that Clinton comes up with are extraordinary rich. Complex and clever, they’re fun to participate in for both characters and audience. Which is to say that the film never loses sight of what is either the most terrible or most wonderful fact of all: all of these machinations of torment and gossip revolve around something that offers magnificent rewards. Being involved with making a film is a deeply moving experience. It combines drudgery and inspiration, torment and camaraderie, and it results in something magic: the film itself.

There is a certain cynicism in the ending of The Last of Sheila. Despite the revelation of Tom’s crimes, Philip and Christine decide to sweep it all under the rug so they can be involved in the big budget production that will surely be made as a result of Clinton's murder. (And I would be remiss not to note James Mason's glorious performance in the scene, as well as both his and Dyan Cannon's throughout.) In the main, this cynicism is aimed at the industry itself, in which it seems like anything will be countenanced in pursuit of a hit. Even murder itself pales in the the face of a green-lit film.

But there’s a joyous cheekiness running through the final act of the movie as well. This revolves around a recognition that every once in a while you do manage to climb up out of the big toilet bowl and stand there on the rim looking down. The air is fresh and the heights are happy. Below you the turmoil continues, but for the moment you’re free. And when you do get this chance, take it and run.

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