Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 3 / 18 January 2018

Minnelli, V., directing Minnelli, L.


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Was Liza Minnelli (b. 1946) pre-destined for show business? Certainly. Her father was Academy Award-winning director Vincente Minnelli (1903-86), who helmed two Best Picture Oscar-winning musicals. Her screen debut was in the arms of mother Judy Garland (1922-69) at the end of In the Good Old Summertime (1949). In 1963, she starred in an off-Broadway revival of Best Foot Forward, winning a Theatre World Award. Two years later, she became the Great White Way's youngest Tony Award-winner in Kandler & Ebb's musical Flora the Red Menace.

Her first adult film role was as Albert Finney's girlfriend in Charlie Bubbles (1967). She earned an Oscar nomination in Alan J. Pakula's The Sterile Cuckoo (1969), and won the award for her electrifying Sally Bowles in 1972's Cabaret. That same year, she collected an Emmy for Liza with a Z! She seemed unstoppable. But Stanley Donen's Lucky Lady (1975) was a critical and box-office disaster.

Still, her clout was sufficient to get financing to star in her father's final picture, A Matter of Time (1976), which is available on DVD. She's Nina, a one-name, glamorous movie star arriving in Rome to promote her newest picture. In flashbacks, the audience learns that the teenage Nina left her rural village for Rome, working as a chambermaid in a rundown but once grand hotel.

One of the residents is Mario (Spiros Andros), a blocked writer. He either ignores or berates her when she straightens up his room. Another is the eccentric, aged, soignee, penurious Contessa Sanziani (Ingrid Bergman). La Contessa's rich ex-husband (Charles Boyer) visits her, offers help, but she refuses.

The Contessa likes Nina and regales her with stories of her remarkable past. She urges Nina to look at herself in a beautiful gold bronze baroque hand mirror. "Make life what you wish," she commands.

Nina imagines herself living the life La Contessa experienced, attending lavish parties, exquisitely dressed, admired by handsome, wealthy men, many of whom were her lovers. But those reveries are interrupted by the reality of both women's circumstances, especially La Contessa's past-due bills.

Mario forces his attentions on Nina, but in actuality, he's imagining a scene from his novel. Nina pleads with him to help La Contessa, whom he dismisses as "crazy." Outraged, Nina replies, "That old lady has more life in her than you have between your legs. Do you know what it's like for a woman to grow old?"

Nina discovers some valuable drawings La Contessa has hidden, sells them, and uses the money to settle the Contessa's debts. But in a frenzy, La Contessa orders her things to be packed and sent to a more lavish hotel. She leaves.

Nina, desperate to locate La Contessa, finds Mario at a restaurant where he's meeting with his publisher and a movie producer. Thanks to Nina, Mario has had a writing breakthrough. She pleads with him to help her. Together, they search for La Contessa, who, racing through the Roman streets, has been hit by a car and taken to a hospital. She's attended by a nun, Sister Pia (Isabella Rossellini, in her film debut). Nina and Mario arrive at last. Nina recalls her friend saying, "People die because we let them."

Meanwhile, the movie producer, struck by Nina's charisma, thinks she would be perfect to play the heroine of Mario's novel when it's filmed. He arranges a screen test for Nina, which goes well. Stardom will soon be hers.

Back in the present, Nina, in her limousine, arrives at a swank hotel for her press conference. She carries La Contessa's mirror in her purse. She's besieged by reporters and fans, including a little girl, who  wants to be just like her. "No," says Nina, gently. "Be yourself."

Minnelli's direction shows his trademarked camera fluidity, his attention to design – the sets and costumes are sensational – and his deep affection for Liza. As he had done with Garland, he photographed Liza with great care. She never looked (or would look) so attractive.

Liza sings the title song and performs an over-the-top rendition of "Do It Again." Her Nina is radiant, warm, grounded, thrilled with life, gracious, kind, and thoughtful. It's probably the way her father saw her and how she wanted to see herself. She has splendid moments, including a flashback explaining to a wealthy lover (Fernando Rey) that she loves him for his money. It's what makes him unique. After all, she would love a poet for his poetry, an artist for his paintings. Nonetheless, her performance is inconsistent.

Bergman relishes playing La Contessa. She was both a great star and a great actress, and easily dominates her scenes. Boyer, in his final screen appearance, is unsurprisingly superb. Andros is good as Mario. Rossellini, Bergman's daughter, inherited her mother's luminosity. Her character's name, Pia, is that of her older sister, an unlikely coincidence.

A Matter of Time was cut by American International Pictures prior to release. It's not Minnelli's film. It opened to poor business and harsh notices. One can only wonder what Minnelli's movie, penned by John Gay from Maurice Druon's novel, would have been like. It's a curiosity worth seeing, but difficult to praise as a whole. It isn't a vanity production, like Barbra Streisand's The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996). Rather, it's a paternal valentine.

Although Minnelli excelled in her next picture, Martin Scorcese's bloated New York, New York (1977), she couldn't save it. She continued making movies, appearing on Broadway, in clubs, and on television, but her tremendous promise was never realized. Sadly, her messy personal life has been tabloid fodder for decades.

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