A Matter of Time
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Vincente Minnelli's final film, A Matter of Time (1976), is both a love letter to the prodigious talents of his daughter Liza, and a fond farewell to the Golden Age of Hollywood--the era during which he did his best work, long gone by 1976. The film is based on the Maurice Druon novel, La volupté d'être (Film of Memory, 1954), which in turn was loosely based on the life of early 20th century art patroness and muse Marchesa Luisa Casati. The Contessa Sanziani (Ingrid Bergman) is a Belle Epoque courtesan who, like the real-life Casati, has fallen on hard times and is living in a shabby Roman hotel. Half-mad and enveloped in memories, the Contessa recounts her past triumphs to an impressionable hotel maid, Nina (Liza Minnelli), who imagines herself playing out the Contessa's fabled life. As the Contessa fades, Nina blossoms, and is eventually discovered by a movie producer.
A Matter of Time's road to the screen was a long and torturous one. Minnelli had not made a film since On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970), which did not have much success at the box office. At that time, some critics had declared Minnelli's lavish style passé, and in an era of iconoclastic films, his interest in Druon's old-fashioned story seemed to confirm that judgment. Minnelli's contract with MGM had ended in 1966, and he had floundered in the new world of independent filmmaking. He also suffered from health problems. But after his daughter became a major star and won an Oscar® for 1972's Cabaret, a father-daughter project seemed feasible. Minnelli acquired the rights to the novel, and commissioned a screenplay by John Gay. After making the rounds of the major studios without finding any support for the film, Minnelli and his producers finally struck an unlikely deal in 1975 with American-International Pictures, a low-budget studio famous for such teenage drive-in fare as It Conquered the World (1956) and Beach Party (1963) . AIP President Samuel Z. Arkoff was looking for a prestige project, and gave Minnelli a budget of five million dollars. That was a major commitment for AIP, but nowhere near what was usual for an "A" picture.
A Matter of Time was shot on location in Rome and Venice. For the role of the Contessa, Minnelli wanted either Luise Rainer or Italian actress Valentina Cortese, but AIP wanted a box-office name. The final choice was Ingrid Bergman, which delighted Minnelli. Bergman's daughter Isabella Rossellini made her film debut in a tiny role as a nun; Isabella's twin, Ingrid, worked on the film's makeup crew. In a sentimental gesture, Minnelli cast Bergman's co-star from Gaslight (1944), Charles Boyer, as the Contessa's long-estranged husband. He only appears briefly, but he makes an impact. It would be Boyer's final film appearance.
Minnelli's contract did not give him final cut, and that should have alerted him to the fact that he was working under far different conditions than he had within the MGM cocoon. Minnelli and Arkoff clashed over the script, with Arkoff insisting that the maid's rise to stardom provide a splashy finish to the story. To placate him, Minnelli agreed to shoot some scenes of Nina as a star, privately planning not to use them in the film. Although Minnelli could count on the talents of Liza's Cabaret cinematographer, Geoffrey Unsworth, the crew was mostly Italian, and there was a language barrier, compounded by Minnelli's health problems and his unfortunate stammer. Because of Italian work strikes and lab problems, the 14-week shooting schedule ballooned to five months.
Arkoff found Minnelli's first rough-cut of A Matter of Time too long and incoherent. Minnelli said he knew how to fix it, but Arkoff decided to take over the supervision of the editing. When both Minnelli and Liza protested, Arkoff agreed to give him another chance, but decreed that he could only use footage from his rough cut, and no other takes would be available to him. Then Arkoff went to work butchering the film. He used the Nina-as-star footage that Minnelli had planned to throw out as a hackneyed framing device for the story, and got rid of many of the Contessa's flashbacks. He used stock footage tourist shots of Rome as awkward transitions to cover gaps. To make matters even worse, the performances of the Italian actors in the film were badly dubbed in English.
Word of Arkoff's treatment of Minnelli outraged a generation of young filmmakers who revered Minnelli's work. Director Martin Scorsese, who had grown up loving Minnelli's films (the opening scene of 1974's Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore paid tribute to classic Hollywood artifice), organized a petition signed by many directors protesting what Arkoff had done, and published it in the film trade papers.
A heartbroken Vincente Minnelli refused to see the final version of A Matter of Time. Some critics tried to be kind, but all agreed it was a mess. Many thought that Liza Minnelli was miscast. But even those who disliked A Matter of Time had praise for Ingrid Bergman's performance, and for touches of the old Minnelli magic. Even the notoriously tough Pauline Kael of the New Yorker was disappointed that Minnelli's vision was not in the final version. "From what is being shown to the public, it is almost impossible to judge what the tone of his film was, or whether it would have worked at any level. But even if his own version was less than a triumph, that was the film I wanted to see -- not this chopped-up shambles" she wrote.
The following year, Scorsese would pay more direct tribute to Minnelli with New York, New York (1977), a musical starring Liza Minnelli that fused the visual style of Minnelli's old MGM musicals with a modern sensibility about relationships and story. Minnelli gave his blessing, visiting the set during the filming of a big musical number, "Happy Endings." Before his death in 1986, Minnelli was given retrospectives at film festivals, and enjoyed the acclaim his brilliant career deserved.
Director: Vincente Minnelli
Producer: Jack H. Skirball, Edmund Grainger, Executive Producer Samuel Z. Arkoff
Screenplay: John Gay, based on the novel Film of Memory by Maurice Druon
Cinematography: Geoffrey Unsworth
Editor: Peter Taylor
Art Direction: Veniero Colasanti, John Moore
Music: Nino Oliviero
Cast: Liza Minnelli (Nina), Ingrid Bergman (Contessa Sanziani), Charles Boyer (Count Sanziani),Tina Aumont (Valentina), Spiros Andros (Mario Morello), Gabriele Ferzetti (Antonio Vicari), Orso Maria Guerrini (Gabriele d'Orazio), Fernando Rey (Charles van Maar), Isabella Rossellini (Sister Pia).
by Margarita Landazuri