Thursday, June 9, 2016

A Matter of Time (1976)



          As talented as he was versatile, Vincente Minnelli directed a handful of great films, plus quite a few that were merely respectable, before his career started to lose momentum in the late ’60s. Anyone would be proud of a legacy including Meet Me In St. Louis (1944), The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), and Gigi (1958). Minnelli also lived long enough to watch Liza Minnelli, his daughter with Judy Garland, blossom into a dynamic and award-winning entertainer. The wise move after the moderate success of his Barbra Streisand vehicle On a Clear Day you Can See Forever (1970) might have been to retire gracefully. Unfortunately, showbiz professionals often need to get yanked off the stage, and that’s what happened when Minnelli made his final film, A Matter of Time.
          Convincing Liza to play the leading role presumably trumped any concerns that producers might have had about Minnelli’s old-fashioned style, since she was a hot commodity at the time, and Papa Minnelli recruited another big name, Ingrid Bergman, for the film’s main supporting role. Things didn’t go so well past that point. Minnelli was fired for going overbudget and overschedule. Then distributor American International gutted his footage to generate a 97-minute version of what Minnelli originally intended to be a three-hour epic. Ouch.
          Watching the released cut of A Matter of Time, it doesn’t seem as if Minnelli’s ouster represents a loss to cinema history. Telling the fairy-tale-like story of a maid who rose to fame and fortune by learning from an eccentric old woman how to seduce powerful men, A Matter of Time is overproduced, tone-deaf, and unseemly. After a present-day prologue, the film flashes back to Rome during some undetermined stage of the postwar era, where 15-year-old Nina (Liza) arrives at the decaying hotel where her cousin works as a maid. (Yes, Liza, who was pushing 30 when this film was released, plays her character as a teenager.) Nina befriends the strange Contessa Sanziani (Bergman), who wears a flamboyant cloak with leopard-skin trim and sports ghastly black makeup rings around her eyes. Back in the day, the Contessa played muse to great artists and thinkers, so she passes along her philosophy of, put bluntly, using sex to help men realize their potential even if the woman gets nothing in return. Nina thinks this lifestyle sounds terrific, so she does the Contessa one better by trading sex for wealth and notoriety.
          All of this icky stuff plays out in stilted dialogue scenes, and the gaudy production design gives a more spirited performance than any of the actors. Oh, and about halfway through its running time, the movie suddenly becomes a musical, with Liza howling a few forgettable numbers. Need we even mention the scene in which Mina forgives a would-be rapist for assaulting her because he’s upset about writer’s block? Ultimately, the saddest and strangest thing about A Matter of Time isn’t watching a venerable director derail his career and legacy—Minnelli never made another movie—but the notion that he roped his Oscar-winning daughter into playing an opportunistic whore. Not the best “Take Your Daughter to Work Day” in Hollywood history. Having said that, nepotism worked out better for Bergman, because her daughter Isabella Rossellini made her screen debut in A Matter of Time, playing the small role of a nun.

A Matter of Time: LAME

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