Matter of Time, A (1976): Minnelli’s Last Film, Melodrama Starring Ingrid Bergman and Daughter Liza Minnelli

For several years, Vincente Minnelli and his daughter Liza have been looking for the right property. It became a major challenge because Minnelli’s previous film, the musical On Clear Day You Can See Forever, hadn’t done well, even with Barbra Streisand as its star.

Minnelli had been interested in Maurice Druon’s 1954 novel, La volupte d’etre, translated as The Film of Memory, and inspired by the fabled adventures of the Marchesa Luisa Casati, circa 1910. The book chronicles the last days of a countess, who had once subdued financiers, warriors, and other glitterati, but now resides in a cheap hotel, where all she can do is relive her former triumphs. Shes encouraged to do so by an awestruck chambermaid who, inspired by the Countess, then embarks on her own adventure

Paul Osborn’s stage version, La Contessa, which starred Vivien Leigh, was a failure. But Minnelli remained confident about the story’s bittersweet tone, hoping that with a shift of emphasis in the script, the waif-like maid, Carmela, would be a good role for his Liza, under his helm.

Without a producer like Arthur Freed at his side, Minnelli struggled to adapt to the much harsher and more pragmatic Hollywood. He knew that the film would have to be an independent production.

After acquiring the screen rights, Minnelli commissioned the script and began looking for financial backing. Writer John Gay, who had collaborated with Minnelli before, shifted Carmela from a bystander to the center of the Countess’s time-travel reveries. However, even with Lizas elevated post-Oscar clout, every major studio in town rejected the film.

As a last resort, Minnelli went to American International (AIP), best known for its cheap bikini-and-biker pictures. Seeing an opportunity to upgrade AIPs image, its president Samuel Z. Arkoff allocated a budget of five million dollars, which was way above the companys norms. For his part, anxious to terminate his creative drought, Minnelli threw himself completely into the project, carelessly signing a contract that denied him final cut.

Minnelli flew to Europe to scout locations and assemble a skillful cast and crew for a film to be shot in Rome and Venice. The big challenge was to find an actress who could embody the Countess’s charismatic mystique. Minnelli wanted to cast Italian actress Valentina Cortese, but Arkoff wanted a bigger name and went after Ingrid Bergman, who had just won her third, Supporting Oscar, for Murder on the Orient Express for a tint role, that of a Swedish missionary.

Once Bergman was aboard, Minnelli got Charles Boyer out of retirement to play the Countess’s long-estranged husband; Boyer had formerly co-starred with Bergman in the 1944 thriller, Gaslight.

The rest of the international cast evoked decades of movie history. Minnelli cast Amedeo Nazzari, the Italian star of the Mussolini era, and for the part of the Countesss lover, the vet Spanish actor Fernando Rey. Bergman’s daughter, Isabella Rossellini, made her debut as a nurse, and Tina Aumont, Jean Pierre Aumonts and Maria Montez daughter, played the chambermaid’s cousin.

Enthusiastically, Minnelli hired cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, who had shot Lizas previous films, Cabaret and Lucky Lady. Though Carmela, as it was first titled, was not a musical, John Kander and Fred Ebb were asked to write two songs, one providing the film’s title.

Minnelli and Arkoff fought over Gay’s scenario, which followed the books parallels between the Countess’ past and her protges future. Arkoff demanded a bigger, more dramatic climax. Reluctantly, Minnelli agreed to shoot a few scenes with Nina as a screen legend. Rather naively, Minnelli believed that he could excise those additional scenes in the editing room, disregarding the fact that he had no final cut.

Shooting began in late 1975, as soon as Liza finished her work on Lucky Lady. After six years of forced hiatus, Minnelli went back to work. He enjoyed directing Liza and Ingrid in the same film. And he got a kick out of the locations, including the Venetian Palazzo Ca’Rezzeonico, where he staged Nina’s opulent imaginary incarnation.

Shooting in the winter, however, was grueling for Minnelli. The budget began to escalate, and to AIP dismay, the scheduled 14-week-shoot expanded to 20 weeks. The stages were heated with portable gas burners that sucked the oxygen from the air, which left some of the cast with constant headaches. Working conditions in Italy and lab problems caused further delays, all of which were unfairly attributed to Minnelli’s wanning powers. But the film was jinxed from the start, aggravated by Italian labor strikes and Italian labs hours.

In the past, Minnelli could always rely on MGMs expert technicians who knew exactly what he wanted. However, in this picture, he worked with an unfamiliar crew and inadequate resources. On top of that, there was a language barrier. Minnelli’s neurological problems and inadequate speech made things worse on the set.

Producers Grainger, Skirball, and Arkoff hated the title, A Film of Memory, and it was changed to Carmella, then again to Nina, finally settling on A Matter of Time. The film smelled of disaster from the start. People believed that the only reason Minnelli got to direct it was because of Liza.

Ingrid Bergman played a white-haired senile Countess, once a gorgeous courtesan but now lost in reverie, living in a seedy hotel. Ingrid had her twins in the picture as well: Isabella in her first small part, as a nurse-nun named Sister Pia (the real-life name of Ingrids eldest daughter), and the young Ingrid.

Nonetheless, the mood on the set was decidedly gloomy. Boyer was still depressed by the 1965 death of his only child and the fatal illness of his wife. Two years later, he would take his own life. Ingrid tried to leaven the atmosphere of a doomed production. She had little to do, basically to encourage Liza to become a kind of an Italian Gigi.





Nina (Liza Minnelli)

Contessa (Ingrid Bergman)

Count Sanziani (Charles Boyer)

Mario Morello (Spiros Andros)

Valentina Tina Aumont)

Jeanne Blasto (Anna Proclemer)

Antonio Vicaria (Gebriele Ferzett)

Charles Van Maar (Fernando Rey)

Countessa’s old lover (Amadeo Nazzari)

Nurse (Isabella Rossellini)




Executive producers: Samuel Z. Arkoff, Giulio Sbarigia

Producers: Jack H. Skirball, J. Edmund Grainger

Production executive: Steve Previn

Screenplay: John Gay, based on the novel Film of Memory by Maurice Druon

Cinematography: Geoffrey Unsworth

Production design: Veniero Colasanti, John Moore

Music: Nino Oliviero; music arrangements: Carlo Esposito; conductor: Bruno Canfora

Songs: “A Matter of Time,” “The Me I Haven’t Met Yet,” “Again,” music and lyrics by Fred Ebb abnd John Kander

Editor: Peter Taylor

Sound: Franca Silvi


Hair Stylist: Liz Gaylor

Makeup: Christina Smith


Running Time:  97 Minutes