Tobacco heiress, artist, activist and filmmaker Altina Schinasi, who died in 1999 at age 92, might best be described as a zelig. She was a modern woman with the means and motivation to explore a host of passions, often against some of the 20th century's most notable events.
For much of its brief running time, the documentary "Altina," directed by Schinasi's grandson Peter Sanders, is an absorbing look at wealth, privilege, creativity and progressive thinking. It's also an evocative time capsule — that is, until the film loses momentum and it becomes clear that key questions about Schinasi's rarefied existence will go unanswered. These include how she managed her fortune and how she physically crafted her art pieces.
The product is more pop vanity project — and one that's a bit late to the party — than onion-peeling dissection.
Still, Schinasi, who's seen throughout in an extended interview conducted in 1991 by producer-director son Terry Sanders (Peter's uncle), offers frank if nonchalant commentary about her major accomplishments: sponsoring 13 Jews' escape to America during the Holocaust, befriending the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., hiding blacklisted director John Berry ("Claudine") during the Red Scare and more. Schinasi, who admitted having quite the sexual appetite, also nabbed four husbands, two of whom poignantly weigh in for the cameras.
Artistically, Schinasi is best known for designing the revolutionary Harlequin women's eyeglass frames, for her whimsical paintings and sculptures (love those cool "chair-acters") and for producing an Oscar-nominated 1960 documentary short on German artist George Grosz. All are nicely covered here.
Strong archival and family footage and photos plus input from Schinasi observers such as actress Zoe Caldwell, journalist Amy Fine Collins, artist Camille Billops and son Terry complete this straightforwardly crafted tribute.
MPAA rating: None.
Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.
Playing: At Laemmle's Music Hall 3, Beverly Hills.