'Altina': Film Review

Altina Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Altina

Altina Still - H 2014

A loving portrait of a fascinating woman.

Peter Sanders' documentary chronicles the freewheeling, iconoclastic life of his artist grandmother

If Altina Schinasi (1907-1999) hadn’t really existed, some imaginative screenwriter would have had to invent her.

That’s the impression one comes away with after viewing Altina, Peter Sanders’ loving if rough-hewn documentary about his grandmother, whose life spanned most of the 20th century and who seemed to have several lives of her own. She had a pampered upbringing thanks to her Turkish immigrant father who struck it rich by inventing a cigarette rolling machine. Growing up in a palatial Manhattan mansion, she rebelled against living the life of a socialite and instead went after artistic pursuits, studying with the famous painter George Grosz.

Her biggest claim to fame was the invention of “cat’s eye,” or Harlequin glasses, modeled after Venetian masks. Her design was rejected by the leading eyeglass companies, but she struck a deal with a high-end Madison Avenue store and eventually started her own distribution company, with the snazzy eyewear soon becoming ubiquitous on female faces.

Among the other aspects of her multi-faceted life that the film chronicles was her garnering an Oscar nomination for a short documentary she made about Grosz; hiding film director John Berry in a small apartment above the garage at her Los Angeles home during the Hollywood blacklist; befriending and supporting Martin Luther King, Jr. at the dawn of the Civil Rights era; and finding great success with her whimsical sculptural furniture that she dubbed “chairacters.”

And then there were her four marriages. Two surviving spouses sing her praises and frequently tear up while speaking with her, including her final, decades-younger husband Celestino Miranda, who enthusiastically proclaims that she had the sexual stamina of a 25-year-old.  

The film features commentary from such friends and family members as actress Zoe Caldwell, costume designer Jane Greenwood, and Altina’s sons Dennis (since deceased) and Terry. But the centerpiece is an extensive interview with Altina filmed in the early ‘90s in which she gives an account of her iconoclastic life with a frankness that’s all the more impressive for the casual manner in which it’s delivered.

Production: Eight Twelve Productions, Victoria Sanders Film Partners

Director: Peter Sanders

Producers: Peter Sanders, Victoria Sanders

Executive producer: Diane Dickensheid

Directors of photography: Peter Sanders, Bryan Sarkinen

Editor: Clark Harris

Compose: David Robbins

No rating, 78 min.