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De-Lovely (2004) Print E-mail
Friday, 02 July 2004
“De-Lovely” is a musical biography of songwriter Cole Porter, a genius of the 20th century – especially 20th-century musical theatre – whose life would be somewhat unconventional even now (though probably for different reasons than it was in his day). Directed by Irwin Winkler and written by Jay Cocks, “De-Lovely” aims to integrate Porter’s words and music commented on his life while at the same time giving us a portrait of an unusual marriage. It’s a sometimes entertaining and good-hearted attempt, but it is flawed in several respects: it’s got an uncomfortable framing device and for a story about a man who’s in conflict between friendly love and sexual desire, it’s remarkably devoid of actual desire.

We meet Cole Porter (Kevin Kline) as he’s dying in 1964. He’s visited in an empty theatre by a mysterious stranger, Gabe (Jonathan Pryce), who dictates that Cole remember his past, which comes to life on stage. This bit just plain doesn’t work – it’s an old movie convention that often didn’t work when it was fresh, and “De-Lovely” doesn’t have either an ironic take to make it fresh or the pure affection for the device to make it work. However, once we’re transported to Paris in the ‘20s, things pick up. Cole scopes out rich divorcee Linda Lee (Ashley Judd) at a party, thinks she’s gorgeous and flirts with her. Linda, charmed and starstruck, flirts right back. It’s a gradual courtship, filled with genuine affection but virtually no desire. Cole is predominantly gay, something that Linda knows full well. Then again, Linda has survived an abusive marriage and doesn’t seem to require all that much physical intimacy herself. They love each other as friends.

If this were a fiction-based film, or even a more hysterical one, this would lead to confrontations and/or meltdowns, or at very least, more overt negotiating between Cole and Linda. However, Cocks’ script admirably handles the relationship with fluidity. As a public figure in a time when homophobia was so rampant that gay people weren’t acknowledged as even existing by mainstream culture, it was professionally advantageous for Cole to have a wife, but he never suggests anything so calculated. In fact, the relationship between Cole and Linda is very well modulated – we get the sense that they enjoy each other’s company so much that they very well might have married whatever the political climate. They are loving and accepting – though we’re not told enough about Linda to know if Cole is accommodating anything unusual about her the way she accommodates his extramarital flings.

“De-Lovely” really trips over its depictions of Cole’s sex life. It’s not that there’s too much of it – rather the contrary, although more with this approach wouldn’t have helped. Kline is suitably witty and impish and gallant toward Linda, but he and the filmmakers seem either unwilling or unable to actually depict anything that reads as sincere sexual interest on Cole’s part for other men (he actually seems slightly more interested in Linda). At best, he exhibits what reads as polite curiosity, which makes for some very oddly slanted scenes. Additionally, without getting a sense of Cole getting something primal out of these liaisons – joy, obsession, fascination – we don’t feel a link between them and anything he’s writing about, nor see why this very ambitious fellow would blow off meetings with potential financiers to do something that doesn’t appear all that compelling to him.

The performances of Porter’s songs and the various ways in which they’re integrated into the action are a mixed bag. Kline, a Broadway musical star in reality (“One the Twentieth Century,” the “Pirates of Penzance” revival) has been directed to sing in the style of Porter. While this may be historically accurate, as it is not a plot point that Porter does not have a show-quality voice and moreover Kline looks nothing like the songwriter, the film might have done better to just let Kline cut loose with his own pipes. Ashley Judd acquits herself well in Linda’s several duets – the rendition of “Well, Did You Evah?” in a party sequence is almost naturalistic, as the characters play with each other via Porter’s teasing lyrics. Robbie Williams delivers a smooth, period-proper-sounding “It’s De-Lovely,” and Elvis Costello puts real enthusiastic mischief into his rendition of “Let’s Misbehave.” Diana Krall is ever so sultry in her renditions of “Just One of Those Things” and “I Get a Kick Out of You” and Caroline O’Connor does a swell vocal recreation of Ethel Merman on “Anything Goes.” Pryce, a top-flight song and dance man himself, finally gets to strut his stuff on “Blow Gabriel Blow,” making us wish he’d had more to do here musically. Other performers who appear include Gilbert Goldstein, Lemar, Alanis Morissette, John Barrowman, Sheryl Crow, Mick Hucknall, Vivian Green, Nic Greenshields, Lara Fabian, Mario Frangoulis and Natalie Cole.

It’s nice to see a period romance musical at all, especially one that doesn’t adhere to formula. It’s also nice to see somebody making a valiant stab at a story about a relationship that doesn’t fit conventional ideas about what relationships should be. It’s also a pleasure to hear Porter done well. “De-Lovely” tries to give us a comprehensive look at an artist of unorthodox talents and tastes – it’s just a shame that it can’t commit fully to either its own narrative style or the wilder part of the equation that made Porter all of what he was.

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