The continued rarity of live-action movie musicals, even after the success of “Chicago,” is just enough to make one welcome this elegant but uneven and ultimately superficial biography of Cole Porter, the man who composed “Kiss Me Kate,” one of the best of all Broadway musicals, and a good many others besides. “De-Lovely” is actually Hollywood’s second stab at doing Porter justice, and it’s certainly superior to the first, the bathetic 1946 “Night and Day,” starring a thoroughly miscast Cary Grant. (There’s an amusing scene in which the “real” Porter and his wife react to a screening of that movie.) Irwin Winkler’s film is beautifully done up, with plenty of luscious costumes and minute attention to period detail. It’s also closer to reality in its depiction of Porter’s homosexuality, which was naturally ignored in the earlier picture, where his marriage was portrayed as a matter of heterosexual passion rather than of convenience, as it actually was. In the final analysis, however, the narrative portion of the film, though physically as attractive as the title would suggest, is fairly turgid going–pretty, to be sure, but stodgily paced and very stagy in its construction and execution. Happily, though, a good deal of the running-time is devoted to performances of Porter’s best-known songs, which remain marvels of verbal ingenuity and wit, even if the melodies don’t quite match the lyrics in brilliance and the renditions (mostly by a succession of contemporary artists) aren’t consistently top-notch. But the composer’s enduring genius and the lavish production are enough to make the picture worth a listen and a look.
“De-Lovely” takes its cue from Bob Fosse’s “All That Jazz” in being constructed as a long look back by Porter at his life, with the aged composer ushered into an empty theatre where a stage manager called Gabe (Jonathan Pryce), as in “Blow, Gabriel, Blow,” introduces the main characters from his past; this leads to a chronological sequence of “important moments,” accompanied by the cream of the Porter songbook (arranged not in chronological order, but chosen to comment on the action) and punctuated by returns to the theatre, where Gabe and Cole can quibble over some matter of interpretation or offer a quip about what’s just been seen. It’s a technique that works better on stage (many revues have used it successfully), where the artificial framing device is less distracting, than on the screen, where one expects a more realistic approach, and where the constant cutting-back to the “audience” of two interrupts the momentum. Once one gets past the structural preciousness, however, what unfolds is an elaborately-mounted but distinctly old-fashioned narrative recounting the ups and downs of the marriage between Porter (Kevin Kline) and divorcee Linda Thomas (Ashley Judd), which lasted from 1919 to her death in 1954. The emphasis is on the enormous support she gave to him over the years, from helping to arrange his move from the lackadaisical life of a dilettante in Paris to Broadway fame in 1928 to rousing him after the accident that robbed him of the use of his legs in 1937 and encouraging his later work, all the while recognizing and accepting his involvement with handsome young men. It’s a perfectly defensible way of giving the narrative a focus, but as anyone who’s read William McBrien’s 1998 biography will note, Jay Cocks’ script has plenty of significant omissions (Porter’s close relationship with his mother Katie, for example, is entirely ignored) and unhistorical alterations for dramatic effect (an episode in which Porter links up with the actor who sings “Night and Day” in “The Gay Divorce” may be an effective device, for instance, but the song was actually assigned to star Fred Astaire in that show; and Porter wasn’t alone when he had his riding accident). The screenplay also fails to clarify who many of the people surrounding the Porters are–sure, everyone will know who Irving Berlin or Louis B. Mayer is (curiously enough, in the former case Cocks has Porter clumsily identify Berlin as America’s greater songwriter when introducing himself), but will the same be true of Monty Woolley, or Gerald and Sara Murphy? One can also fault the casting on purely chronological grounds: Kline is 56 and Judd 36, but in reality when they wed, Porter was 28 and Linda 36.
But it isn’t the respective ages of the leads that’s the trouble in “De-Lovely”–to the contrary, Kline cuts a properly sophisticated figure as Porter, and Judd, finally freed from her string of awful action-heroine parts, radiates dignified strength. It’s the fact that Winkler, who’s never been a dynamic director, stages most everything in a lugubrious, arch fashion that seems designed more to show off the decor and costumes than to instill dramatic life into the non-musical proceedings. (The supporting cast suffers from this more than the leads, coming across as well-clothed, well-coiffed mannequins rather than real people.) No scenes are more forced than those involving Porter and his male lovers, which are handled with a heavy-handed decorousness that seems positively antediluvian. To be sure, the film is almost as gorgeous as Judd is all by herself–kudos to production designer Eve Stewart, costumer Janity Yates, art director John Hill, set decorator John Bush, and cinematographer Tony Pierce Roberts–but one can admire the backgrounds only so long before noticing how musty the action in front of them usually is. It’s a good thing that a substantial portion of the picture is given over to Porter standards, and though they’re not always performed to best advantage–some of the pop stars, from Elvis Costello to Natalie Cole, who are enlisted to sing them give more idiosyncratic renditions than would be ideal, and the decision of Kline, who’s got a fine voice, to approximate Porter’s own limited vocal resources when giving himself over to song may be a bow to authenticity but doesn’t add to our listening pleasure. Perhaps the most satisfying moments come when Porter’s work is presented within the context of the original shows–when Caroline O’Connor impersonates Ethel Merman doing “Anything Goes,” for instance, or Lara Fabian and Mario Frangoulis take on “So in Love” in the guise of Alfred Drake and Patricia Morison. Still, even an imperfect version of a Porter song is better than none.
Despite its ambitious structure, “De-Lovely” is really as old-fashioned as a Cole Porter musical from the thirties, though hardly as sophisticated; but the songs alone carry the day. If you’re searching for a Porter title to describe the movie, it wouldn’t be “You’re the Top!” or “Wunderbar” or “C’est magnifique.” A pity he didn’t write a tune called “Getting By.” That would suit it perfectly.