After the film version of the Broadway show CHICAGO won its Oscars
and went on to become a box-office hit, there was hope that the movie
musical would make a comeback. Part of the problem, though, is that
feeling by the people in power that movie musicals have to be done in a
post-modern manner. The idea of someone just bursting into song is
ludicrous to the current audience. Never mind that younger viewers
have been weaned on "Sesame Street" and music videos. On the big screen,
musical numbers have to somehow be organic. So the makers of DE-LOVELY
have attempted to incorporate a good number of tunes from the Cole Porter
catalog in their film in a manner that is more organic, but terribly stilted.
DE-LOVELY attempts to be a warts and all look at the life of
composer Cole Porter, and its makers have said they were attempting a
corrective to the glossy Hollywood version that was NIGHT AND DAY (1946).
Well, obviously back in the 1940s Porter's known homosexuality would
not be addressed. But as it was later pointed out by Arthur Schwartz,
"Apart from Cole's fabulous accomplishments, the only dramatic thing that
ever happened to him was the horrible accident in which he was thrown from
a horse." So Warner Bros. concocted a love story, utilized many of Porter's
great songs and the released film was met with mixed to negative reviews.
Even today, it is hardly a classic.
Unfortunately, DE-LOVELY succumbs to many of the same errors.
While Porter is presented as a homosexual (although one might get the
impression he was more of a bisexual), the psychological underpinnings of
his relationship with his wife Linda is sorely lacking. Then there are the
factual errors, the awful choices in design, and the use of compositions out
of sequence. A particularly egregious example of the latter is a performance
of "True Love," composed in the mid-1950s for the film HIGH SOCIETY,
used in a scene set in the 1930s. There are so many things wrong with
this film that I hardly know where to begin.
DE-LOVELTY's framing device has an elderly Porter (essayed
throughout the film by Kevin Kline) being visited by Gabe (Jonathan Pryce),
a sort of celestial emissary -- perhaps even the Angel Gabriel -- who escorts
Porter on a sort of "This Is Your Life" journey as played out in a theater.
The opening number introduces the main characters, but most fail to really
make an impression.The outline of the story follows Porter's life but it is
generally difficult to understand the time period. Costume designer
Janty Yates and production designer Eve Stewart make little effort to
distinguish post-World War I Paris (where Porter met and married his future
wife) from the 1930s and 1940s. There's a horrible sameness to the clothing
and decor that is undermines the film. Now I understand that this is
supposed to be a sort of fictionalized version, but still some effort
should have been made to get at least some of the details right.
(Particularly since so much of the film's publicity was built around the
notion that this movie would be a corrective to the 1946 one and that it
would tell the "real" story.)
One of the things I found particularly strange was that there was
no mention of Porter's beloved mother Kate, who was an integral part of
his life. This is important, because Porter's marriage to divorcée Linda Lee
Thomas was more a marriage of convenience than anything else. Linda was
eight years Cole's senior and functioned as much as a surrogate mother
as she did a muse. There's an attempt to address her understanding that
she is marrying a homosexual and that it's okay with her, but Jay Cocks'
script doesn't delve far enough into these matters. Instead, DE-LOVELY
is framed as a love story between Porter and his wife. While it is true
that they loved one another, I'm not certain that it is correct to say that
Linda was the main love of his life.
Irwin Winkler came to directing late, having established himself as
a producer of note (i.e., ROCKY, THE RIGHT STUFF). His work behind the
camera has been a mixed bag, yielding efforts like the entertaining albeit
implausible THE NET, the misfire AT FIRST SIGHT, and the well-acted, if
flawed LIFE AS A HOUSE. With DE-LOVELY, he's saddled with Cocks'
cheesy script that is filled with horrible dialogue that is supposed to
represent sophistication, wit and class, as well as a terrible structure of
Porter looking back on his life. Winkler is also not terribly adept at staging
musical numbers. One big showy piece, "Be a Clown," complete with Louis
B. Mayer singing and dancing is destined to go down in the pantheon of
The use of contemporary singers yields mixed results. A few, like
Diana Krall ("Just One of Those Things"), Robbie Williams ("De-Lovely"),
Natalie Cole ("Every Time We Say Goodbye") and Elvis Costello ("Let's
Misbehave") do well with the material, but others like Alanis Morissette
("Let's Do It, Let's Fall in Love ") and especially Sheryl Crow ("Begin the
Beguine") are out of their league.
The few performers who have extensive stage experience like
Caroline O'Connor impersonating Ethel Merman on "Anything Goes", Vivian
Green ("Love for Sale") and John Barrowman ("Night and Day") excel. The
latter, however, is another example of how the filmmakers played fast and
loose with the truth. In the film, Barrowman's character, an actor named
Jack (perhaps a nod to Porter's alleged relationship with Jack Cassidy),
struggles with the song he is to introduce in The Gay Divorce. There's even
a line where Monty Woolley (badly impersonated by Alan Corduner) says
"I told you that you should have given the song to Astaire." Well, in point
of fact, it was Fred Astaire who sang the tune on Broadway, but in the film
it's given to this fictional character so he can later surprise Porter and sleep
with him. Those unfamiliar with history will now take what they see on screen
as gospel and believe it.
One are where the filmmakers attempt to go for the truth is in having
Kevin Kline sing badly. It's no secret that most Broadway composers are
terrible singers -- listen to any backer's auditions that are often included
in bonus tracks on original cast albums, if you don't believe me. Here's the
one instance where they should have not pursued the "truth" quite so
diligently. Kline is a terrific singer, so having him trill off-key distorts the
songs and makes them hard to listen to. Perhaps not unsurprisingly
(considering her family background) Ashley Judd does a creditable if
unspectacular job in her musical numbers.
I've been an admirer of Kevin Kline's since the late 1970s when I first
saw him on stage in musicals like The Robber Bridegroom and On the
Twentieth Century. In making the transition to features, he has proven
to be reliable and often outshines lackluster material. But as in IN & OUT,
I did not for one minute accept him as a gay man. (Perhaps his off-screen
reputation for having been a ladies' man in his youth colors my perception.)
As I see it, he seems unable to fully and convincingly portray a homosexual.
He's more effective in the romantic scenes with Ashley Judd, but many of
those stem from Jay Cocks' imagination. They might fit into Cocks' image
of Porter (and perhaps that of the Porter estate) but they don't jibe with
the biographical material that is out there.
Quite simply, Ashley Judd is miscast as Linda Porter. First, she's too
young for the role. Judd is more than twenty years younger than Kline
whereas Linda Porter was her husband's senior. Linda also endured an
abusive first marriage (demonstrated here by having her husband show up
on her wedding day to Porter). In reality, Linda was a socialite with money
of her own and she brought her connections to the marriage, while Porter
introduced her to the world of show business. Theirs was a match that was
as much one of convenience as it was of mutual respect and admiration.
Judd fails to project the innate class and bearing of Linda Porter. She's
like a child playing dress up. Only near the end of the film, when Linda is
ill does she manage to make the audience care about her character, but by
then it's a case of too little, too late.
There are so many things that are wrong with DE-LOVELY and so
little that was right. I was very disappointed as I had hoped the film would
bring new light to the composer and introduce a new audience to his music.
At the public showing I attended at the Loews Lincoln Square Theater, I
was shocked to discover that I was one of the youngest members of the
audience. While it was terrific seeing so many older viewers attending the
movies, many were disappointed by the final result, as was I. Perhaps it
was best put by a friend of mine who saw a preview of the film. His
comment was quite succinct: "It ain't CHICAGO. It ain't even Des Moines!"
It also ain't even NIGHT AND DAY, and it sure ain't "de-lovely."
Rating: C -
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sexual content
Running time: 125 mins.
Viewed at Loews Lincoln Square.
© 2008 by C.E. Murphy. All Right Reserved.