From the 1920s through the 1950s, Cole Porter was writing hit songs. In the 1930s alone the combined output of Porter, George Gershwin, and Irving Berlin accounted for what seems like about ninety per cent of the standards of the era. Yet despite all of Porter's great music and his fascinating personal life, in two movie biographies of the man, filmmakers have yet to fashion anything of particular interest musically or biographically. Go figure.
For those few of you who may not know much or anything about Cole Porter, let me start with a few bits of background information. He was born in 1891, he was educated at Yale and Harvard, and he married a wealthy divorcée, Linda Lee Thomas, in 1919. Although Porter was openly gay, the couple remained married for the next thirty-five years until her death in 1954. Among the hundreds of hit songs the composer wrote for Broadway shows and Hollywood movies were "Night and Day," "Begin the Beguine," "I've Got You Under My Skin," "In the Still of the Night," "I Get a Kick Out of You," "Just One of Those Things," "True Love," "Love for Sale," "My Heart Belongs to Daddy," "I Concentrate on You," "I Love Paris," "You're the Top," "Let's Do It," and the tune that gives the current film its title, "It's Delovely." A riding accident in the late 1930s left Porter a semi-invalid and slowed him down considerably, but he still managed to produce the musicals "Kiss Me, Kate," "Can-Can," and "Silk Stockings" before his death in 1964. Porter's songs, mostly romantic, are noted for their sophistication, insight, and clever, subtle wit.
The 2004 musical biography of his life, "De-Lovely," begins on a questionable foot with its director, Irwin Winkler, employing a somewhat awkward and cloyingly sentimental narrative structure. It's the year of Porter's death, and Porter, played by Kevin Kline, is visited by an angel named Gabe (Jonathan Pryce), presumably the archangel Gabriel ("Blow, Gabriel, Blow"), who has come to escort him to the next world. But first, Porter must review the events of his lifetime as they pass before him on stage and in memory. This arrangement allows Porter as an older, dying man to comment on the passing parade of his life, but it's also a distractingly saccharine and oddly old-fashioned device. Maybe that's part of the point, I don't know; but if it is, it contrasts strongly with the very modern-day exploration of the man's homosexuality.
The first movie biography of Porter, "Night and Day" (1946), starring Cary Grant, was a highly fictionalized account of the composer's life, understandably for the times leaving out any mention of Porter's gay lifestyle. Porter himself was said to be amused by the film at best. The present movie goes altogether in the opposite direction, with practically every scene pointing up Porter's sexual proclivities. Yet for all its openness, the movie sheds no new light on his personal life. Why, for instance, did his wife marry him, knowing he was gay and then put up with his constant affairs? It's easy to see the cynical reasons for Porter's marrying Linda; she was rich and she pampered him, and she allowed him his freedom with other men. But for Linda it wasn't as though she were snagging a trophy husband because Porter was not yet famous at the time they wed. The angel asks Porter if the marriage was "a love affair, a business proposition, or a social arrangement." Porter answers, "There was nothing arranged about our relationship. It was our own." A pretty vague and circumspect answer. The movie suggests that Porter may have been bisexual, hinting that the couple spent at least a few nights together and at one point even hoped to have a child. In the movie Porter says he "wanted every kind of love that was available, and I could never find them in the same person or the same sex." Porter also insists several times that all of the "love" in his love songs came from his association with Linda. But nothing in the movie develops from these intimations, leaving us no more informed about their relationship than we were before the movie started.
Kline is a terrific actor and brings off convincingly almost any role he accepts, be it dramatic or comic; but this time I had my doubts. He seemed to be creating a mannered screen image of Porter that attempted closely to matched the composer's public persona, with little inner life of its own. I was never so much persuaded that I was watching Cole Porter as that I was watching Kevin Kline imitating Cole Porter. This differs vastly from, say, Jamie Foxx's portrayal of Ray Charles or Liam Neeson's Alfred Kinsey from the very same year, where I forgot entirely the actors in the roles. Ironically, Kline is at his best in Porter's old age, where both the actor and the character seem to relax more and morph better into one another.
Ashley Judd, on the other hand, plays Porter's wife Linda more effectively throughout the movie than Kline plays Porter. Judd has developed into one of the screen's finest actresses, even if her movie roles haven't always allowed her the freedom to create a believable character. Linda is believable, at least on the surface, although, as I say, we never really get to learn her deeper motivations. The only questionable aspect of her casting is that she appears too young for the part. Linda was supposed to be much older than Cole when they married, yet Judd looks younger than Kline.
While "De-Lovely" is highly dramatic, to be sure, it is most certainly a musical, given the amount of time spent on the musical numbers. How could one make a movie about a great musical composer without emphasizing his music? Yet the music comes off being as bland and soulless as the Porters' marriage. Again, the blame for this shortcoming must ultimately be placed at the feet of director Winkler. He chose to have Porter's most celebrated tunes sung by some of today's most famous contemporary pop artists, some of these singers wildly out of touch with Porter's sensibilities. Among the many performers employed are Robbie Williams singing "De-Lovely"; Lemar singing "What Is This Thing Called Love," from a Venetian gondola no less; Elvis Costello singing "Let's Misbehave," which no one appears to do with any abandon; Alanis Morisette in a one-note rendition of "Let's Do It, Let's Fall in Love"; John Barrowman doing a just-passable "Night and Day"; Caroline O'Connor in a fairly rousing "Anything Goes"; Sheryl Crow crooning a barely recognizable "Begin the Beguine"; Natalie Cole, the best of the lot, doing "Ev'ry Time You Say Goodbye"; and other tunes by Lara Fabian, Mario Frangoulis, Diana Krall, Mick Hucknall, and Vivian Green.
I'm sure the director wanted to use modern popular singers to underscore the fact that Porter's music remains vital to this day, and also to help sell the picture. Unfortunately, though, it doesn't do a lot for the music, which comes off as less than enthralling. Kline himself sings a number of songs as the composer, and he does reasonably well at it since it is known that Porter didn't have the best voice for his own songs, anyway. An archival performance of Porter singing "You're the Top" over the closing credits tells us as much.
Probably the best part of "De-Lovely" is its appearance--its art design, period costumes, sets, makeup, and colors. It is all quite ravishing to look at, but that is hardly enough to keep every viewer interested for over two hours when the tempo drags, the storytelling is hokey, the acceptance of the husband's sexual behavior is unexplained, and the composer's wonderful music is performed in mediocre fashion. I was hoping for better.
It's a pretty decent transfer, the image size measuring a widescreen 2.35:1 ratio. The picture quality belies the fact that the bit rate MGM engineers used is fairly average. Colors are, in fact, fairly deep and solid, which is the transfer's biggest asset. Closely spaced horizontal lines and checks are reasonably stable with only a few instances here and there of pixel shimmer; and overall definition is good.
I listened to the English soundtrack, which is reproduced in Dolby Digital 5.1. It does its job, although the surrounds are used sparingly, mainly for minor musical-ambiance reinforcement. The stereo spread across the front speakers is not especially wide; nor are the dynamic or frequency ranges. But the sound is clear and clean and makes a well-balanced delivery of both dialogue and music. Except that I thought some of the musical numbers were a tad hard sounding, I found nothing about the sonics to distract me, so I suppose you could say they were doing their intended job unobtrusively.
This MGM Special Edition disc comes with a good bundle of extras. To start, there are a pair of audio commentaries, one with director Irwin Winkler and star Kevin Kline and another with Winkler and writer Jay Cocks. Then there are two featurettes, "Making of De-Lovely," twenty-five minutes, and "Music of De-Lovely," fifteen minutes. They are followed by two "Anatomy of a Scene" pieces, "Be a Clown," five minutes, and "Love for Sale," three minutes. Next, there are nine widescreen deleted scenes, including an alternate ending that was probably deemed too severe for the sweetly melancholic nature of the rest of the picture. The bonuses conclude with a "De-Lovely" soundtrack TV spot; thirty-six scene selections; and a widescreen theatrical trailer. English, French, and Spanish are provided for spoken languages and subtitles.
While I was watching the film, I found myself nitpicking the poor thing to death, which probably isn't fair. But with as good a producer/director as Irwin Winkler, with as good actors as Kline and Judd, and with all the great music and lavish production values, I expected more from the end product. Instead, I found the pacing slow, the acting underwhelming, the musical numbers mundane, and the presentation flat.
The fact is, I didn't learn any more about Cole Porter's life from "De-Lovely" than I already knew, and if I didn't already enjoy the composer's music, this movie would never have swayed to like it. So, while it's all very pretty to look at, for me the allure of period colors, costumes, and sets quickly wore off, making this 125-minute movie a tough row to hoe.
In the long run, it's Cole Porter's songs that the world will continue to cherish and remember, long after all the movies about the man have been forgotten.