De-Lovely (2004): Irwin Winkler’s Biopic of Cole Porter

Cannes Film Festival 2004 (World Premiere)–The least you can expect from a film celebrating the life of a witty and stylish personality like the legendary composer Cole Porter is to be witty and stylish as well. But, alas, De-Lovely, Irwin Winkler’s biopic of Porter is a disappointing film that only begins to suggest the genius and flamboyance of its bon vivant hero.

The only reason to see the film is as a reminder of Porter’s glorious music, which occupies a major chunk of the story. As written by former film critic Jack Cocks, the story suffers from a tiresome format: The old Porter (Kevin Kline in heavy makeup) sits and reminisces about his life. Though the story unfolds chronologically, the film uses songs from different eras, at times to comment on and at others to illustrate events from Porter’s real life.

The picture’s only “novelty” is that the songs are delivered in various styles by a group of vocal artists, an approach that necessarily means vastly different styles of singing, some more appealing than others. This may be considered an advantage in a film that’s rather dull, but the end result is that the music only emphasizes the disjointed and clichd nature of the saga.

Viewers of a certain age accustomed to the wonderful renditions of Porter, by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra, may be disappointed by the new style given to the famous tunes from music arranger Stephen Endelman. The Songs include Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love; One of Those Things; and of course, the title song, De-Lovely. Among the voices featured are those of Alanis Morrisette, Robbie Williams, Sheryl Crow, Diana Krall, Elvis Costello, and Lara Fabian.

In a bravura performance, Kevin Kline holds the movie together through all its dramatic ups and downs, and good and bad rendition of songs. Kline truly rises above the banal lines and superficial psychology of a man who in real life must have been both more complex and complicated than presented onscreen.

With huge facilities for physical movement and impersonations, Kline is one of the few actors who can dance and sing; he had won two Tony Awards, for the Broadway musicals “Twentieth Century” and “The Pirates of Penzence”. Often dressed in black and holding a cocktail in his hand, Kline is the best thing in the film, particularly early one, when he plays the young and dashing Porter.

Kline conveys the personality of a man who lived a double life, presumably by choice. It could have been an interesting and timely story about a homosexual composer who opted for marriage, not out of convenience or facade (as was Rock Hudson’s), but the movie treats Porter’s marriage (and life) in a shallow way.

If Kline rises above the limitations of the material, Ashley Judy, as Porter’s wife, succumbs to them. What’s interesting about the real-life Linda, who was older than Porter, is that she served by turns as muse, companion, mother, and nurse. Linda was a modern woman ahead of her time, highly aware of her marriage’s limitations, but it’s never clear what exactly she got out of it. There are only few scenes that examine the marriage from her POV, as for example, when Porter agrees to father a child, and later, when the pregnant Linda goes through a tragic miscarriage.

Heir to a fortune, Porter composed his first song at age 11. He attended Yale University and Harvard Law School before joining the French Foreign Legion in 1916. Two years later, in 1918, Porter his first Broadway hit. Throughout his life, Porter traveled extensively and entertained lavishly.

For Broadway and Hollywood Porter composed songs that became famous for their risqu, double-entendre lyrics. Most of his hit Broadway shows were successfully transferred to the big screen, including The Gay Divorcee (1934), The Pirate (1948), Kiss Me Kate (1953), High Society (1956), and Silk Stockings (a remake of Garbo’s vehicle, Ninotchka).

Born in 1892, Porter was a few years older than openly gay Hollywood director, George Cukor (ne in 1899). I mention Cukor because the two worked together on the musical Les Girls (1957). More relevant is the fact that both Cukor and Porter held salons for Hollywood’s gay elite, particularly young handsome guys who had just arrived in town.

Though made in our supposedly more gay-friendly times, De-Lovely hardly portrays any homosexual relationships or friendships that Porter might have had. The film is basically a two-handler, with few secondary characters, such as Monty Woolley, Louis B. Mayer, and Irving Berlin, all passing through the tale briefly.

The film does depict the riding accident that Porter suffered in 1937, which resulted in close to 30 operations and finally forced amputation of his leg in 1958. Porter lived for another eight years in anguish and intolerable pain. But he didn’t give in. Some of his best songs were written after the accident. Porter’s last Hollywood score was for the Rat Pack musical,
Can-Can in 1959.

If you’re interested in Hollywood lore and the biopic genre, I recommend that you watch the previous film about Porter, Night and Day, which was recently shown on TV for Cary Grant’s centennial. In this Michael Curtiz concoction, the suave and elegant Grant embodied the composer as a straight (in both senses of the term) man. Upon seeing the 1946 film, Porter is rumored to have said: “There is not one damn real fact in the entire picture.”

Fictionalizing Porter’s life, both its straight and gay elements, Night and Day shows Porter as soldier in WWI, which he never fought, failing to even mention he was gay. The movie ends on an upbeat note, when he reunites with Linda to the tunes of the song Night and Day. Yet there are songs in this film that are very much missed in the new one, such as My Heart Belongs to Daddy, sung by the young Mary Martin, and later made even more memorable by Marilyn Monroe in Cukor’s Let’s Make Love.

Popular among audiences, Night and Day was one of the top pictures of 1946, and one of Cary Grant’s most commercial vehicles, grossing over $4 million, a huge amount at that time. It will be interesting to see if De-Lovely finds an audience and appeals to younger viewers.

De-Lovely world-premiered at the Cannes Film Festival as out-of-competition closing night. I have to admit that, despite strong reservations about the film, it was a grand outdoor evening. We all enjoyed watching the film’s performers croon Porter’s witty songs, whose risqu lyrics and double-entendres should enchant generations to come.