Let me state my bias up front. I loathe musicals. There are very few I like- especially from the so-called Golden Era of Hollywood. That’s because the whole convention of people breaking into song at a difficult moment always strikes me as forced and phony. There are exceptions, though. The Sound Of Music because of….well, I loved Julie Andrews as a child, Evita because there’s only one spoken line in the film- it totally divorces itself from the conventional musical format, and Moulin Rouge because while there is some speaking, it’s even more lush and lavish than Evita. The 2004 Irwin Winkler film De-Lovely, a biopic of Tinpan Alley composer Cole Porter, is one of those rare musicals that work because it is a unique approach to both a musical and to a portrait of the artist, the man who wrote, among many other indelible hit songs, It’s De-Lovely, Let’s Misbehave, Anything Goes, Be A Clown, I Love You, and Ev’ry Time You Say Goodbye. This film works because it is not a pretentious film, and in that regard most reminded me of Amadeus, the portrait of another musical genius, Mozart, told with another innovative framing device for the tale- the life of the main character told through the eyes of his envious rival.
The conceit is that, at the moment before his death, the archangel Gabriel (Jonathan Pryce) comes to Porter (Kevin Kline), and like Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, or George Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life, is allowed to view his past, only upon a stage, with musical interludes. This conceit, along with the superiority of Porter tunes, immediately makes this a memorable film. We find out about the love and courtship of Porter’s wife, Linda Lee Thomas (Ashley Judd), in Jazz Age Paris, a divorcee from an abusive first marriage, who tolerates her husband’s affairs with men, as long as he is discreet. Sex is not that important to her, nor to Porter, as he reveals he had an intimacy with her that he could never have with a succession of his boy toys. She also advances his career, by hooking him up with Irving Berlin (Keith Allen), who sets up his first Broadway musical. Soon after, he is courted by Hollywood, and movie mogul Louis B. Mayer (Peter Polycarpou).
Porter becomes less discreet, emotionally neglects Linda, and she leaves him, after both are blackmailed regarding photos of his indiscretions. Then, he has an accident riding a horse, has both legs crushed, and Linda returns, but she’s in even worse condition, dying of lung cancer. Judd gives perhaps the best performance I’ve ever seen from her, finally fulfilling the potential others have always said she had. Her take on Linda is very nuanced- neither nagging shrew nor long suffering devotee, but a real person, with hints of both, but a strength inside. In real life, Linda had affairs with other men, but it’s not germane here, and neither would a meditation on Porter’s boy toys, for the film truly captures the essence of their partnership- its main thrust is rightly on their relationship, and a key moment in the film is when Linda miscarries a child. In one of the commentaries, Winkler states that the miscarriage, while not in many bios, was confirmed by Porter intimates. Whether this was Porter’s child is irrelevant, for the moment bonds them with the sort of connection and true love neither lust nor merely being ‘in love’ can bring. Kline is simply brilliant in the role- even though he looks nothing like the real Porter- a short, ugly man with a thin, reedy voice- as we hear on the closing credits when the real Porter warbles You’re The Top. The scenes where Porter is singing as he composes some songs that are never done in full musical revue, are excellent, and subtly, albeit quickly, display the man’s artistic inner workings. Since we’ve all heard these numbers before, to see them stripped down and experimental is really enlightening, and serves the film well.
Not as successful was the PC usage of black actors as bon vivants in the 1920s, nor the stunt casting of well known contemporary pop singers for many of his most famous numbers. Among the many names are Natalie Cole and Diana Krall, and while adequate, others are horrid. Elvis Costello butchers Let’s Misbehave, and Sheryl Crow is even worse with a deadly dull rendition of Begin the Beguine. The only two stunt singers that really work are Robbie Williams’ excellent take on It’s De-Lovely, and Alanis Morissette’s outstanding version of Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love. The rest of the action really is superfluous during her performance, for her voice brings an emotional gravitas and sensitivity that other singers of this rather upbeat song have lacked. Yet, there is something missing, at least in the handling of the musical numbers. Call it style or grace, but Winkler shoots the numbers too straight, and I was wishing Baz Luhrmann had taken a crack at this material.
The film has, however, been unfairly hammered by two groups- gay rights activists and musical snobs, who detest the fact that Linda is shown as having been a greater force in Porter’s life than his boy toys, and musical snobs who loathe the pop stars who sing the Porter songs. As for the latter, even if Bobby Short and Ella Fitzgerald were still alive, given the arrangements Winkler deploys, it’s a safe bet that the songs and singers would have been attacked as well. As for the gay activists- their cause is undermined by the very fact that they constantly refer to Porter as homosexual, when he was clearly bisexual, having had relationships with other women before his marriage to Linda. The biases of homosexuals in often denying the very existence of bisexuals is more behind the criticisms of the film than any flaws it has artistically. This film, compared with the 1946 whitewash Night And Day, which made Porter straight and a World War One hero, openly deals with Porter’s dual life. In the film, Porter even declares, ‘I wanted every kind of love that was available, but I could never find them in the same person, or the same sex.’
As for the DVD features- the commentaries, by Winkler and Kline, then Winkler and screenwriter Jay Cocks (best known for penning the Martin Scorsese films Gangs Of New York and The Age Of Innocence) are solid in their informing viewers of both the film and its subject, without getting too technical. There is a making of featurette, and a music featurette, two Anatomy Of A Scene featuretes, deleted scenes, and trailers. De-Lovely, while not a great film, is a very good one, and a rare metafiction that works. Like all successful art, it tells the percipient that he is not alone; and her I should caveat that I was not in a good mood when the film started, but felt much better at its end. I would not have thought such when I read, on the DVD’s front, that addle-minded tv interviewer Larry King declared this, ‘Far and away the best musical biography ever made.’ But, while King overstates the case, De-Lovely is worth a couple of hours of your life. As for the Larry King blurb….