“De-Lovely” is an entirely worthy look at the life and songs of Cole Porter that successfully evokes the lavish and sophisticated world in which he lived and wrote. It is very entertaining and relatively truthful to Porter’s life. Hollywood biopics have a rather poor track record and have often been more fantasy than reality and more tribute than truth. As these films go, “De-Lovely” is fairly truthful, including the fact that Porter was gay, a fact that couldn’t even be hinted at in 1946’s “Night and Day”. It nevertheless got mixed reviews and a real drubbing from some critics, a fate I feel it didn’t deserve.
Critics certainly know that what can be done in a book cannot be done in two hours on film, yet some felt the film was superficial and didn’t delve deep enough into Porter’s psyche and creativity. Cole Porter was deep, complicated and moody, just the kind of thing movies generally can’t explore very well. On top of that, film in general seems especially limited in being able to depict the act of composing music. The film was made on a moderate budget for a general audience and did just what it should have done. It was enough to give the audience a good sampling of Porter’s music and world and let them delve deeper on their own if they want to.
Some complained that the music was not in the order it was composed. This is very true but the film’s focus is more on the relationship of Porter and his wife Linda than a career story in which the songs have to be chronological to serve as benchmarks as the career unfolds. In the case of “De-Lovely” the film is conceived like a musical and the songs are used to comment on what is going on in the story and sometimes to set up the next scene. In this way every song is just where it should be. There is enough distance between now and Porter’s era that the correct order of the songs’ composition would only be known by Porter experts anyway. (It becomes disconcerting if the subject is contemporary enough that many people know when the songs came out such as in the recent Elton John biopic).
The decision was made to have popular singers, well known to the public, perform the songs. For the most part this works even though some people objected to this. The popular artists surely helped the box office and the CD was a top ten hit. Most of the arrangements and presentations are faithful enough in referencing the era even if not being completely historic re-creations. Respectful of Porter, they even include their original introductions, which were mostly dropped by the mid-fifties. Elvis Costello had a blast with “Let’s Misbehave” and John Barrowman’s “Night and Day” was one of the high points of the film in its transition from rehearsal to show.
“Be a Clown” provided a fantasy sequence with Porter and Louis B. Mayer on the MGM lot which included his famous quote to George Gershwin that Irving Berlin wrote lots of hit songs so why couldn’t he? Porter is known to have written “Be a Clown” in response to the studio wanting simple, unsophisticated lyrics. ( So in studio logic you naturally hire Cole Porter).It was odd to have “Begin the Beguine” transposed to a minor key in Sheryl Crow’s interpretation, changing it from a joyous dance to a dark, moody piece but I think this was done to create a mood for the scene that follows. It does work in an eerie way but I miss the original. Vivian Green’s “Love for Sale” was a dark dreamtime interlude through what then was a very underground world. It’s presented in a jazz style later than the era, but it works. Caroline O’Connor had fun doing Ethel Merman and caught the sharpness in her voice as well as the volume on “Anything Goes”, which Merman premiered in 1934.
Some critics felt the film didn’t get the facts right, but I would challenge this. Most everything in the film is true with minor exceptions. The set up is fantasy in the first place: Porter, at the end of his life is visited by a supernatural being (well played by Jonathan Pryce) and is taken to a small theater to see a play of important scenes of his life with a cast made up of the actual people. This gives the film leeway enough to include a bit of surrealism here and there (like “Be a Clown”) and to not have to start with his childhood or anything like that. Still, his life and the shows occur quite chronologically.
It skips Yale altogether and begins in Paris. Porter’s extravagant lifestyle and reputation for entertaining is well-illustrated by a gigantic costume party in Venice, where the real Porter rented palazzos in the summer and threw amazing and outrageous parties. In fact he was eventually asked to leave Venice because of these parties. Fellow party-goer Gerald Murphy was a real friend and he and Porter wrote a symphonic jazz ballet together that was well-received. The Murphys (of the Mark Cross fortune) seemed to have entertained the entire Lost Generation at their parties on the Riviera.
The esteem of Irving Berlin was real and his support saved “Fifty Million Frenchmen” from folding. “Paris” was the musical that brought Porter back from Europe and “Anything Goes” (1934) and “Kiss Me Kate” (1948) were his two most stunning successes. Moves to Hollywood and the Berkshire Hills happen when they are shown. The sadder things that happen did happen and when they did I felt a lot for the characters.
Porter’s house in Los Angeles was a colonial much like Westleigh Farms in Indiana and not a Tudor, but so what? The house is the setting for one of the film’s funniest moments when Linda comes home to find that Cole has turned their swimming pool into a scene musch like that at George Cukor’s place. Despite its humor,this is actually a pivotal scene in the film with results that parallel events in real life. The small physical details are very accurate from the Deco cigarette cases to the fact that Ashley Judd’s vintage evening bags were supplied by Van Cleef and Arpels, the jeweler Linda Porter used to call “my favorite department store”.
The greatest inaccuracy is also one of the film’s greatest strengths and that’s casting Ashley Judd as Linda. She was 20 years younger than Kevin Kline and looks it and Linda Lee Thomas was eight years older than Porter and though attractive, was rather matronly. She had a reputation for beauty in an era when beauty was not equated with youth. Ashley Judd looks absolutely wonderful, full of life and incredibly attractive. She also looks stunning in the fashions of the 1920’s and 30’s. She’s excellent in the role as well, vibrant and sympathetic.
The deep affection they felt for each other was noted by everyone they knew and is portrayed well in the film. In this case I think the casting was to overcome the limitations of film. It would be very difficult to get across their mutual affection had a matronly woman been cast and would have probably required extra scenes. With Judd the attraction is self evident and easy to accept, requiring no explanation. Kevin Kline is deeply committed to this role and plays Porter with grace and charm, though I suspect Porter was more fun and mischievous. Kline looks nothing like Porter but Cary Grant in “Night and Day” looked even less so.
I have to take it on faith that Monty Wooley, a close friend of Porters since his Yale days, was so warm and gregarious with his friends. Wooley, known mostly for “The Man Who Came To Dinner” was typecast forever after as Sheridan Whiteside, a vain, pompous, overbearing, snobby and prickly fellow based on Robert Benchley. Also, his famously white beard is black here. I also wonder why the film has Jeanette Macdonald and Nelson Eddy singing “I Love You” in “Rose Marie”. As far as I know they never sang a Cole Porter song in their films. The song was from Porter’s show, “Mexican Hayride”. Perhaps they are there as signifiers of what the mass audience liked in the thirties.
This is a very good film that most anyone who likes Cole Porter’s music will enjoy. It’s a vast improvement on “Night and Day” which completely failed to catch the tone of the era and of Porter’s milieu. You could never say that Kevin Kline channels Cole Porter but it is a thoughtful performance. In some ways I felt the film should have sparkled more, but the filmmakers chose to explore his whole life, not just the wild twenties and thirties, and that naturally gives it a darker but more truthful feeling.