De-Lovely (2004) *** 1/2
Directed by Irwin Winkler. Written by Jay Cocks. Photography, Tony Pierce-Roberts. Editing Julie Monroe. Production design, Eve Stewart. Music, Cole Porter. Producers, Irwin Winkler, Rob Cowan and Charles Winkler. An MGM release. 125 minutes. PG-13. Cast: Kevin Kline (Cole Porter), Ashley Judd (Linda Porter), Jonathan Pryce (Gabe), Allan Corduner (Monty Wolley), Kevin McNally (Gerald Murphy) and Sandra Nelson (Sara Murphy); music performances: Robbie Williams, Elvis Costello, Alanis Morissette, Sheryl Crow, Mick Hucknall, Diana Krall, Vivian Green, Mario Frangoulis and Natalie Cole.
Here is a soul and ear satisfying movie about Cole Porter (1891-1964) but I keep asking myself: “What percentage of filmgoers are really familiar with Porter and his songs?” This question would not have existed a few decades ago, but with young or youngish people of the Jaywalking generation ---well, I wonder…
What I do not wonder about is that Porter was a pop-music genius, arguably the best of them all. The current film about him confirms this.
“De-Lovely” is the sixth movie directed by Irwin Winkler but his 47th as a producer of often strong, memorable films. Writer Jay Cocks, formerly a film critic for Rolling Stone, then for Time Magazine, co-scripted James Cameron’s “Strange Days” and “Titanic”, wrote Martin Scorsese’s “The Age of Innocence” and “Gangs of New York.” He did a remarkable job in “De-Lovely.”
The movie begins with a device. We meet stage-producer Gabe (Pryce) and the aged, crippled Porter (Kline) who, in 1937 -- in his mid-40s-- had broken both his legs in a terrible riding accident. Gabe, who is preparing a musical show on Porter’s life and work, shows the composer scenes of the latter’s career. It is a long set of flashbacks, a rather awkward and somewhat confusing process, but it works.
In its starting point Porter is about 20, lives luxuriously in Paris in what seems to be soon-after-World War One days, has a lot of money and a heck of a good time. In the social whirl of Paris, young Cole Porter, (also played by Kevin Kline) meets the rich divorcee Linda (Ashley Judd) and they marry. They were, in reality, 28 (Cole) and 36 (Linda) but in the film he is the older of the two. What may complicate matters is that Kline was at least 55 and Judd was 35 in 2003, when,I suppose, the filming began. Amazingly, Kline gets away with playing a far, far younger man.
The marriage was good –and strange. Linda knew that Cole was gay. Whether or not the couple made love together is not mentioned or shown. But those two were devoted to each other, in real life as well as in the movie. In a sense, this peculiar state of things does not handicap their mutual affection, until, that is, later on Cole’s relations with other males get to be too obvious. But even then they remain close.
It is easy for the audience to set aside such matters and considerations. We are distracted (pleasantly) by the staging, top-notch period details, top performances and, last but definitely not least, by several of the many songs Cole composed.
He did the music as well as the lyrics, both superbly. Some of the songs are sung by Kevin Kline and sung very well. The man has a fine voice, whereas the real Porter did not. Fiction here is better than reality. Bear in mind that Cole’s output was enormous – and that we hear only drops in the bucket. He wrote about one thousand songs, if not more.
Note too that the musical selections sprout naturally among the tales of the biography. In other words, this movie is a fascinating, successful hybrid, not a traditional musical. Among other “déjà vu” and “deja heard” aspects that the film circumvents is the familiar set-up, the cliché situation of most musicals in which the story regularly telegraphs to the audience “Song coming!”
The performances are tops. Kevin Kline, a great actor in all his films, just has to be a nominee in the 2005 Oscars. Ashley Judd is de-lovely and perfect in her role.
The movie has been overall most positively reviewed. By far the most interesting text is not a review but an article, “King Cole, the life and work of Cole Porter” by the New Yorker Magazine’s senior drama critic, the great John Lahr – and son of The Cowardly Lion of “The Wizard of Oz” movie.
The article appeared in the New Yorker’s July 12 & 19 issue. You can also get to it in your computer. Use Google, and type “John Lahr.” I’ve seen “De-Lovely” just once, as the closing movie of the 2004 Cannes Festival. I’ve read Mr. Lahr’s article three times.