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De-Lovely (A Movie Review)

Updated: Mar 29, 2021



DE-LOVELY (2004)

Starring Kevin Kline, Ashley Judd, Jonathan Pryce, Kevin McNally, Sandra Nelson, Allan Corduner, Peter Polycarpou, Keith Allen, James Wilby, Kevin McKidd, Richard Dillane, Edward Baker-Duly, Angie Hill, Harry Ditson, Tayler Hamilton, John Barrowman, Elvis Costello, Diana Krall, Sheryl Crow, Robbie Williams, Alanis Morissette, Mick Huckmall, Lemar Obika, Caroline O’Connor, Vivian Green, Lara Fabian, Mario Frangoulis and Natalie Cole.

Screenplay by Jay Cocks.

Directed by Irwin Winkler.

Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures.  125 minutes.  Rated PG-13.

Cole Porter had a fascinating, intense, brilliant and tragic life.  He was one of the true geniuses of American songwriting.  He was a dandy showman.  He was a loving husband.  He was a partier, a drunkard, an excessive smoker and a barely closeted homosexual in a time when being a gay man was akin to being a pariah.  It is the stuff of brilliant drama and it goes without saying that the score will be stellar.

De-Lovely is Hollywood’s second whack at Porter’s life.  Night and Day in 1946 was a highly whitewashed Hollywood extravaganza helmed by Casablanca director Michael Curtiz and starred Cary Grant as an impossibly suave fantasy of the composer.  (In fact, there is a scene in De-Lovely where the the characters watch Night & Day and mock it as they leave the screening.)  De-Lovely comes much closer to capturing the passion and the pathos and the splendor and the drama that was Cole Porter’s life.  However, it still doesn’t quite hit the mark.

The structure of the film is part of the problem.  It sounds brilliant in theory, an aged Porter (a heavily made-up Kevin Kline) and a theatrical director (Jonathan Pryce) watch as Porter’s whole life is played out as a musical.  This frame story should work well, but it doesn’t really; maybe because it is too reminiscent of Chicago, or maybe because the scenes where we return to the theater from full sets and location scenes become a little distracting.  It does, however, open up the story to full musical productions of some of the greatest songs of the 20th century, so the idea does have some serious merit.

The true narrative thrust is centered upon Porter and his wife Linda (Ashley Judd), as it should be.  This is the true meat of the story.  She was his muse, she was his companion, she was his one true love.  He did obviously try to make himself the man that she wanted to be.  However, both recognized that he was attracted to men.   At first Linda felt that she could ignore his peccadilloes.  Linda was coming out of an abusive marriage when she met Porter.  So the idea of living with a brilliant man who had talent, potential and was not looking for a lover appealed to her.  However, as they are together over the years, Linda finds it harder and harder to overlook his little dates.

Kline is spectacular in the title role, playing Porter from a young man in his 20s to an old broken down man in his 80s.  Judd also does wonderful work as Linda, reminding you what a terrific actress she can be when she isn’t in some stupid revenge potboiler.

The songs are mostly rather well done.  Some of the pop stars performing (such as Elvis Costello, Alanis Morissette, Sheryl Crow, Mick Hucknall of Simply Red) can be a bit of a distraction, but the choreography is suitably old-fashioned and exuberant.

The frame story sometimes works against this film, though.  Because it is a musical, they gloss over some of the more heart-rending parts of Porter’s life.  His relationships with other men are touched on enough to show that he is gay, but only one or two times do we actually see Porter in the midst of a relationship, either as a kiss or a post-bed conversation.  A horsing accident which made Porter a near cripple for the rest of his life is also a major plot point that is shown often, but we are never quite given enough background.  We are told he has to go through intensive physical therapy and many painful surgeries, but we never actually see these.

The idea of Porter and Linda having a child comes and goes quickly, as does the fact that Linda finally gets pregnant and then has a miscarriage.   Porter’s relationship with Linda turns a little quickly from true love to a couple almost always having arguments. The scene where Linda dies of lung cancer seems particularly sheened over, she just coughs a bit, closes her eyes and fades away.

This was all planned, though, it seems.  At one point in the frame story, the elderly Porter chides the director after watching a particularly painful memory, telling him that this is a musical, people don’t want to see this kind of sadness.  Maybe they are right.  In the end, Cole Porter’s life should be secondary to his amazing body of work.  In this case, De-Lovely accomplishes what it has set out for.  It may not be a perfect biography, but it is one hell of a song and dance revue.  (7/04)

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2004  All rights reserved. Posted: August 15, 2004.

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