De-Lovely (2004) from JK and Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)
JK's notes in yellow:
Okay, we’ve all asked for it and now it’s here. A fag hag relationship set to music.
The Linda Lee – Cole Porter relationship has been scrutinized and speculated about for decades, and now it’s shown for the first time in a biopic that has basis in fact. Never mind the Cary Grant – Alexis Smith offering of the fifties that glossed over the real nature of the Porter – Thomas relationship. It didn’t even come close to accuracy and was shamefully saccharin.
The new movie can be candid because these types of relationships are out of the closet. Today there are clubs and associations for the ladies who prefer the company of homosexuals. Maybe there are still whispers, but not nearly so many as in the twenties and thirties, the period of De-lovely. And perhaps today’s whispers are more like brief acknowledgements of things suspected. Nowadays, Carrie, Madonna, and Liza conduct their choices with only the softest murmurs from the press and the public.
The Cole Porter – Linda Lee Thomas relationship was kind of ordinary by today’s standards of public behavior. She was the older and stable female, a wealthy woman who need not ask him for material things. She was a woman offering to mother and nurture him through his many moods and emotional swings. He was obviously no sexual threat to Linda because ... well, you know. It was a reciprocal feeling. She may or may not have been asexual but, in any case, she was not a sexual threat to Porter in their daily lives. She even, at times, facilitated and encouraged his liaisons. Together, they thoroughly enjoyed their celebrity and the social whirl that accompanies success in the arts. And (how lucky can we be?) their life is now set to music.
I probably liked the film better than most who have seen it, mainly because I count the music of Cole Porter among my favorites. Avant-garde for its time, the music is a little light in spots today but deep and complicated in other spots. He collected all his emotions and wove them skillfully into his music – gayety (watch it), sadness and passion constantly found their way into his melodies to accompany all the other feelings he would touch from time to time. And the best of his work will last forever. The words are especially memorable. Cole Porter not only soloed in writing his music, he wrote all his own lyrics. He was a master of the interior rhyme and used it often.
If the director, Irwin Winkler, intended a musical review, why did he have Kevin Kline sing? We’ve been told that Kevin Kline, who played Porter, had to sing worse than is his want, because Cole Porter had a voice that could scatter music lovers. Maybe. When you see the movie, stay to the end, and you'll hear a recording of the real Cole Porter during the credits, and he sounds a helluva lot better than Kevin Kline. Fortunately, not all of the songs were sung by Kline. We’re willingly captured by some people who can sing, including Elvis Costello, Alanis Morrisette, Robbie Williams, Natalie Cole and Sheryl Crow in some fine performances. Jonathan Pryce even cuts loose with surprising gusto.
Good non-Kline singing? Porter's music and times? So what’s wrong with the movie? Why didn't I like it more? It lacks life. There is life in the music, but not in the story or in the characters. Even when Porter is trolling for male flesh, Kline, a fine and capable actor who gave us such a sensitive performance in “In and Out”, isn’t permitted to act eager, passionate or disappointed.
Nevertheless, the music is magic and the guest performances are de-lightful, so De-lovely is awarded two and a half Milk Duds.
Scoop's notes in yellow:
I guess you know who Cole Porter is, eh? Famous songwriter? But did you know just how many famous tunes he composed? Turns out it was more than eleven billion songs. In fact, before Lennon and McCartney came along, Cole was the composer of every song ever written.
OK, I'm kidding, but it was a lot of songs. All of these memorable hits were written by Cole Porter:
He wrote hundreds and hundreds more that did not become hits. Here's a more comprehensive list
You may not know that Porter's grandfather was the richest man in Indiana at the turn of the century. That is not quite as impressive as being the richest man in New York or London, but it still represents one seriously big shitpile of money! Cole's flamboyant heiress mother, however, surprised her family by marrying a simple druggist who doesn't seem to have had much of an impact on either her life or Cole's.
Born into money, Cole married into even more money, so he was able to spend his life gadding about Paris, Venice, New York, and Hollywood, hanging out with and amusing the beautiful people in glittering locales. He really was an American echo of the great age of London wits. Porter was the American Oscar Wilde, set to music. And what music! Cole Porter's tunes are intricate and his lyrics are witty, perhaps the wittiest ever written. He was a brilliant man, valedictorian of his prep school, further educated at Yale and then at Harvard Law. He was the absolute master of glib, ironic detachment.
But he must have set some kind of all-time record for shallowness, if we could learn to measure that.
This was not a tortured soul creating great art by crying out in anguish. Dostoevsky he wasn't.
Oh, sure he was married to a woman for more than 30 years as a matter of convenience, even though his sexual interest in women was minimal. But that marriage was no tragedy. They wed two fortunes together as well as two magnificent social circles, so they lived the ultimate life of luxury and ease, although the world around them was crippled by the Great Depression. More important, they both knew exactly what they were getting into when they got married, so there were no heartbreaking secrets discovered in the course of their life together. Linda even fixed Cole up with proper men, for heaven's sake. The marriage had ups and downs but, in the main, was great for both of them.
Oh, sure, he was a gay man during a time when it was not easy to be one, but that really caused him very few difficulties. It would have been difficult to be a gay factory worker in those days, but it was no great challenge to be a wealthy gay man in the world of Broadway. He spent his life hanging around with musicians and theater people, and he was wealthy enough that he didn't have to spend time any time with the sorts of people who would have subjected his lifestyle to severe censure. The general public knew virtually nothing of his sexual orientation. Porter's friends and his wife kept his secrets, and even arranged liaisons for him. Hollywood itself was a discreet fantasy factory in those days, so the first Cole Porter biopic, starring Cary Grant, gave no indication that the composer was interested in men.
If we assume that his homosexuality presented no major problems for him, there's not that much drama in his life, and not much suffering except for his riding accident. His music is not substantially different from his life. The greatest pain in his songs is romantic longing.
Choosing not to dig deep into his homosexuality, and lacking a real conflict before his accident, De-Lovely tries to substitute style for content. It makes an effort to use every 20th century stylistic indulgence from from post-modernism to surrealism. Porter himself comments on the action from beyond the grave, although the characters swirling around him cannot hear him, ala Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. But he is not commenting on the action as it actually happened, but as it is being performed by actors in a play staged by some kind of supernatural director, who is played by Jonathan Pryce. Old Cole Porter sits in a theater and watches young Cole Porter (both played by Kevin Kline) and whines that it didn't really happen that way. He tries to tell the actors to make changes, only to be reminded by the Ghost of Porters Past that nobody can hear him. Porter himself says, "This is going to be one of those avant-garde things, isn't it?"
Does the framing device seem a lot like the one used in All That Jazz? To me it seems nearly identical.
The layers of detachment created by this device sometimes get too thick. At one point, De-Lovely shows an actor playing an old Cole Porter commenting on the same actor playing a younger Cole Porter, who is in turn commenting on how Cary Grant played Cole Porter in Night and Day!
Now that's post-modernism!
Although De-Lovely comments condescendingly about the previous biopic, that's hypocritical, because De-Lovely is as much a prisoner of the romanticism of its time as the Cary Grant picture was of its own. The musical numbers in De-Lovely are presented as they are or might be interpreted today, not as they were interpreted in Cole Porter's day. The crowd scenes in the Porter numbers show the number of black people that we might see in today's Broadway shows, not in the choruses of the segregated 1930s. This is not a historical error, but an obviously deliberate affectation. If the filmmakers had wanted to recreate the actual Cole Porter numbers as they were performed in the era, it would not have been difficult to do so, for he did not live in ancient Rome, after all. All of Porter's works were created after the invention of the phonograph, and many contemporary presentations of his musicals are preserved on film dating back as far as 1929. There are such famous films as The Gay Divorcee, Anything Goes, Rosalie, You'll Never Get Rich, and many more, featuring Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby, and all the greats of the Hollywood musical scene between the wars. Many of the numbers were performed under the supervision of or with some consultation with Porter himself. De-Lovely could have recreated those times, but didn't want to. It wanted to re-interpret them, to view them freshly.
The fact that this is an unrealistic, romanticized Cole Porter biopic commenting on yet another even more unrealistic Cole Porter biopic shows you the problems the screenwriters had in developing this concept. I sympathize with their problem. Again assuming that he was not tortured by his homosexuality, or that the screenwriters decided against developing this theme in depth, the writers are left trying to construct a film about a life which basically consisted of dazzling successes, and of giving booze-soaked parties for the glitterati and the beautiful people of the "lost generation". In other words, there is not much reason for this to exist as anything other than a medley of Cole Porter tunes and witticisms.
It throws a lot of ideas and a lot of avant-garde style on the wall, but not much of it really sticks. Besides the tunes, the one thing that stays up on that wall is the love story between Linda and Cole which, while not traditional, was some form of true and lasting love nonetheless. The film makes that point reasonably well, and concludes by showing how Cole retreated into a hermit's life after Linda's death, thus implying that she really had been his muse as well as his driving force.
My impression is that Kevin Kline does a truly superior job as Cole Porter in this film (at least when he isn't singing), but the real reason to see De-Lovely is not to see the superficial biography of the man, or to see the same old devices from All That Jazz again, but to hear Cole Porter's greatest hits freshly interpreted. That's not a bad reason. Since the arrangements are not traditional, you may find yourself liking some of them a lot while wishing that other songs had been performed in the old fashioned way. In my case, I enjoyed the Natalie Cole version of "Every Time We Say Goodbye", but I found the Sheryl Crow rendition of "Begin the Beguine" to be truly bizarre and a major despoliation of the song. On the other hand, other people may hold the opposite view with about equally sound justification or lack thereof, since those are personal reactions to song interpretations which are not on comfortable and familiar ground.
It seems to me that the most interesting part of Cole Porter's life might be the portion before he was a success.
Some pretty good stuff!
Unfortunately, while that portion of his life may be the most interesting, it is certainly the least musical, and the little music to be found was far inferior to his best work, and thus not very useful for a musical biopic! More's the pity.
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