“De-Lovely” is an ambitious, erratic attempt to convey the emotional life of the brilliant Broadway composer Cole Porter in the form of an original musical biography. Structurally inspired by “All That Jazz” and indebted to the film of “Chicago” for its strategy of layering levels of reality in a musical context, Irwin Winkler’s most elaborate directorial outing benefits greatly from Kevin Kline’s outstanding performance as the ultra-sophisticated songwriter whose resilient marriage anchored a complicated double life. But in contemporary culture, this exploration of a champagne personality devoted to wit, fine living and discretion seems a highly esoteric undertaking, one for which the evident audience seems very small. MGM can only pin its hopes on the idea that interest in the music as performed by an eclectic array of modern singers will spark wider curiosity in the film itself.
Creator of such Broadway hits as “Gay Divorcee,” “Anything Goes,” “Kiss Me, Kate” and “Can-Can,” and a raft of hit songs from the late ’20s through early ’50s, the Indiana-born Porter lived a glittering life in Paris, New York and Hollywood populated by many other top celebrities of the era. His story’s drama stems from his private gay life — conducted while sharing a rewarding marriage to socialite wife Linda — as well as from severe injuries that handicapped him for the last 27 years of his life.
Winkler and screenwriter Jay Cocks take a chronological approach to their subject’s life, but not to his musical compositions, dropping numbers into the narrative when they reflect the mood.
They also frame events with comments from Porter himself; as an old man, the composer is seated in a small theater watching a legit rendition of his life as mounted by a director named Gabe (Jonathan Pryce), with events onstage morphing into full-blown film interludes before cutting back to the pair discussing what they’ve just seen or what’s to come.
Key to ushering the audience into the sweep and spirit of Porter’s life is the first major ensemble number, “Well Did You Evah!,” which the elegant expat uses to jump-start a posh party in ’20s Paris. Deliberately downplaying his previously proven vocal talents to more closely approximate Porter’s own just adequate singing voice, Kline puts this tune and others over in a properly fun spirit, even if the transitions and staging are variable in effectiveness.
Penning droll lyrics as easily as he dispenses bon mots at soirees, Porter finds a soul mate in beautiful American divorcee Linda Thomas (Ashley Judd), who finds in Porter the antithesis of her abusive first husband. What she also finds is a man whose sexual interests largely lie elsewhere. Asking only that he be discreet, Linda accepts Porter’s liaisons with handsome young men in the confidence that these fleeting attachments won’t threaten her deep bond with the man whose temperament, status and money so perfectly complement her own.
Unfortunately, the couple’s social circle in Europe is presented without explanation. Their closest friends throughout their lives are shown to be Gerald and Sara Murphy (Kevin McNally and Sandra Nelson), with Monty Woolley (Allan Corduner) a close runner-up, but pic offers the uninitiated no idea who they are or why they’re important. Other famous figures, from Diaghilev to Louis B. Mayer and Irving Berlin, surface from time to time, with the last playing the key role of getting Porter to return to New York, where in 1928 he had his first hit song, “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love,” composed for the show “Paris.”
As the Porters’ lives sail along from one seemingly effortless success to another in an environment of untroubled, splendidly attired luxury, the lack of drama pushes the music centerstage.
Unquestionably, the songs represent the film’s raison d’etre and greatest attraction; there are 28 of them, performed in different contexts and to varying effect depending upon the performer. Elvis Costello’s “Let’s Misbehave” is manic, Diana Krall is an odd stylistic match on “Just One of Those Things” and “I Get a Kick Out of You.”
“Night and Day” is rather effectively used to establish a sexual connection between Porter and a new man (John Barrowman), and Alanis Morissette is rather wobbly on “Let’s Do It.” Arrangements are sometimes inventive, and the chance to listen to these songs in a concentrated way underlines their exceptional tunesmanship and infinitely nimble ways of celebrating love.
At pic’s hour-mark, the party shifts to Hollywood, where Porter has reluctantly succumbed to the lure of writing for the movies.
With Linda already feeling alienated due to her husband’s inattentivess, Porter exacerbates matters by delving deeper into clandestine gay life. But the film is at its weakest on this turf, as Winkler has no feel for the gay underworld of the time, posing young men at pools and overly decorated private clubs as if for photo shoots; Todd Haynes in “Far From Heaven” did more in one little scene with Dennis Quaid to evoke the risky lure of the double life than does the whole of this film, and it doesn’t help that the recipients of Porter’s attentions are never developed beyond well-groomed cardboard pretty boys.
Despite a somewhat stiff performance by Judd that consists too much of smiling support and reassurance, the Porter marriage is more credible, in that one can grasp what Cole and Linda were uniquely able to give one another. But while it’s clear where he goes for physical satisfaction, her needs, if she has them, are never indicated. Naturally, this was an issue never broached in the 1946 Warner Bros. Porter biopic “Night and Day,” starring Cary Grant and Alexis Smith, which in an amusing scene, the couple watch here in a private screening.
An unhappy, increasingly unhealthy Linda finally leaves her husband for a while, at which point he suffers a terrible horseback riding accident that nearly requires his legs to be amputated. Pondering this dreadful life turning point, the elderly Porter tells Gabe he should just skip over this part in his play. But the decline cannot be ignored: the countless operations, increased reliance on painkillers and, in 1954, Linda’s death from cancer, a period highlighted principally by Porter’s biggest hit, the classic musical “Kiss Me, Kate.” He died in 1964.
Keeping it all alive through all the dramatic ups and down, and limited psychological and emotional complexity, is Kline. Always the most dexterous and classy of actors and the winner of two Tony Awards for Broadway musicals, he is an utterly credible man of the theater. Looking comfortable in black tie, which he seems to wear half the time, and with a drink frequently at hand, Kline also supplely conveys a personality who could simultaneously be both present and not, completely there for his wife or a friend but with his mind on something else, such as a lyric or a man. Kline’s talent to amuse, as Porter’s contemporary Noel Coward put it, is consistent with that of the man he’s playing.
Kline’s aging over the course of about 40 years is marvelously etched by makeup designer Sarah Monzani, with the actor’s voice progressing through equivalent changes. Costume designer Janty Yates, production designer Eve Stewart and lenser Tony Pierce-Roberts have worked overtime to convey period elegance, while music arranger Stephen Endelman brings some fresh approaches to the many famous tunes on the soundtrack, for better and worse.