Good’s bad today
De-Lovely, written by Jay Cocks and directed by Irwin Winkler, is the new semi-musical biopic about songwriter Cole Porter (Kevin Kline) and his unconventional marriage to his wife, Linda (Ashley Judd). I had misgivings almost from the very start, but I can pinpoint the exact moment when Winkler and Cocks lost me forever: It came as I cringed and writhed through Sheryl Crow’s mangling of “Begin the Beguine.”
For reasons known only to Winkler and musical director Robert Ziegler, this tune, the only song of Porter’s that became a hit (thanks to Artie Shaw) on the strength of its music alone, without the help of Porter’s stylish words, is almost unrecognizable, the melody rewritten and cast down into an ugly minor key. The effect is hideous. That’s when the movie lost me; no one who could allow this travesty into the film has anything to say about Cole Porter that’s worth listening to.
You can’t really blame Sheryl Crow for this, any more than you can blame the other performers shoehorned into 1930s costumes to take a whack at Porter—Elvis Costello mincing and preening through “Let’s Misbehave,” say, or Alanis Morissette gasping for breath every three or four words in “Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall in Love)” There are people alive today, Winkler and Cocks among them, who can remember when Porter (who died in 1964) was mentioned in the present tense and was still turning out hit songs. But I suspect that to many of today’s musical performers, Porter’s songs are as incomprehensible as the lays of medieval troubadours. Even the singers who can handle Porter—Diana Krall and Natalie Cole, for example—bring a modern sensibility to the music: Cole Porter as interpreted 40 years after his death. This is one layer too many for De-Lovely.
The premise Cocks sets up is a retrospective of Porter’s life, viewed from his lonely old age as a theatrical production presided over by a mysterious “director” (Jonathan Pryce) and punctuated by the commentary of his songs. The central thread is Cole’s relationship with Linda—a loving marriage between two people who adored each other, even though he was as openly gay as a man could be in those days.
This angle, of course, was taboo in the first Porter biopic, the 1946 Night and Day (in which Cary Grant was memorably miscast as Cole, with Alexis Smith as Linda), and De-Lovely can’t resist a catty swipe: “If I can survive this movie,” Cole mutters at a screening, “I can survive anything.”
But a joke about the miscasting of Cary Grant falls flat when you’ve got the swashbuckling Kevin Kline playing the part in your movie. I’ll watch Kline in anything—he doesn’t make enough movies and hasn’t done a musical since The Pirates of Penzance—but as Cole Porter, he’s just as miscast as Grant was. Porter’s dainty, insouciant sophistication eludes him. Who could do it? Hard to say. Nathan Lane, maybe, if he could calm down long enough, or Chris Kattan, if he could really act. Conversely, Smith wasn’t miscast, but Judd is. Linda, eight years older than Cole, was something of a mother figure; the talented Judd works hard, but she can’t play mother to a leading man who’s 21 years older than she is. (Casting the statuesque, elegant Linda is a much easier call: Glenn Close.)
Night and Day wasn’t much of a movie, but it got one thing right: It was about the music; Porter’s life was secondary. Audiences in 1946 understood that the snippets of biography were just filler to string between the songs.
De-Lovely reverses the equation, using snippets of songs as a gloss on Porter’s life. Every line of “Anything Goes” or “Love for Sale” or “Just One of Those Things” becomes a coyly coded reference to alternate lifestyles, and once the songs have made their point, they’re dropped, and the story moves on. But by jumbling the chronology, introducing songs years before or after Porter wrote them and divorced from the shows and performers he wrote them for; presenting the music in anachronistic styles that Porter and his friends would hardly recognize; and, most of all, by miscasting its two stars, De-Lovely falsifies Porter’s story almost as much as Night and Day did.