De-Lovely (“the Cole Porter story”) was the first and least lauded of 2004’s three musical biopics. While Ray (Ray Charles) and Beyond the Sea (Bobby Darin) garnered attention for the transformative star turns by Jamie Foxx and Kevin Spacey, De-Lovely was released to theaters and then to DVD with relatively little fanfare.
As legendary songwriter Porter, Kevin Kline’s deft, unshowy performance contributes to the film’s charm. Kline has always been a generous actor. Even in his most flamboyant comic roles (A Fish Called Wanda  and Fierce Creatures ), he thrives on interaction. Here, his tendency to share spotlights lends strength and heart to Porter’s relationship with Linda (Ashley Judd), the saintly wife figure typically relegated to the background of musical biographies. Porter was gay and Linda knew this, though the film argues that they shared a deep love, in their way: Although Linda is aware of Porter’s orientation, there is still frustration and confusion between them when Porter sneaks off for trysts. She feels a need to take care of him (and his talent), but must share him with the world.
Linda is never far from Cole; the movie scarcely covers any time before they met. Whether their relationship is used as a means of backing away from the “gay” content of Porter’s life is unclear; certainly, none of Porter’s male lovers have much character or distinction. The filmmakers certainly found a good hook and created good roles for both actors (for the first time in too long, Judd’s seriousness is focused on something more emotionally complex than a Paramount thriller), but did it come at the expense of a more incisive film?
While Judd and Kline are the picture’s most valuable assets, she’s missing from the DVD commentary track; Kline chats with director Irwin Winkler (a second track features Winkler and screenwriter Jay Cocks). During this conversation, the disarmingly relaxed Kline sounds almost too deferential—he and Winkler compliment each other often, and suggest that the movie being made at all is a significant achievement. Winkler, bless him, seems to think that the movie’s familiar structure—Porter as an old man is given a stage-and-screen retrospective of his life by an unnamed Gabriel figure (Jonathan Pryce)—is a stroke of experimental brilliance.
Winkler’s comments include a number of near-boilerplate observations. During a dialogue scene between the Porters dealing with Linda’s miscarriage, Winkler notes, “I thought it would be interesting to do this intimate scene in a wide-open theater, because their life was so much about the theater.” Fair enough, but this is a brief and vague observation (boiled down: they’re in a theater because they work in theater) for what should be a pivotal scene. Winkler’s workmanlike touch puts the film’s key pieces (Kline, Judd, and the music) into place, but can’t make them complement each other, exactly. His friendly relationship with Kline sounds almost too functional.
This is illuminated as the pair has equal praise for what works and what doesn’t. Kline and Winkler repeatedly laud their celebrity guest-singers (such as Elvis Costello and Robbie Williams) for their performances of Porter songs, but the movie really soars when Kline is doing the singing and dancing. Scenes where Kline performs-he’s as light on his feet as you would imagine-create real relationship between the songwriter and sometime performer and his work; the celebrity stuff is just well-meaning tribute.
The best of the Kline numbers comes when Porter’s attempt to deal Louis B. Mayer (Peter Polycarpou) turns into a back lot twirl through “Be a Clown.” Here De-Lovely feels like a committed, old-fashioned musical (one of the best anecdotes on the commentary is how “Make ‘em Laugh,” the famous number from Singin’ in the Rain, was lifted from this Porter song). But the old-fashioned charm and new-fangled emotional complexity collide more than they combine. Winkler and Kline note that Night and Day, the 1946 Cole biography with Cary Grant, had only the faintest hints of homosexuality (Winkler points out Grant’s brief “looking down” while embracing his onscreen wife as a signifier, and for the second time on the commentary track one of his most insightful observations is directed at another film and not his own). The implication is that their film is bolder for dealing with it at all. This may be true, but that is not to say this aspect is handled particularly well.
Cole and Linda’s relationship is detailed and well-acted, but they’re surrounded by few memorable supporting characters. The result is a likable film that cannot break out of the biopic rhythms (spark of promise; success; crisis; long-suffering partner; eventual triumph). While De-Lovely features enough moments of emotional connection between Kline and Judd to it worth a look (it rallies in its exuberant and then reflective finale), it also sags with complacency.