“Times have changed.” Gabe (Jonathan Pryce) is given to such mundane observations. He makes this one alongside Cole Porter (Kevin Kline), as they sit in an otherwise empty theater, planning the musical of Porter’s life that will be De-Lovely. It’s an almost clever conceit, born of current thinking about musicals. As the endearingly balls-out series of singing-and-dancing numbers has gone out of style, the ostentatiously heady, occasionally puppeteered musical has come in. The more insistently abstract and incongruously passionate, the better.
De-Lovely, written by Jay Cocks, follows other recent deconstructed movie musicals (Moulin Rouge and Chicago), in its multiply reflective structure, composed of disconnected surfaces and depths. When, for instance, the aging, wheelchaired Porter observes himself and others from his past (the wheelchair is the result of a 1937 riding accident, in which Porter’s legs are crushed; he dies in 1964). Watching the show, Porter is enchanted all over again, as if he has just conjured it: “That’s me, I’m so young!”
During such moments, Irwin Winkler’s movie achieves a strange grace, complicated and cunning as Porter’s own art and experience. At other times, De-Lovely is less smart, lapsing into the sort of sentimentality that the artist repeatedly resisted. The film begins as aging Cole sits at his piano, recalling that he wrote the darkly romantic “In the Still of the Night” about his much-adored wife Linda Lee Thomas (Ashley Judd). Enter Gabe, a “theatrical director,” alternately Cole’s conscience and provocateur, who reminds him of his competing devotions to Linda and his many male lovers. “It’s your life, Cole,” says Gabe. “Anything goes.”
On one level, the movie is a straight “love story,” even if it is quite aware of the pitfalls of such an assertion (“That’s why I’m frightened,” murmurs Cole, when Gabe makes it). That is, De-Lovely focuses on the relationship between Porter and “beautiful divorcee” Linda, whom he meets in a Paris salon in 1918. Here he and his buddy Gerald Murphy (Kevin McNally) are performing acidly observant ditties at the piano, about “what a swell party this is” (it’s worth noting that this salon is showily integrated). Mutually charmed, Cole and Linda fall hard. “There was nothing negotiated or arranged about our relationship,” he tells Gabe. “It was our own.” So “easy” is Linda to love (as he sings to her in a gloriously green Parisian park), that when, following sex with her, he tells her that he prefers sex with men (“I have other interests”), she accepts the inconvenience (“You don’t have to love me the way that I love you”).
Pressed by Gabe to explain his feelings about his wife, Cole says, “It was pleasant, but the intimacy was stunning.” As the film has it, this “intimacy” is premised on Cole’s career: she serves as his muse, but also takes a practical role, revering his “dazzling gift,” nurturing his talent, and, with the help of Irving Berlin (Keith Allen), convincing him to return to New York, where, in 1928, he writes Paris and his first pop hit, “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love.” The point is marked by a performance by Alanis Morissette, singing the song from out of a chorus line, as Cole looks on approvingly.
The film is dotted with this gimmick, Porter’s songs performed by contemporary artists ranging from pop stars Natalie Cole (“Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye”), Elvis Costello (“Let’s Misbehave”), and Vivian Green (whose “Love for Sale” is heartbreaking) to Broadway singers like John Barrowman (whose “Night and Day” is breathtaking) and Caroline O’Connor (channeling Ethel Merman with “Anything Goes”). At times the choices seem arbitrary (Diana Krall on “Just One of Those Things”) and at others, inspired (Sheryl Crow makes “Begin the Beguine” into a seemingly new, entirely enchanting song). In any case, they seem geared to sell a soundtrack cd, as well as to erect the sorts of screeches to narrative halts that typify movie musicals (this even as Porter’s own comments on some of the numbers provide some seeming connections). They also set off Porter’s own puny if passionate vocals (Kline, of course, can sing, and he does a decent job of sounding not-good here).
According to De-Lovely, the primary distinction of Porter’s “dazzling gift” is his ability to put his “feelings” into songs. And if they aren’t always easy to sing (“Night and Day” is notoriously difficult), they are remarkably brainy and frankly delightful. Another sort of difficulty surfaces repeatedly in De-Lovely, in that the romance, as real or unreal as it may be, becomes the default mode, and Porter’s elaborate and effusive gayness is treated as an obstacle to the couple’s “true happiness,” rather than integral to who he was, or more egregiously, how his time defined him.
The split Porters — one watching the other acting out his life as a stage show — provide an approximate mirror for the film’s theory of his split self. Or, as the film has it, his split desire, for the “intimacy” he feels with Linda and the serial sexual relationships he has with men (apparently, these are not intimate). His hit shows soon become routine, and on each opening night, Linda presents him with a Tiffany cigarette case, “just a little memory,” she whispers. (Both are inveterate smokers, her own habit leading to the emphysema that kills her in 1954.) Also routine are Cole’s dalliances with actors or dancers (one “Russian” ballet dancer appears a couple of times, at one point lounging in a big white hotel bed with sheet draped politely over his groin, while Cole adjusts his shirt in the mirror). His songs (“Let’s Misbehave,” for one example) begin to signal his urges, and Linda realizes the inevitability of her loss.
Still, she tries again to reorient their relationship, encouraging Porter to move to Hollywood and write film musicals. Bad idea. Cole is almost immediately annoyed by the industry’s legendary crassness, in particular, Louis B. Mayer’s (Peter Polycarpou) insistence that he simplify his work; in response, Porter performs “Be A Clown” on the MGM back lot, with Mayer and extras abounding. Bored and put out by his job, Cole finds the underground gay scene populated by young, eager bodies, at least one nervy enough to blackmail both him and Linda, separately, with explicit photos of Cole in action.
If Hollywood here awkwardly represents the worst aspects of show business, Porter seems to incarnate the best. Witty, glamorous, irrepressible, he uses his art to reveal both cultural limitations and resulting intrigues, the pleasure of misbehaving. If only De-Lovely were as much fun.