My knowledge of Cole Porter was limited to the songs of his that we used to play in high school band. We played a lot of his music, but never learned too much about the man himself. Because I liked many of Porter’s compositions, I was looking forward to seeing De-Lovely, the biopic about his life. From the ads, I thought the movie looked like Chicago - a big, sprawling musical celebration filled with fun and laughter. The end result is actually a lot more sobering than that; I wouldn’t exactly call it depressing, but Porter’s life was more dramatic than I had realized. Once I got adjusted to that reality, De-Lovely hooked me anyway. Cinematic biographies are tough to do well because you have to cram a lot of information into two hours. This one, through liberal and strategic use of Porter’s music, manages to pull the feat off.
The film opens with an elderly Cole Porter (Kevin Kline, wearing the best old-age makeup I’ve ever seen on screen) being led into a small theater by an unnamed Director (Jonathan Pryce). Porter grumbles about the cast of characters standing on the stage. They are actors playing people from his life, but he thinks some of the details are all wrong. The Director urges him not to worry; the essentials of his story will be accurate. Throughout the film, we flash back to the older Porter watching and commenting on his own life story as it plays out in front of him.
The beginning of the tale, for the purposes of the movie, is the night Cole met Linda (Ashley Judd), who would soon become his wife. The connection between the two of them was immediate. She was impressed by his musical abilities and sly sense of humor; he was struck by her beauty and intelligence. They were kindred spirits. There was only one problem: Porter was gay. According to the film at least, his marriage to Linda was never consummated. During one scene, he tells a close friend that he loves the personal intimacy and trust he has with Linda. She is his best friend, whom he loves as a person. But romantic and sexual love must be found elsewhere. Porter sighs that he’s never been able to find one person to give him both halves of what he needs.
Surprisingly, Linda doesn’t really mind his dalliances with men. She knew the situation going in and apparently knows that, other than sex, “everything else belongs to her.” In other words, he’s faithful emotionally, if not physically. All she asks is for Cole to be discreet. When he starts to engage in such activities a little more openly, she becomes upset. They fight, and she leaves him. When his legs are badly injured in an accident, she comes back. There is clearly a strong emotional connection between them that transcends physical attraction. One of the most engrossing parts of De-Lovely is the depiction of their relationship. Although it might not make sense logically how such a marriage could work, the film does a superb job of making you understand it on an emotional level.
Aside from the Cole/Linda relationship, De-Lovely chronicles Porter’s rise from virtual unknown, to Broadway darling, to Hollywood heavyweight. We see him become inspired to write songs and, at other times, experiencing writer’s block. One of the key themes in the film is that the man who wrote so much about love never quite experienced it in totality. His songs were often expressions of the ideal he longed for. Yes, he got important companionship and friendship from Linda, and yes, he found sexual satisfaction from a series of brief same-sex flings. The arrangement may not have been totally fulfilling, though. The Cole Porter we see in this movie still dreams, as we all do at some point, of a perfect, all-inclusive love. That dream expressed itself in many of his best-known songs, in the view of this film.
Kevin Kline is absolutely astonishing as Porter. Always a fine actor, Kline outdoes himself this time. Whether he’s playing young Cole or old Cole, he never steps out of character. He also masterfully conveys the character’s inner feelings through facial expressions and body language. That is perhaps the toughest thing for an actor to do. Kline gives a look or a gesture that tells us volumes about how Porter is feeling. Near the end, an older Porter watches his comeback musical gain audience acceptance. The moment is tainted by the fact that Linda is not there to share the moment with him. Kline’s facial expression is heartbreaking. This is a first-rate performance that ought to earn Kevin Kline an Oscar nomination.
Ashley Judd is also very good, and it’s quite nice to see her in something other than a woman-in-danger thriller again. The whole movie depends on the ability to which the actors make us believe in the bond that held Cole and Linda together. Judd lets us see how her character loved Cole unconditionally. She helps give the film an emotional punch.
Then, of course, there’s the music. Porter’s tunes are often used to punctuate a scene, to cue us in to what’s happening without having to over-explain things. For example, “Love for Sale” is used as Porter is cruising for men in a nightclub. I love the way the picture often lets the music speak for itself in that way. Director Irwin Winkler has also assembled a list of guest musical performers to sing Porter tunes. Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow, and Robbie Williams all appear on screen at key times to sing songs. Alanis Morrisette stole the show for me with her unexpectedly fine version of “Let’s Fall in Love.”
De-Lovely, as many biopics do, ends on a series of down notes. (These pictures always seem to include the illness and death of the central character.) During the finale, the Director re-appears, reminding the aged Porter to “never end on a ballad.” The last musical number conveys the idea that, despite whatever personal problems he may have had, there were a lot of people in Cole Porter’s life who loved and respected him – and his talent. Judging from the high quality of De-Lovely, it’s safe to say that this is still the case.
( 1/2 out of four)
De-Lovely is rated PG-13 for sexual content. The running time is 2 hours and 4 minutes.
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