Photo by Simon Mein
I blame Cole Porter for my first infatuation with American glamour. When I was 8 years old my mother took me to see the screen musical High Society, a spirited frippery that confirmed my English-kid’s envious impression of America as a sunlit paradise where the natives sang, danced and partied their brains out in shimmering frocks with de-luxe buttons. In retrospect, this remake of The Philadelphia Story, for which Porter wrote some of his best lyrics (“Well, Did You Evah”) and his worst (“True Love,” still a bona fide guilty pleasure), might also be one exuberantly shallow way to look at the sort of life led by Porter, in his prime a noted party animal who caroused his way around gay and straight Europe, New York and Hollywood before a riding accident rendered him a pain-wracked invalid.
If High Society offers a friskier portrait of Porter’s milieu than Michael Curtiz’s absurdly euphemistic 1946 biopic Night and Day, with Cary Grant as Porter and Alexis Smith as his socialite wife Linda, it’s also a lot more fun than Irwin Winkler’s new musical portrait, a likable but plodding blend of strenuous style and canned psychology. Though hobbled by a contrived theatrical device that has a depressed and aging Porter (played in heavy makeup by Kevin Kline) trawling his life through his musical numbers, De-Lovely offers some of the mild pleasures of a Jazz Age period piece, among them the usual tuxedos and party dresses, and some fancy replicas of the palaces and swank nightclubs in Paris, Venice, Manhattan and Los Angeles that Porter flitted through in his obsessive pursuit of a good time. More problematic are the musical numbers, which might have benefited from a simple soundtrack featuring Ella Fitzgerald’s superb interpretations, a sweet revenge on the snobby Porter, who never believed she could bring it off. Instead, Winkler and his arranger, Stephen Endelman, fuss around with an array of contemporary music-world luminaries, some of them divine (Vivian Green croons a sultry “Love for Sale” while Porter cruises a gay bar; Diana Krall gives a relaxed, all too brief rendition of “Just One of Those Things”), others jarringly miscast (Elvis Costello, whom no one would ever accuse of being suave, belts out “Let’s Misbehave,” while Sheryl Crow does an almost comically overwrought “Begin the Beguine”).
A producer of some discernment (Rocky and Raging Bull among many others), Winkler makes an earnest, overly careful director. His 1991 blacklist drama Guilty By Suspicion was awful, and the recent Life As a House was dreary at best. De-Lovely is neither, but its attempts at high style are heavy-handed (Winkler doesn’t skimp on Porter’s subterranean gay life, but his approach is polite and gingerly, as if he’s holding his nose), and the movie’s reach exceeds its grasp when it aims for profundity. Porter was an imperfectly closeted homosexual, promiscuous even by today’s standards, who nevertheless sustained a long and — for one of them at least — satisfying marriage to Linda Lee Thomas (played in the movie by Ashley Judd), a society beauty 15 years his senior who functioned variously as his muse, his agent and his mom. For a man who penned some of the gayest (in every sense) lyrics ever written for American film and theater, Porter, according to his biographers, had his dark, moody, not to say chilly and heedless, side. Kline is a gifted song-and-dance man, and the hint of Shakespearean pedantry that sometimes mars his acting serves him well in evoking the aloofness that lay behind Porter’s frivolity. But though he and Judd make a handsome couple — her lovely flapper’s face, willowy grace and low, musical speaking voice seem made for the period — there’s no real sense of what lay behind this glamorous but, from her point of view, often cruelly unequal partnership. To their credit, Winkler and his rather too declamatory screenwriter Jay Cocks don’t try to write off the union as a marriage of convenience between a homosexual and his long-suffering beard. But Winkler never ventures any truly muscular speculation about the glue that held together the partnership between a man who gallantly stepped up to try for the baby his wife longed for yet kept her waiting night and day while he dallied with beautiful boys, and a woman so devoted (or controlling) that she ended up as his procurer. If you’re a Cole Porter fan you might like the songs in De-Lovely, but as a portrait of an unusual marriage it’s de-lumbering, de-liberate and de-cidedly flat.
DE-LOVELY | Directed by IRWIN WINKLER Written by JAY COCKS | Produced by WINKLER, ROB COWAN and CHARLES WINKLER Released by MGM Pictures | Citywide