De Lovely

3.5 stars out of five
by S. James Wegg
Publish Date: December 20, 2004
De-Lovely, de-nearly delectable

“We could be singular as a couple.”

—the future Mrs. Linda Porter

Creating a film around the lives of great composers is always challenging: Their art overshadows their actions. The temptation is to assert that the biography is as compelling as the music. And, as witness Amadeus (cross-reference below), the result can become a spectacle that plays fast and loose with the facts even as the images on the screen are underscored by genius.

In De-Lovely, veteran writer Jay Cocks, using the conceit of Cole Porter (Kevin Kline in a dramatic if not vocal tour de force) watching the musical version of his life in a patronless theatre, side-by-side its director (Jonathan Pryce), allows for seamless cuts from end-of-life reflection to the selected milestones as they occurred: the venue permits everyone the opportunity of breaking into song or kicking up a storm at the drop of a clef.

The ensembles work best. The first, “It’s De-Lovely,” serves as a fabulous way of establishing tone, energy level and—using a fast-moving cast-parade—whets the appetite for a terrific show. “Be a Clown,” where Peter Polycarpou as the demanding Louis B. Mayer (“Can you write funny funny, not clever funny?”) gets the answer to his question in a number that can best be described as a spectacular costume comedy. The troupe dances with gay abandon around MGM’s studios while Tony Pierce-Roberts’ stellar camera and Julie Monroe’s crafty editing put together a magnificent collage of the hilarious sight gags and bountiful eye candy right down to their wingtips. The finale-cum-bows-sequence, “You’re the Top,” (another feather in choreographer Francesca Jaynes’ cap) brings the house down and should have sent the crowd away happy, but the creative team didn’t follow the sage songwriter’s advice “Never end with a ballad.”

Much of the film’s story focuses on Porter’s homosexuality. His life in “Gay Paris” is a series of parties (always enlivened by the affable composer’s early songbook) and some discreet encounters with buff men (notably Edward Baker-Duly as Boris, dancer extraordinaire with Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe). Porter’s penchant for hedonism has the potential to change when divorcée Linda Lee Thomas (Ashley Judd, coolly accepting her place as the loved, but not well-loved partner) whose three-pack-a-day habit (making this one of the smokiest films of the century) will send her to an early grave, comes on set. They are “Easy to Love” even as Porter confesses “I have other interests.” Undaunted, Thomas agrees to an arrangement where “Anything Goes” becomes more mantra than lyric.

The Porter wedding is also “De-Lovely,” despite a petulant outburst by the jilted ex (James Wilby), which has more bluster than steam. Then it’s on to Venice for more spectacular locations (the design team: Eve Stewart, John Hill, John Bush and Janty Yates have combined their considerable skills to fill the screen with endless bouquets, Trudeau-like boutonnières, gold leaf and opening night cigarette cases, and an array of fabric that could render many of the scenes first-rate even with the sound switched off) culminating in a costume ball that picks up where the aforementioned Amadeus and more recent Eyes Wide Shut left off—merci mille fois! “Let’s Misbehave” indeed—and with a tuba anchoring the music “who could ask for anything more?”

From there the film starts to lose focus. Director Irwin Winkler cannot instil the same crisp pace into the additional life details (friend’s terminally ill child, the Porters’ failed attempt starting a family, the inevitable breakup as Porter-in-Hollywood is provided a steady stream of tricks by an unscrupulous pimp-in-search-of-a-backer (Kevin McKidd) whose intimate blackmail, er, investment inducing, “recreation” pics bring the failed couple to an extended separation), only get in the way of the music: Vamp ’til ready.

But Winkler is determined to have a love story, so pays the penalty. Everything sags but the chorus and featured artists (Sheryl Crow’s sultry rendition of “Begin the Beguine” is worth the price of admission alone). They become the stars, conclusively demonstrating Porter’s artistic brilliance, even as his life, with its insatiable cravings (men, cigarettes, booze), slips away into reclusion—alone as an empty hall. JWR

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Director - Irwin Winkler
Writer - Jay Cocks
Music - Cole Porter
Cinematography - Tony Pierce-Roberts
Art Direction - John Hill
Set Decoration - John Bush
Costume Designer - Janty Yates
Editor - Jonathan Pryce
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