Thursday, March 15, 2012

De-Lovely (2004) - Very Good, But A Bit Weird For A General Audience,

"De-Lovely" (2004).

I saw "De-Lovely" (2004) in New York City at an advance screening.  Afterwards, we were asked to fill out the little green cards they give you to provide feedback. My comments were generally positive, but I had to note on there that the emphasis on the subject's sexuality seemed a little over the top. I still feel that way.

Let's get right to the heart of the matter: the main thrust of "De-Lovely" is that Cole Porter was bisexual, and that this was the dominant aspect of his life (aside, I suppose, from songwriting - though this is not clear from "De-Lovely"). Well, I have a confession to make: Cole Porter's bisexualit simply doesn't interest me very much. I suppose that means I am not in the target audience for this film. I expect people in that milieu to have, shall we say, individualistic personal preferences, so that Cole Porter hung out at gay clubs doesn't seem very startling to me. Belaboring any historical figure's sexuality strikes me as revealing an agenda - I don't really care how often George Washington made out with Martha, either. I don't go to films to further someone's agenda; I go to enjoy myself - which I did at this film However, I would have enjoyed "De-Lovely" a whole lot more without the obsessive detailing of what gay bars Mr. Porter frequented.

De-lovely 2004
Ashley Judd plays Linda Porter.

The sexual aspect, strident as it may be, isn't even the defining characteristic of this film. "De-Lovely" is all about wealth, and rich people, and fancy cars, and fancy dress, and wealth. It's said that when people suddenly "realize" their "past lives," they never lived as beggars or thieves - they invariably were kings or queens or adventurers. Well, this is another type of foray into the past where we see nothing but money spread here, there and everywhere by director Irwin Winkler. There was a Depression on, but you'd never know it from "De-Lovely." It all gets to be a bit much for my taste.  Who Mr. Porter slept with pales beside the fact that it invariably was under Egyptian cotton sheets. I just can't feel much pity for a man and his wife who are impeccably tailored in every scene, regardless of who he was with on Saturday nights.

Another flaw was the casting of Ashley Judd. I know, it's almost un-American to dislike the female lead in any film, but Judd never conveyed a real sense of anger or frustration or, well, just about anything. She smiles, she pouts, she smiles some more, she dresses up, she dresses up some more - it really isn't much of a character. I felt no dramatic tension behind her character despite a whole lot of screen time. Ashley was on a career roll at this point and I'm sure the producers felt lucky to get her, but she didn't add much to "De-Lovely as far as I could tell.

Like virtually all people who did some high school acting/singing, I was in some Cole Porter stuff. It's practically a requirement in many drama departments that you do a Cole Porter play in order to graduate. Nothing wrong with that, he wrote some of the greatest songs and musicals of the 20th century, bar none. Thus, I have an interest in Cole Porter that probably is greater than that of 99% of the general population. So maybe I should have been in the target audience, and maybe that's why I hunted down this film to view it - but it left me wanting to know a little more about the man's work and less about the quality of his tailor.

De-lovely 2004

Still, I knew little about the man. I think history has overlooked the life stories of Porter, the Gershwins, and Irving Berlin, who collectively were the apogee of American songwriting, at least in the pre-Rock era. Porter's talent was at least as great as that of the others. How can you not like "Anything Goes"? It's almost unpatriotic not to like it.

de-lovely 2004
Photocall for the film at Cannes with Sheryl Crow, Alanis Morissette and friends.

Which gets me to this film. I liked it, and it made me think. It also, though, seemed a bit weak in places.

de-lovely 2004
Like Kevin Kline, they dressed well for work in those days

The positives are many: Kevin Kline is great in most of his scenes (though, unfortunately, a few times you can feel him acting rather than being the part, which is unlike him). Ashley Judd certain looks the part of his wife (though the director shouldn't have allowed her to open her mouth to sing, not once). The life story of Cole Porter is interesting and needs to be told, and there are some great costumes and scenery. They squeezed in most of Porter's signature tunes and did a great job of showing his versatility as a songwriter.

de-lovely 2004
Sheryl Crow looks good in "De-Lovely" and sings well, but she is only around for a minute or two.

There are some negatives, though. The film gives a completely confusing view of the Coles' marriage. It never mentions that his wife was wealthy and capable of supporting him. Was Porter completely gay and the marriage just a sham? Kline is most convincing when he leans this way - but then pulls back. When I said above that the movie made me think, this is what I was thinking about: whether the man was bisexual or gay, because the movie completely forces this issue on the audience. Then, though, having made this the crux of the film, the story struggles mightily to have it both ways. We are told that Porter, regardless of his sexuality, was a loving husband in every way but that she let him down by having a miscarriage. It seems highly unlikely that the man was all things to all people, a big romantic lover with his wife, and at the same time with a string of men some of whom she is shown encouraging him to date! I mean, come on, let's be realistic. I felt that the movie was intent on making a major statement about gays in relationships, but that pistol misfires badly.

The Porters, "De-Lovely" implies, were not as happy as this very often.

I also thought that the all-star singing cameos were a bit shaky.  It felt as if they dredged up as many acts that had been popular about ten years before and wedged in scenes for them. I don't think any of them followed this up with much career advancement, though they still make the tabloids for various reasons as all big names of the past do.

I'm a big Sheryl Crow fan, but she really looks stiff in her brief singing appearance.  She comes across as uncomfortable, as if her outfit were too tight, while she obviously lip-synched herself singing "Begin the Beguine." Alanis Morissette in particular has issues, as her folksy singing style is just distracting - it is like having a rap singer in a biography of about Benny Goodman. Yes, she's a good singer, no, her particular style does not work in this context. This film is about Broadway musicals in the 1930s and Alanis' warbling voice sounded very out of place if for no other reason than that is is very distinctive and unique to her. On the plus side, Robbie Williams and Elvis Costello were fabulous in their cameos, hitting just the right, er, notes. Vivian Green also did a great job with "Love for Sale" in one of the best sequences in the film.

De-lovely Cole Porter
Cole Porter himself.

I also didn't particularly like the overall thematic structure. Having to wonder "is this all a remembrance by a dying Cole Porter, or is he dead already? Or, is this like 'A Christmas Carol" with Jonathan Pryce as the Ghost of Christmas Past?" destroyed some of the verisimilitude for me. In a word, it was a bit precious.  I suppose it was supposed to be like "Our Town," with a prominent narrator, but having him also get involved in actual scenes was odd.  I'm sure it was all explainable if you pay rapt attention and really thought it out - but brother, I'm at the pictures to enjoy myself, not study the Talmud.

De-lovely Cole Porter
Ashley Judd and Kevin Kline make a sparkling appearance together in "De-Lovely."

Why can't Hollywood just do a straight narrative any more? At least it didn't go "21 Grams" on us.

The film sort of concludes Porter's career with a "Hollywood ending" that implies that the apogee of his career was "Kiss Me Kate." Yes, he had a huge hit for his day with that. But "Anything Goes," which is his by far best-remembered play, gets very short shrift. I can appreciate the reverse-snobbism at work here, how the hoi polloi already know about "Anything Goes" and thus it need not be dwelt upon, but really, it was the man's magnum opus and should be given its due. "Kate" wasn't even Porter's last hit, he did "Can-Can" and "Silk Stockings" after that.

de-lovely 2004

Oh, and by the way, am I reading the credits right, this play about gay society was written by one Jay Cocks? As David Letterman would say, uh, what's up with that? Seeing that credit was one of the funniest things about the film. I love finding something wild in the end credits like that, like a cool prize in a Cracker Jack box.  I know, I'm terrible.

So, I had mixed feelings. Love the songs, some good performances, an interesting story that should be known more, but some unfortunate weaknesses. Overall, I liked it a lot, but I appreciate showbizzy stuff more than the average viewer. If you did "Anything Goes" in high school, you should see this film.


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