At his best, Cole Porter (1891-1964) was arguably the greatest of the contributors to the Great American Songbook. His eternally upbeat and hummable song "It’s De-Lovely" (1936) provides the title for this biopic in the classical Hollywood mode, interspersing a chronological narrative of selected events from his life with song-and-dance numbers of some of his best songs, all framed as flashbacks seen through his own eyes near the end of his life, guided by a strangely Faustian figure, Gabe (Jonathan Pryce).
Producer/director Irwin Winkler (Life as a House) says that "we’ve used the broad outline and certain details of Porter’s life…to weave an impressionistic musical biography." It’s a statement that pretty much cops out on responsibility for historical accuracy, which places the film squarely in the great tradition of Hollywood biopics. Damn the facts; a "concept" comes first.
At the center of the narrative is Porter’s marriage to divorcee Linda Thomas (Ashley Judd), a marriage grounded in love (not sex, though the movie has them in bed together), shared social status, her prior abusive husband, and his (unstated) need for a "beard." Porter (Kevin Kline) was an active homosexual and Linda knew it when they married; she was confidant that they could function as a team, even while he retained his freedom to pursue his sexual proclivities elsewhere.
The film shows them as a great, mutually supportive couple who loved each other in their own way–at least until they got to Hollywood, where the gay enclave within the movie industry was highly active and the partying uninhibited. A blackmail attempt stretched Linda’s tolerance to breaking and she packed her bags.
The other defining moment in the personal biography was Porter’s fall from a horse, resulting in both legs being crushed. Porter had multiple surgeries over the years, but he remained crippled by his injuries and ultimately one leg was amputated. It was not only a physical blow, but a psychological one from which he never recovered; he became dependent on alcohol and drugs.
The biography plays out against a series of musical numbers, some integrated into the plot (as with Porter singing to Linda in a Parisian park, "You’d be so easy to love…"), some performed as part of the representation of a Porter show or film, some just inserted to showcase the songs as interpreted by such contemporary performers as Diana Krall and Robbie Williams. Elvis Costello performs an energetic "Let’s Misbehave" and Natalie Cole is nigh unto perfect singing "Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye." Sheryl Crow’s interpretation of "Begin the Beguine" departs so far from the original that one member of the audience was incensed and already composing a nasty letter to Winkler for his transgression.
The problem is not so much using modern vocal interpretations as it is in the film wavering back and forth between such contemporary styles and the quite different Broadway stage sound. Some of the best singing is of the latter type, with John Barrowman, for example, providing a thrilling rendition of "Night and Day" and Caroline O’Connor shining in Ethel Merman’s great number, "Anything Goes." Both are stars of Broadway and the West End.
The film is further hampered by the awkwardly self-conscious flashback structure (neither the comments of the "old" Porter nor the Gabe character add much of substance). Screenwriter Jay Cocks (Gangs of New York) demonstrates no ear here for the way people actually speak; the dialogue is alternately stilted and cliched.
Kevin Kline is perfectly cast as Porter–he has the looks and the charm and an uncanny ability to submerge himself into the character he is playing. He’s a total delight on screen and Ashley Judd, finally out of her B-movie rut, is a classy Linda. (None of the characters beyond Porter and Linda are developed in any depth at all.)
When there’s a song being played, De-Lovely is, indeed, delicious and delectable to watch and hear. But the book and the direction are confused, wandering unconvincingly from semi-accurate biography to serious emotion to fantasy to classic Hollywood fluff. It’s a failed attempt at stylization, lacking the consistency of view and approach that would knit the parts together into a cohesive whole.
But, oh, those songs!