Film Studies: Witless wealth, superiority and boredom - the movie

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

At one point in the new Cole Porter biopic, De-Lovely, Cole (Kevin Kline) has to take his wife, Linda (Ashley Judd), to see the movie of his life just made by Hollywood. This is meant to be 1945, and the biopic is Night and Day, with Cary Grant as Porter and Alexis Smith as Linda. Though directed by Michael Curtiz (Casablanca, Mildred Pierce, Yankee Doodle Dandy), Night and Day is worse than a dog. In the dark, already crippled by his riding accident and working his way through the 22 futile operations that followed it, Cole turns to Linda and sighs: "And now this to put up with!" Whereupon, Linda delivers one of those radiant and knowing smiles that Ashley Judd has worked out for De-Lovely. It's the look that says how super to be married to a genius, but how sad that he's a fruit.

At one point in the new Cole Porter biopic, De-Lovely, Cole (Kevin Kline) has to take his wife, Linda (Ashley Judd), to see the movie of his life just made by Hollywood. This is meant to be 1945, and the biopic is Night and Day, with Cary Grant as Porter and Alexis Smith as Linda. Though directed by Michael Curtiz (Casablanca, Mildred Pierce, Yankee Doodle Dandy), Night and Day is worse than a dog. In the dark, already crippled by his riding accident and working his way through the 22 futile operations that followed it, Cole turns to Linda and sighs: "And now this to put up with!" Whereupon, Linda delivers one of those radiant and knowing smiles that Ashley Judd has worked out for De-Lovely. It's the look that says how super to be married to a genius, but how sad that he's a fruit.

There's enough wrong with De-Lovely to fill a column, yet the mistakes are in their way smart and well-meaning, and the film is so much better than Night and Day - well, it's exactly that difference. The reasons why this is worth talking about are that this is a very interesting subject, where truly fond partners do not really click sexually, and the way in which they try to laugh it off. That gay despair is the fragrance of the film, and it's as touching and barbed as so many of Porter's great songs. This life story is true and searching enough to let one hear the ambiguity in so many of his melancholy lines:

"It's the wrong time and the wrong place,

Though your face is charming, it's the wrong face,

It's not her face but such a charming face

That it's all right with me."

The other reason for making, and seeing this film, is quite simply Cole Porter (1891-1964), the hardest genius to deal with in a movie because he found song-writing as easy as sipping the first martini of the day.

Beethoven is made for movies: he's deaf, he's alone, he's brooding and the music itself speaks to the great labour of delivery. But Cole Porter sounds so easy - "All of You", "Anything Goes", "Begin the Beguine", "I Concentrate on You" - that it's hard to believe he even needed to concentrate. Indeed, there's an early scene in which Mr Porter meets Mr Irving Berlin. Berlin then was the best-known song-writer in the world and three years older than Porter. But Berlin (or Israel Baline) was the son of poor immigrants, who defied lack of education with hard work, likeability and irresistible Americanism to reach his height.

Cole Porter, on the other hand, would have smiled sweetly on industry, work and the flag. He was so good, and so rich, he needed none of them. These days, we have a sentimental notion that being very rich disqualifies a person from being creative. Cole Porter eliminates the specious thought, but still, he presents a problem. At the end of De-Lovely we hear Porter himself singing - he couldn't really sing, but nor could he disguise the spoiled-little-boy voice that immediately tells us volumes ignored in Kevin Kline's valiant performance as Porter.

After all, Kline knows De-Lovely is a big picture, and somehow we have to like Porter. Well, the songs are a help - but not the ease with which they are written. And while Ashley Judd may adore him, we have to allow that this Porter does keep noticing and staffing his life with pretty boys. The humour is tastefully omitted, whereas in life Porter relished this up-side of being a gay cripple: that he needed young hunks to carry him around.

Director Irwin Winkler has had a crushingly good idea. I mean this seriously - the idea is riveting, but quite beyond his own talent. He frames the film in a tatty, dark theatre, where the elderly Porter is taken by a dark, saturnine figure (you'd see that it was Death if Jonathan Pryce wasn't unloading all the charm he can muster) to watch the show of his life.

Pryce and Kline have flair and chemistry - how funny it would be if, just to put off the evil day, Porter started to seduce Death. And how much better if the twosome had as much wit in their talk as Porter could put into one song. But the idea remains intriguing, and in the pairing of the two fellows - sometimes side-by-side at the same piano - you do know what a lost cause Linda is pursuing. (I mean beyond the casting of Ashley Judd who has come to be unfortunately associated with forlorn ventures.) I suspect that Cole Porter was a spoiled prick (literally), who felt compelled by good manners to enter into a suitable marriage, and was then trapped by discovering that he quite liked the lady. This seems in the film to be because Judd is such a brick. But I reckon in life that it had more to do with their shared snobbery, and the foreplay they could get into over money, décor and invitation lists for parties. Mr Winkler has turned a very fond eye on this lives of the rich and famous, and he has done his best to bolster the Porter way by having Gerald and Sara Murphy as their best friends. The Murphys were a couple of equally rich toadies who took up Hemingway and Fitzgerald as well as Porter, and bravely withstood the loss of a child. Their own stupefying boredom, however, was more than they - or we - should have to handle.

No, what the Cole Porter story needs is this unending stream of beautiful songs ("What is this Thing Called Love", "So in Love", "My Heart Belongs to Daddy", "Love for Sale") which came out of a life of witless wealth, superiority and boredom. When Berlin meets Porter, the Tin Pan Alley man is amazed to discover that Porter has only ever written songs for Yale larks and weekend parties. "Why not do it professionally?" asks Berlin. And Porter needs to wince, as if the idea of going into trade has been mentioned.

So you have to settle for Judd's smile, Kline's sweet light manner and Pryce's sly looks... and the songs. But there again, a howler undermines all. Winkler - to be hip, I suppose - has hired a band of contemporary singers to do the Porter songs: Alanis Morissette, Sheryl Crow, Diana Krall, Elvis Costello, Natalie Cole. Alas, these singers simply do not know how to sing Porter lyrics; they are unaccustomed to such wit in the words. Poor Miss Cole gets to do this:

"Every time we say goodbye

I die a little.

Every time we say goodbye

I wonder why a little."

You know it - it's one of the greatest songs of all. But Natalie Cole cannot sing the word "little" properly. In fact, it's a word a lot of Americans have trouble with. Perhaps one day we'll have the Cole Porter story where Cole (it cries out for John Malkovich) causes a really ugly little scene over the imperfection and reduces the singer to tears. That's the kind of genius he was. De-testable would have been a good title.

d.thomson@independent.co.uk

Comments