Something about the music of Cole Porter appears to inspire folly on a grand scale — at least when that music is taken out of its original settings. The most notorious example of this is Peter Bogdanovich’s At Long Last Love. When I first saw that film upon its original release in 1975, people slowly trickled out of the theater — until somewhere around the halfway mark, when star Burt Reynolds popped his head up into the frame and announced, “I feel the urge to sing.” At which point a good 20 to 30 moviegoers fled in stark terror. And yet I admit to a personal fondness for the film as a sometimes brilliant, always fascinating disaster.
While Irwin Winkler’s De-Lovely is unlikely to ever attain the level of legendary catastrophe that clings to the Bogdanovich film, it’s also less successful artistically — even devoid of Reynold’s vocal stylings (that is, his bad Dean Martin impression). But it shares what I’m beginning to think is at the root of the problem: Porter’s songs.
No, it’s not that his music isn’t great; quite the opposite. His songs are too good. And having access to the entire Porter catalogue apparently tempts filmmakers to try to cram damn near the whole works into a two-hour running time. I think it was less Burt’s singing that drove people from At Long Last Love than it was that he and co-star Cybil Shepherd had just finished one song not more than five seconds before Reynolds’ Porterian announcement of further warbling.
De-Lovely isn’t quite as overloaded in the same sense, but because it houses the Cole Porter story, the heavy barrage of songs ultimately submerges the drama to a point where the film sometimes seems like little more than a clever “And then I wrote …” sort of thing. That said, I have rarely seen a movie I so loved and hated in almost equal measure.
Movie-critic-turned-screenwriter Jay Cocks (The Gangs of New York) cooked up a witty conceit worthy of Porter himself when he decided to present the composer’s life as a series of theatrical events being watched by Porter (Kevin Kline) at the hour of his own death. Porter does so in the company of a mysterious figure called Gabe (Jonathan Pryce), who stage manages what the songwriter and the audience see of the life and works of Cole Porter.
“This is one of those avant garde things,” complains Porter when the tour of his life starts off all wrong, beginning a show by breaking the cardinal musical rule of never opening with a ballad, thereby prompting a shift in gears to “Anything Goes.” It’s a brilliant moment — of theater and film all at once — in a movie boasting quite a few of them. And Cocks has a happy knack for generally picking the best songs through which to illustrate Porter’s life. That said, purists may be riled to find “Well, Did You Evah?” (from 1939’s DuBarry Was a Lady) being sung at a party in the 1920s, or with Porter courting Linda Lee Thomas (Ashley Judd) with “Easy to Love” (which the composer wrote for the 1936 film Born to Dance).
Yet De-Lovely‘s concept lends itself to this kind of license, and once you accept the film’s internal logic, such anachronisms are not distracting. And the style results in some great moments, like Elvis Costello’s rendition of “Let’s Misbehave” (one of the film’s few truly period-sounding orchestrations) and the charmingly creative bit with Lemar Obika performing “What Is This Thing Called Love?” from a gondola. Other numbers are presented more traditionally, and with varying degrees of success. Caroline O’Connor (best known as Nini Legs-in-the-Air in Moulin Rouge!) does a passable Ethel Merman impression in a pretty authentic recreation of Anything Goes, while Alanis Morrissette is just ever-so-slightly wrong handling “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love.” (Though, really, only Sheryl Crow’s “Begin the Beguine” seems thoroughly wrong-headed.)
The film’s insistence on including as many stage recreations as it does finally undermines what hold De-Lovely has on its drama. The real problem with pulling it all together, though, lies with director Irwin Winkler (who, ironically, produced Bogdanovich’s second big flop in a row, Nickelodeon).
Winkler has an impressive track record as a producer, but a completely lackluster one as director. His work here is about on par with his other efforts — too earnest, and too flat. His sole notion of style seems to be to circle his performers in elaborate 360-degree tracking shots. Not only does this approach wear out its welcome, but done in Panavision with a wide-angle lens, it tends to distort anyone on the edge of the frame into what one imagines Lon Chaney’s backside looked like (in other words, it’s not a pretty picture). But mostly, it’s Winkler’s deadly earnestness that damages De-Lovely.
Owing to the heavy use of songs, the story line often descends to Hollywood-biopic shorthand that’s as bad as anything in the laughably fraudulent 1946 Porter biopic Night and Day. And yet Winkler tackles the material with such a straight face that it ultimately becomes funny. This film needed someone who could exploit these cliches by realizing they’re just that, and then using them accordingly. Similarly, there’s no lightness of tone to Winkler’s approach. Cocks had a brilliant concept poking fun at Porter’s MGM involvement with “Be a Clown,” but Winkler hasn’t a clue how to pull something like that off, with the resulting scene just odd and out of step with the rest of the film. It needed — as does the finale — a kind of panache and flamboyance Winkler just doesn’t possess.
Winkler need have gone no further than his own producer-credited films and picked from Bogdanovich, Ken Russell (now, there’s a filmmaker who knows musicals) or Martin Scorsese to find someone better qualified for this material. It’s a measure of the successfulness of the script and the performers that the results are even as good as they are. Still, the script — grounded in the Porters’ largely sexless marriage and his homosexuality — tends to play a bit too much like Carrington-Lite (not helped at all by the presence of Jonathan Pryce) with its story of another historical “perfect” couple in everything but matters sexual. But it’s certainly a game try, even if it ultimately seems more like a great idea for a movie than an actual great movie.
Is De-Lovely a failure? In many ways, yes. But it’s the kind of failure I’d rather see than I would many more successful films.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke