Don’t Begin the Beguine: De-Lovely Whitewashes the Life, Times, and Music of Cole Porter

love2As a longtime adherent of Cole Porter’s lyrics and melodies, I anticipated De-Lovely with frissons of excitement that major studio films seldom inspire in me. Advance word on this glossy MGM biopic wasn’t particularly favorable. Yet I held out hope that whatever the film’s dramatic failures and historical inaccuracies, the songs would be well sung, the production numbers would re-create the dazzle and glamour of pop culture in the 1930s and 40s. Not a chance.

Producer-turned-director Irwin Winkler had never a directed a musical before, and he still hasn’t. There are two, perhaps two-and-a half, maybe even as many as three well-directed sequences in De-Lovely’s 125-minute running time. The first of these takes place about 45 minutes in, at a rehearsal for Porter’s debut in New York. The blond matinee idol on stage (John Barrowman) can’t navigate the extreme high and low ranges of the Porter masterpiece “Night and Day.” The frustrated singer demands another song, and Porter (a miscast Kevin Kline) coaches the young actor through the intricate chord changes. They sing the words together, and the camera circles 360 degrees around pupil and teacher in the nearly empty theatre space. The singer eventually finds his way inside the song, and those swooping camera arcs nicely convey how difficult material begins to make gradual, perfect sense.

Mostly, De-Lovely is abysmal. This becomes apparent almost instantly. Film critic-turned-scenarist Jay Cocks borrows a trope from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to tell Porter’s life story. A ghostly visitor (Jonathan Pryce, looking cadaverous in a charcoal-grey suit) descends upon the silhouetted, wheelchair-bound elderly Porter with the announcement, “I let myself in.” They banter a bit about the existence of the Almighty. Kline: “If I believed in God, he’d have to be a song and dance man.”

Then it’s off to stilted cavorting around to “Anything Goes.” The choreography has neither energy nor snap; the dancers’ movements seem more appropriate for a low-budget production of Oklahoma than anything by Porter. The sound is muffled, tinny, weak. Ashley Judd, who takes the lead vocal, can’t sing. Judd prattles the witty lyrics indiscriminately. Furthermore, she has no sense of rhythm, except to keep propelling the words forward, and Kline, ridiculous in old-age makeup and bald wig, self-consciously exclaims, “Oh my God, an opening number!” Shortly after this, De-Lovely settles into a pattern of dramatized recollections interspersed with commentary by the equally corpse-like Porter/Kline and his spirit guide Pryce.

I don’t recall reading any of Cocks’ criticism for Time, yet clearly he absorbed the wrong lessons, sitting there in the dark watching bad movies flicker before his eyes. Cocks (who wrote a couple of screenplays for Martin Scorsese, Gangs of New York and The Age of Innocence) has a ludicrous sense of structure and a flair for astoundingly horrendous dialogue. Judd, as Linda Thomas, the socialite who would marry Porter although she knew of his homosexuality, delivers a disproportionate number of Cocks’ clinkers. “You have a dazzling gift and the life to go with it,” Linda tells Porter as he courts her with a chorus of “Easy to Love.” (Kline doesn’t so much sing these songs as croak them hoarsely. In fairness, Porter didn’t sing well either.) Linda, who wears a strand of pearls to bed, coos to Porter after their first horizontal assignation, “You don’t have to love me like I love you. Just love me.”

Which raises an interesting question. How, how, does Linda love Porter? Cocks never provides a clue as to why his version of Linda ostensibly feels the way she does. She dedicates her life to a man who prefers men. Her chief function in Porter’s world appears to be that of an haute couture den mother, encouraging him when he needs a push, trying to rein him in when his excesses jeopardize their fragile co-existence. Judd has a compelling moment when she arrives at a Hollywood pool party, quickly realizes that she’s the lone woman (and lone heterosexual) in attendance, and departs without making her presence known. While such a scenario may well have played out for some cover wives, the real Linda Porter, whose marriage was more of an understood business arrangement than an unrequited pining for tradition, doesn’t sound like someone who would’ve made a demure retreat.

love6Porter, as Cocks misconceives him and Kline underplays him, makes precious little sense. Bidding farewell to one of his young male lovers, an absurdly swank dancer from the Ballets Russes, Porter declares, “I don’t know what I’m going to do without you.” Which is kind of amazing, because I couldn’t imagine what the wan, asexual Kline would do with the sculpted, peroxide blond lion who wriggles beneath the linens as Kline utters this speech. And more importantly, Kline is too old to be convincing as the young Porter. A man in late middle age cannot make a lack of self-confidence palatable. What’s he been up to all his life? When Kline’s Porter waffles over whether to take on a new show, I wondered why Linda would stay with a man of his vintage who refuses to believe in himself. (The real-life Porter was thirteen years younger than his wife.)

A few more lines of the impossible dialogue: A father whose toddler son perishes from an unnamed illness laments, “Life has been one big carnival, and now we’re teetering on the high-wire,” or when a blackmailer confronts Linda with photographs of her husband kissing a man, she says, “You don’t sweat a drop, do you?” to which the extortionist replies, “I don’t believe in wasting my resources.”

The musical performances are just as dreadful. That mediocre non-entities Natalie Cole, Sheryl Crow, Mario Frangoulis, Alanis Morrisette, Elvis Costello, Lemar Obika, Robbie Williams, and Caroline O’Conner destroy every tune they touch shouldn’t be a surprise. Williams, for example, singing from the head and not the chest, makes a hash of “It’s De-Lovely” with sleazy, debauched, lounge lizard mannerisms that are not, in fact, a substitute for telling a story in song.

The customarily flavorless Costello drains every drop of mischief from “Let’s Misbehave.” Morrisette, clad in white tulle adorned with red hearts (or were they polka dots—her gown seems more suited to the Grand Old Opry than to Broadway), reduces the charming double entendres of “Let’s Do It” to adenoidal quavers. The great, dark sinews of “So in Love” become grist for Frangoulis’ pulpy, overloud salsa theatrics.

O’Conner as Ethel Merman and Obika as a serenading gondolier are too bland to merit comment, but Crow, in a vaguely bossa nova, downtempo massacre of “Begin the Beguine,” resembles a horse in an evening gown. Crow doesn’t know how to approach the complexity of the song, lyrically or otherwise. She just stretches out vowels, and not even that very well. The wispy, kittenish intonations that Natalie Cole brings to “Every Time We Say Goodbye,” sung at Linda’s graveside, are at odds with the melodic stateliness of the tune.

krallWhat’s more damning to Winkler’s inept direction is that he wrests poor vocal performances from Diana Krall and Mick Hucknall. The beautiful Krall looks pudgy-faced and miserable, as if she’d had a fight with the director just before her big scene. Whereas the grossly untalented Crow and Morrisette are given full spotlight, Winkler demotes Krall, an authentic jazz presence, to background noise. She appears ill at ease in the tight, ugly, funeral-black dress she’s been designated to wear, a dress with white, spidery lines stitched over the shoulders and bust. The make-up department was out to sabotage Krall as well: they smeared harsh red lipstick on her, all but obliterating her golden girl charisma. Under these circumstances, Krall cannot really be blamed for a lackluster “Just One of Those Things.”

To Hucknall’s credit, he tries to resuscitate some period atmosphere into “I Love You,” one of Porter’s lesser songs, by performing it in an operetta style akin to Nelson Eddy. The noble gesture doesn’t work, and in a movie where no one else cares about anachronisms, Hucknall appears foolish.

viviangreenOnly Vivian Green survives. Her voice front and center while the actors pantomime clandestine activities at an after hours gay bar, Green renders “Love for Sale,” Porter’s delirious ode to prostitution, passably and professionally, though certainly not with the interpretative powers of an Ella Fitzgerald or a Sarah Vaughan.

What does De-Lovely leave us with? Musically, aesthetically, it’s a shambles, except for the plaintive solo piano workings of Porter tunes that grace the soundtrack from time to time. We hear “In the Still of the Night” to good advantage this way at least twice, and quite affectingly in the hushed, bitter, final scene: a piano duet with Porter and the dead Linda reunited as they were in their prime. Those redoubtable hints of bitterness that rise through the cracks of the film’s superficiality are what linger when all else about De-Lovely fades. Winkler and Cocks fail to impart a sense of the high society milieu that surrounded Porter. (The Ikea Baroque set design doesn’t help.) They address the composer’s sexuality while revealing nothing of what it meant to live as a gay man in the early middle of the 20th-century. They hold up to ridicule the 1946 film bio Night and Day, starring Cary Grant as Porter, which completely omitted his homosexuality. Yet De-Lovely isn’t any less dishonest. By depicting one of our most adroit songwriters as a wax museum dandy, by casting an age-inappropriate actor who portrays him as a stationary eunuch around whom soundstage constellations turn, the filmmakers contribute only to our ever expanding cultural diminishment.

If (a mere 18 months ago) Rob Marshall’s torrid, sexually tinged adaptation of Chicago revived the movie musical as a popular form of entertainment, then here now is the flaccid De-Lovely to saltpeter the genre—again. — NPT

June 24, 2004

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