In a darkened room an elderly man sits at a piano. He's barely outlined by
light from a window, his face obscured in shadow. Then, a light fades up,
spotlighting him, followed by brightness all around. Thus starts "De-Lovely"
and its style of self-aware artificiality. The pianist is an after-life
representation of composer Cole Porter (Kevin Kline), aged with make-up.
Out of a still shadowed corner of the room steps Gabe (Jonathan Pryce),
emerging like the ethereal character he is (think angel, horn-blower Gabriel
and you'll make the connection). As theatrical entrepreneur and spirit
guide, Pryce speaks with a sense of breathless self-importance as he lays out
the acts of his movie-musical production, a look-back on the highlights of
Porter's life. The show includes moments Porter would rather edit out but,
though he may be the author of "Blow, Gabriel, Blow," it doesn't afford him
final cut on this collaboration.
Like a symphony that's incomplete because all the notes aren't available,
this reminiscence fails to illuminate a three-dimensional portrait of the
subject. The show that Gabe puts on for the dead man (and for us) is loaded
with talent and period accuracy. But, the portrayal of the subject's swank,
privileged life, festive and elegant to behold, tends to be off-putting. The
world which Porter commands with assured, inevitable success, remains distant
and alien. Rather than relate to it, I felt I was there to simply revel in
the entertainment. Which I did -- the Porter touch prevails.
As for the character Kevin Kline creates, I don't know what I was more
bothered by, his smirk or his strut. He wore the stylish costumes impeccably
Ashley Judd provided the glamour necessary to be convincing as Linda, the
female love of Porter's life, and a wife who was ready to support and enable
his physical preference for men to an extent difficult to comprehend apart
from the fact that she was a divorc‚e who was older than Porter and enjoyed
the good life. But the level of devotion that sustains the heroic toleration
suggested here (if it was that) is worn down by the marriage's philandering
reality, only the surface of which is allowed to enter the scenario. She is
as much window dressing for the picture as she might have been for the real
man's social standing. A psychological study of this deprived woman's basis
for such sacrifice may be the better drama.
The appearances of hip modern divas stepping away from their signature
singing styles to take on the Porter magic was, for me, a highlight. Alanis
Morissette is off the charts on "Let's Do It, Let's Fall In Love" and Sheryl
Crow is the cat's meow on "Begin the Beguine," both having their way with the
material and trying their best but perhaps a bit too freeform for Porter
devotees. Not being an ingrained one, I thought the effort of these modern
divas worthy of some appreciation (Ok, not a lot). Diana Krall, Elvis
Costello and Natalie Cole lend their more in-touch luster, and I wound up
wishing the young, musical-oriented Linda Ronstadt was around. Costuming and
set design are undeniable hits.
It must have seemed a great privilege for director Irwin Winkler (who last
worked with Kevin Kline on Life is a House, 2001), and screenwriter Jay Cocks
(Gangs of New York) to bring the work of this legend to the screen. Their
aim seems to be a grand retrospective of his ingenious touch with a pop song
and an attempt to humanize his homosexual life while scandalizing it. But
success for a film biography depends on more than a handsome production with
a nostalgic playlist. The need for an emotional connection to the main
character won't be satisfied by gold plating a man whose essential qualities,
besides a talent that has enriched our musical heritage, is that he's ultra
sophisticated, cool to an adoring wife, and absorbed in his gay exploits.
Having said all that, if you're seriously into musicals, you won't want to
~~ Jules Brenner