“You have a dazzling talent and a life to go with it. What can you possibly be afraid of?” says socialite Linda Lee (Ashley Judd) to Parisian dandy and emerging composer Cole Porter (Kevin Kline), after witnessing one of his sessions at the piano.
The time is 1918, when the Jazz Age is beginning to flower and the backdrop is the City of Lights.
Linda and Cole are in a salon filled with the decadent, the fashionable and the gorgeously wealthy. Linda’s neck is adorned with her trademark long string of pearls and Cole is immaculate in a tuxedo and jeweled cuff links. Her question sounds rhetorical and yet Cole’s face as he searches for an answer is tinged with anxiety, as if he already knows how fragile his success could be, as if he almost sees the lurking shadow of misfortune and pain. But the next minute, Cole is back to being his cocky self, brimming with sophisticated seductiveness. His moment of fear is gone. He asks Linda to dance and she assents, marking the start of their famed 38-year romance.
“De-Lovely” tells the story of that romance, while showcasing the life and talent of Porter, one of America’s most important composers.
Director Irwin Winkler and Kline create a glittering but poignant biopic-musical that stresses — more than anything else — how the composer lived his life like his songs: romantically, extravagantly and with unparalleled sophistication.
For his role, Kline went through a seven-month period in which he practiced the piano and took singing lessons and though in the movie he doesn’t actually play, there are several scenes where he sings (quite skillfully) and this — along with onscreen performances from Nathalie Cole, Alanis Morissette, Elvis Costello and Sheryl Crow (among others) — makes “De-Lovely” a uniquely enthralling musical.
The scene where Alanis Morissette’s voice soars to “Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall in Love),” a memorable number in Cole’s first successful musical, “Paris,” comprises one of the most triumphant moments for the film (and for the Porters). It’s hard to think anything remotely fearsome could happen to the couple after this, but it does, as Cole had vaguely foreseen.
The greatness of Cole Porter lay in the fact that he never allowed the flyspecks of life to soil the notes on his music sheets. When he had a riding accident that broke both his legs and caused him to endure close to 30 operations over the course of 27 years, his bed had two embroidered pillows. One said “Never Complain” and the other said “Never Explain” (a detail unfortunately omitted from the movie). Until six years prior to his death, he went right on composing his airy love songs.
During his life, Porter wrote over 870 numbers, including classics like “Begin the Beguine,” “Anything Goes” and “Night and Day,” and had both Broadway and Hollywood at his feet. At the time he met Linda, he was a Yale graduate having his Paris fling (as the adored son of a wealthy Indiana family) and his close friends were Gerald and Sarah Murphy (played by Kevin McNally and Sandra Nelson) — the legendary American tycoon couple at the vortex of the Paris jazz scene.
A year later, he married the even wealthier Linda (dubbed “the most beautiful divorcee in Paris”), who was 10 years his senior, both knowing that Cole was bisexual and probably could not love her in the way she truly desired. But theirs was a contract built on mutual respect and altruistic love — she was his muse and unfailing supporter, he was her gallant knight providing excitement and fame. There were many moments of grief (mostly for Linda) and of regret (for Cole) due to his sexual escapades, but while their married life was embedded with many thorns, the rose of drama always bloomed, if not in the warmest of hues.
Winkler makes sure their life as a couple is never marred by routine, boredom, petty tiffs; when Linda walks away from him, she does so calmly and stylishly (the click of her heels subtly receding), saying the exact correct thing: “I’ve indulged you, I’ve spoiled you. And for what? A little bit of music.”
“De-Lovely” should be seen for many reasons, but you don’t have to be a Porter fan to be intoxicated and swept away by his “little bit of music,” the dramatic relationship he shared with his wife and the cocoon of talent, money and elegance in which he lived.
The greatest achievement of the film is probably the structure: An aged and ill Porter sits in a deserted theater with his guide, the angel Gabe (Jonathan Pryce), as they watch his life unfold onstage with his numbers orchestrating and decorating every major event. For Porter, life probably was a stage-show extravaganza with him at the epicenter — a “de-lightful, de-licious, de-lovely” fairy tale that he coaxed into being from sheer will, talent and his own, extraordinary existence.