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De-Stinky

Your Humble Blogger finally saw De-Lovely. If y’all had forgotten, or more likely never heard, about De-Lovely, it was last year’s Cole Porter bio-pic, the one with Kevin Kline, the one that was trashed for using a variety of theatrical techniques. I was terribly excited about it when it came out. I’m a huge fan of Cole Porter’s songs, I’m a huge fan of Kevin Kline’s acting (and singing), and I am a fairly big fan of the sort of theatrical techniques that the reviews seemed to dislike. I was also interested to see how the movie would handle Mr. Porter’s bisexuality; the idea that the topic is controversial was absurd, but it’s a matter of some interest to me personally.

So it’s too bad that the movie stunk so much.

When I talk about the theatrical techniques, I’m talking about the sort of thing I think would work much better on stage, and I’m not sure why that would be. The basic frame is that Mr. Porter, at the moment of his dying, is greeted by ... Death? The Lord? Gabriel? ... a faintly ominous but courteous and not overtly threatening director/producer, who takes Old Cole (if you will) into a theater where he is beginning rehearsals (or something) for, well, for the movie we’re watching. Old Cole complains, suggests, and acts! as he watches various scenes from his life played out, sometimes naturalistically and sometimes in one or another non-naturalistic style. It’s not always easy to tell what’s what.

The bio-pic part begins with young Mr. Porter meeting his wife-to-be at a party in Paris. This is terribly confusing. There’s no way to know when it is, other than how people are dressed. Kevin Kline is middle-aged, with enough makeup to make him plausibly youngish, but we can’t really tell how old he is, and besides, we don’t know when he was born. Then he and his buddy (who are playing the piano and singing) go into “Well, Did You Evah”, and the audience/partygoers respond as in a musical, joining in on the chorus in practiced harmonies and taking solos in turn. Actually, he meets Linda Thomas in 1918, when he’s twenty-seven or so, and he doesn’t write “Well, Did You Evah” until 1939. If you don’t know anything about Mr. Porter, you won’t know that, but also won’t know whether Mr. Porter is, at that stage, a professional songwriter, a well-known amateur songwriter, or just a fellow who has written a few songs. In fact, he was a well-known amateur songwriter, which is a difficult thing to imagine, but there it is.

The thing that’s really confusing is that although there are elements of a musical (everybody immediately knows the words and has lovely voices, and when they sing, they sing in harmony, as if they’ve been rehearsing for weeks) but also elements of the movie-with-music (the characters are at the instruments, and have a reason to be singing rather than the song being a mode of expression). In the next number, again Mr. Porter plays the piano and sings (anachronistically) to Ms. Thomas (Ms. Porter to be), but this time when he gets up from the piano to dance, there is still piano music. On the other hand, the dancing belongs to the movie-with-music genre; it’s a goofy guy dancing in a park, out-of-the-ordinary behaviour. It’s difficult to settle into the movie, because it’s hard to tell what kind of movie it is. The devices don’t seem to have any real logic to them, or even any compelling sort of illogic. They just happen, and sometimes they work and more often they don’t.

Similarly, the use of recognizable performers (Elvis Costello sings at one party, Robbie Williams at another, Alanis Morrisette appears as an ingénue, etc, etc) doesn’t work, partly because they aren’t terribly good or interesting renditions, but partially because they were out of place without there being much point to the out-of-place-ness. Was it a comment on how influential Mr. Porter’s music remains? Was it a comment on how we in the audience bring our own cultural frames to the story and to the music? Was it a cynical grab for publicity? I dunno. I would have been satisfied with the last, by the way, had it been handled with skill and grace.

In the end, then, there were a lot of Film! touches that failed to dazzle me, which leaves me with the characters, plot and acting. The plot was haphazard; they (I assume deliberately) chose to tell the story as if the audience all knew it already, and didn’t force it into a narrative. Which is too bad for me, but there it is. The characters were, well, Cole Porter was the genius-who-can’t-really-love sort of character, and Linda Porter was the wife-who-needs-love character. I found his promiscuity annoying, and I found her passive-aggressive reaction annoying, where she tells him that it’s fine but then sulks. There wasn’t much made of the fact that he sleeps with men, particularly, other than that it opens him up to blackmail. I mean, he was in the little secret society of gay theater people, but he was in that because he was in the theater, anyway, and nothing was made of what it is like to be in that society. Certainly there was no sense that he disliked any aspect of it. And other than Mr. and Ms. Porter, there were no other characters worth mentioning. The men were pretty but faceless, the buddies were buddy-like, the stooges were stooge-like. Not even entertainingly written—I was particularly disappointed in Monty Woolley, who they barely bothered to write at all. As for the acting, well, and it was good. Kevin Kline, particularly, was likeable in an unlikable part, wearing old-guy makeup and being all wistful an stuff. Ashley Judd was also good, although she had much less to do.

The frustrating thing is that it might have been really good. The idea of having Old Cole make a musical about Cole Porter, using his own music, and having an interfering Director/Producer battle him for creative control, well, I think that’s actually a good idea. Lee Blessing could really do something with that. I might have Old Cole want to tell the ‘true story’ and the Director just want butts-in-seats. Or make Mr. Woolley the Director, maybe, wanting the show to be about homosexuality, while Old Cole wants to keep the closet door closed. Something. Anyway, allow the major characters, particularly Ms. Porter, to comment on their roles and how they want to play them, and what they want to sing. It could be really good. It would only work on stage, I think, although that may be my own bias.

And, of course, it might stink. I mean, somebody thought this movie was the way to go, and it sure sounded good to me. Ah, well. There’s always another movie.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,
-Vardibidian.