Irwin Winkler's Divine Perception
Thanks to director Irwin Winkler, shades of Hollywood’s glamorous days are reflected everywhere in his new film, De-Lovely, starring Kevin Kline and Ashley Judd. A heart-warming story about love, De-Lovely is also an engrossing saga about Cole Porter’s life as a gay man and his 38 year marriage to the love of his life, Linda Porter.
A producer/director with many Hollywood credits -- 45 Academy nominations and 12 Oscars -- Winkler didn’t step into the directing arena until 1991 with Guilty by Suspicion.
“I finally found a script (Suspicion) that I liked and wanted to give it my own point of view and decided that’s what I wanted to do with my life,” explained Winkler about his delayed step into the directing arena. “I had thought about it before, but never pursued it in any manner.”
Moviegoers who see De-Lovely will be thankful that Winkler has brought such a beautiful and entertaining film to the screen. Even with his name, it was still a hard pitch to the studios.
“It’s always been difficult to get intimate stories on the screen, and now even more so with production and marketing costs going up. The studios, which are now big conglomerates, are less likely to take a risk on a movie, and they don’t love movies the way the original moguls -- Jack Warner, Louie B. Mayer and others -- did. Now we’re in that dummying down period.
“Because of my credits, they’ll take a look, but that doesn’t mean yes. The studios are very nervous about making a return on a film that appeals to adults. You come in with a film that appeals to 14 year olds, and they’re eager. There used to be a day in Hollywood when studios felt obligated to make some good stories regardless if they were blockbusters, but that does not exist anymore. It’s about the bottom line, although I must say I got tremendous support from MGM, maybe because it’s in the tradition of the great MGM musicals.”
Winkler and Jay Cocks (Gangs of New York), who worked on the De-Lovely script for three years, tell Porter’s story in a very unconventional manner. His life is revealed on a stage with an aging Porter observing and making comments.
“Looking back at Porter’s life through a prism of time, as Porter’s doing in the film, you often see things in a different way,” said Winkler, “but we didn’t limit ourselves to the biographical or historical sequence of events.”
Helping Winkler on the film is his son, Charles, a producer/director/actor in his own right. “I could not be in two places at once,” said Winkler, “and I trust him explicitly. He has a great background. When he was starting out as a kid he was a second assistant to John Huston; he was Marty Scorsese’s assistant and has worked with many great filmmakers.”
Winkler got to make his film, but had the unenviable task of doing it with a small budget. Yet he amassed an incredible cast, production crew and even amazing contemporary singing artists to make the film. How did this come about? “We didn’t do it by over paying,” Winkler says with a warm smile. “Kevin, Ashley, The Cole Porter Trust, Jay Cox and I, all took very short money so we could put the money into the production itself. Even the costumes -- like all of Kevin’s and most of Ashley’s, were done by Armani, and he did it for nothing. So we were able to taste the whole attitude by people who really believed in the movie rather than someone wanting a big check, which is kind of nice in this day and age, especially in Hollywood.”
Early viewers of the film expressed an interest in knowing more about Porter’s life. Is this a reaction Winkler hoped for? “I think the success of any film is based on the audience not being told everything, especially an adult audience so you can come away asking more questions. You have to choose and pick what you want to tell in any biography or you would go on forever. So I picked the part of the story that I thought was most interesting, which was the love story, because his songs also dealt with his interpretation of love. His most successful songs, 'What Is This Thing Called Love,' 'So in Love -- Strange Dear but True Dear,' 'Do You Love Me as I Love You,' 'In The Still of the Night' and even one we don’t have in the movie, 'Don’t Fence Me In,' are all sexually under-toned. He wrote about love in a very different way, which made his intuitive sense of questioning of so many subjects interesting to listeners all these years.”
Does Winkler think Porter’s secondary nature of the songs was one he intended? “Absolutely. If it was only in one song or two, maybe not. But it’s no accident of fate that he was able to write these songs, everything from 'Anything Goes,' his attitude about life, to 'Experiment,' which he says, ‘You have to experiment in life.’”
Winkler did an amazing job of wrapping the story around the lyrics of Porter’s songs. “I had 900 songs to choose from, and I could say, ‘this song tells this part of the story -- so let’s put it in here.’ I didn’t want to be hamstringed by ‘he wrote this in 1923 so we have to play in 1923 not 1922 cause he didn’t write it then.’ I wanted the freedom to get that emotion and that story telling technique in.”
Kevin Kline was Winkler’s only choice for the role of Cole Porter. “Kevin gave a wonderful performance in Life as a House, a film we worked on together. He’s so incredibly talented, and he’s an actor willing to take risks. He sings, dances, jumps off horses and everything. He’s not supposed to sing well, so I had to say, ‘Kevin, bring it down,’ because Cole Potter was a lousy singer, as most composers are. At the end of the film, it’s actually Cole Potter singing, 'You’re the Top.' It isn’t great, but that’s Cole Porter’s voice.”
Why did Winkler cast Ashley Judd for the role of Linda? “When I saw her in The Ya Ya Sisterhood, it gave me the idea to talk to her. She’s a wonderful actress, she has great training -- we were thrilled to get her.”
Winkler even got Judd to do a first -- sing live in a film. “She didn’t want to be compared to her family (The Judds), but I insisted. She went right into the studio and was wonderful at it.”
Winkler and The Cole Porter Trust hopes De-Lovely will bring more exposure to Cole Porter’s music. “That is one reason the estate gave it to me so cheaply. They wanted to bring it to a younger audience. The great American classics are becoming popular again, and I hope this film popularizes it more because it’s great music. And the De-Lovely album is in stores.
Does Winkler have any musical talents himself? “I can’t sing or play the piano, but always wanted to. My daughter-in-law, Sara Murphy, who plays Sandra Nelson in the movie, gave me piano lessons on my last birthday. I haven’t had time to take them yet, but that’s my goal -- maybe in my next life.”
(Photo of Irwin Winkler by Diana Saenger)