A Little Love-ly That Slowly Grows and Grows
On national release last summer, the film did just “okay.” That should hardly have surprised MGM, which must know the consumer audience is young and conditioned to in-your-face blare. Subtlety and wit are not high on most movie-goers’ list, and along with its well-done natural Broadway razzmatazz, director/co-producer Irwin Winkler’s tender De-Lovely is an intelligent behind-the-lines look at enduring love and enduring music, a quality production on limited budget. “How do you want to play this -- tragedy, musical comedy, farce?” Kevin Kline’s Cole Porter asks wife Linda Lee (Ashley Judd), in a debonair work that is all three of these and more.
Based imaginatively on the life of one of a handful of great American songwriters, liberally interspersed around party, club, rehearsal and show renditions of the razor-sharp lyrics and melodies, the film is visual and aural. Makeup by Sarah Monzani is as good as it gets, as actors’ eyes, chins, necks, even hands, age. Janty Yates’s Armani-, Verdura- and Van Cleef & Arpels-backed costumes capture period and personality; set designs (Eve Stewart) for Paris, Venice, New York and California cityscapes and theaters contribute but do not overwhelm. The Stephen Endelman arrangements of standards are both Porter and at the same time geared to the dozen famous, near unrecognizable artists who interpret them -- sit through the end-credits for surprises even beyond earlier in-film reminders of the often hit recordings by Ethel Merman, Billie Holiday, Mary Martin, Artie Shaw, Nina Simone, the Five Satins, Elvis Presley, Sinatra and Bing Crosby/Grace Kelly (the future Princess of Monaco ribbed Sinatra that she had gone gold before him).
In the end, all these effects depend on Jay Cocks’s inventive script. At its center is the dual concept of storytelling illustrated by the composer’s own works (not necessarily in chronological order) built around a Christmas Carol device whereby an embittered aged man revisits his life with the guidance of substantial, archangel- and “Blow, Gabriel, Blow”-suggestive Gabe (Jonathan Pryce), who “just let myself in.”
From his dark Steinway against a penthouse New York skyline, the crippled dying composer is conducted to a theater in which his life will pass before our eyes as a stage production that, in a mind’s eye, morphs into dream-reality. On this journey, cantankerous “Colie” will again meet those he touched and acknowledge that “this thing called love,” the search for which informed his brilliance, was there alongside the whole time. (The film runs some minutes long, but an ending which might have been trimmed proves necessary to fill out the arguably clunky frame.)
At a socialite Paris gathering, brash, wealthy (from maternal grandfather James Omar “J.O.” Cole) still-unsuccessful Cole meets rich American divorcée Linda Thomas (Judd), and “it was meant to be.” She accepts his homosexual preferences -- hushed up for the public -- and they marry that same year of 1919, to embark on a glittering life in Venice. Gala to his Dalí, Nora to his Nick Charles, in a Beautiful People life of witty cultured elegance, she “restored me to myself, gave me confidence” and discipline, brings the Irving Berlins (Keith Allen, Angie Hill) to visit and together with them orchestrates a triumphant return to Broadway.
White-on-red, presenting opening-night gifts of Cartier cigarette cases, beautiful, supportive, loving Linda bears with his homosexual encounters while insisting on their responsibilities to each other and to others. The couple move further west, from New York out to California, for the hundred times more money to be made but where as a hired gun for the studios -- light fun is even poked at Metro boss “L.B.” (Peter Polycarpou) -- his artistry suffers like Elvis’ in Vegas and L.A. Worse for them, to “Anything Goes” he is becoming increasingly frequent and careless in his affaires -- an ambitious “businessman” blackmails husband and wife separately -- and she leaves to Arizona and then back to Paris.
In a stretch, Linda walks with bereaved mutual friend Sara Murphy (Sandra Nelson), coughing ominously -- her emphysema is a more effective anti-smoking statement than current strident campaigns -- at the exact moment a chill French wind lifts fallen leaves and across the ocean the composer is thrown from a horse, his life, and hers, painfully changed forever. Blaming herself and “the entire goddamn world” for indulging him, she returns to his side in Williamstown, to remain until her death. “Taunt . . . hurt . . . deceive . . . desert me, I’m yours till I die.”
Mutely bereft, with the filmplay’s help the widower will come to appreciate that his melodies of love have been about, and for, that rare woman. Like the hybrid Linda Porter Rose from Spain, two “incompatible” individuals grafted together: “How we’d bloom, how we’d thrive.”
(Released by MGM and rated "PG-13" for sexual content.)