De-Lovely (2004)

Rated PG-13 Our content rating: V-1; L-2; S-4/N-0.

I am a rose of Sharon,
a lily of the valleys.
As a lily among brambles,
so is my love among maidens.
As an apple tree among the trees of the wood,
so is my beloved among young men.
With great delight I sat in his shadow,
and his fruit was sweet to my taste.
Song of Solomon 2:1-3

…the meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain, they shout and sing together for joy.
Psalm 65:13

Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right.
Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
I Corinthians 13:4-7

De-Lovely

What is this thing called Love?
This funny thing called love?
Just who can solve its mystery?
Why should it make a fool of me?
Cole Porter, 1929

Director Irwin Winkler and writer Jay Cocks have artfully blended the genres of biography and the musical to give us a glorious glimpse of a gifted and tormented musical genius. Reminding me somewhat of another film about a theatrical giant, Bob Fosse in All That Jazz, De-Lovely uses the device of a mysterious stranger named Gabe (played by Jonathan Pryce—does “Gabe” ring any bells?) coming to the dying Cole Porter in his New York apartment and conducting him to a theater where all those in his past re-enact the composer’s life through his music. Each song comments upon that period in Porter’s life or advances the plot in a significant way. Unlike the Hollywood film purportedly based on his life, Night and Day (Porter’s dislike of the sanitized film is well shown), Winkler’s film does not cover up Porter’s love for men as well as women—thus many church groups will have difficulty in dealing with the film. (There is a spoiler in the last paragraph of the review, so you might want to stop reading when you get there until you have seen the film.)

Even if we did not know that Cole Porter was born into a wealthy family, we could see that he apparently has the means to live an upscale life in Paris without any financial worries. Well thought of in the international café society of what was then the art capital of the world, the film begins with his meeting with the sophisticated Linda at a solon, a case of love at first sight. She is also drawn to him, believing in his musical genius and willing to accept him as he is. As their romance progresses, he broaches the subject of his bi-sexuality, telling her that he needs more love than any one person can give. He is surprised, and relieved, to find that she already knows about his affairs. She tells him that although he cannot love her in the way that she loves him, she will accept whatever comes.

The couple are shown emerging from their wedding ceremony to the song “What a Swell Party This Is.” Moving to Venice where they are to host a masquerade ball, Cole meets the man who dominated the pop musical scene of the 1920’s, Irving Berlin. The latter’s generosity is on display in his praise for Cole’s music. Later, in consort with Linda, Berlin helps make arrangements for the production of Porter’s musical play in New York. The insecure Porter must now decide whether to continue his dilettante life in Europe or take up the challenge of entering the world of professional music. (The film does not go into the fact that he had attempted several musicals earlier that had failed.)

Porter’s 1928 musical Paris, which included the risqué song “Let’s Do It,” was a great success, propelling its creator into the limelight. Berlin’s and Linda’s faith in him was more than justified by the succession of Broadway hits, with such songs as “You’re the Tops,” “In the Still of the Night,” “Blow, Gabriel, Blow,” “What Is This Thing Called Love,” “So In Love,” “True Love, “Begin the Beguine,” and so many more—the film includes over thirty Porter songs, making it a feast for music lovers’ ears. Also a feast for the eyes, as the producers did not spare their pocketbook in the lavish sets and choreography departments. Add to this the cameo performances of the songs by well-known singers that include Elvis Costello, Alanis Morissette, Sheryl Crow, Natalie Cole, Robbie Williams, and Diana Krall.

Life was not all “ups” for the pair. When Porter went to Hollywood and seemed to fall under its sway by producing a number of musicals beneath his usual standard, Linda left him for a time. Then came 1937 and the horse-riding accident that left Cole in pain and without the full use of his legs for the last 27 years of his life. Linda returned, willing to endure her own pain of seeing her husband, not fulfilled by the love that she offered him, turning at times to a singer or other man who caught his eye. We wonder how she must have felt when Cole wrote such words as:

“It’s the wrong game, with the wrong chips Though your lips are tempting, they’re the wrong lips They’re not her lips, but they’re such tempting lips That, if some night, you’re free Then it’s all right, yes, it’s all right with me”

–and then set forth ever so often to live by them.

Kevin Kline and Ashley Judd are perfect as Cole and Linda Porter. Kline’s singing voice will not gain him any recording contracts, but he’s just good enough to put over a song, while sounding like a real songwriter writing for those who will actually “deliver” the song. I think it might be Gabe at the beginning of the picture who says, “It’s not the singer, but the song…”

The two stars convey the outward glamour and the inner pain of the Porters’ lives powerfully. Linda, the gay divorce’ in Parisian society, is the embodiment of the sophistication portrayed in the cigarette ads of the time—and her agonizing death from lung cancer shows in a non-preaching way what the consequences of such a lifestyle can be. (“Every time We Say Goodbye” makes this an especially poignant scene!) Porter also, in the scene near the end of the film, is a picture of the loneliness resulting from the promiscuous lifestyle centered on fulfilling one’s own sexual needs—having invited his close friends for dinner, he sits at the piano and tries to belt out his hit songs, but now, with Linda gone, he feels the inner loneliness that no amount of sophistication can cover up. He cries and rants and raves, ordering them all to leave his house.) The filmmakers obviously felt they could not end the film on such a note, so they added the rousing finale “Blow, Gabriel, Blow,” which will seem too facile and Hollywoodish, once you think about it. Nonetheless, this is a film to cherish and to return to for its delightful songs. Whatever we might think of Cole Porter the man, we can be thankful for Cole Porter the composer-lyricist. The song from which the film takes it’s title sums up well the movie itself, “It’s delightful, it’s delicious, it’s delectable…It’s de-lovely.”

For Reflection/Discussion

1) What is your favorite Porter song in the film? What do they reveal about love? Which share the facile, romantic view of love, and which a deeper, more mature view? Can any of his songs reveal, or be compared to, God’s love? See the Song of Solomon for a Biblical example.

2) What do you think of Linda’s love for her husband? Is she, as some might regard her, a doormat for him, or is she an example of the lengths to which love will go? Compare her love to that in I Cor. 13.

3) Unlike some lyricists of his time (see “O Man River” from Showboat or “You’ve Got to be Taught” from South Pacific), Cole Porter pays little attention to social concerns of his time (we see little evidence of the Depression, and nothing of the rise of Hitler, or of World War Two): how might his songs, and the plays and movies of the times, be seen as escapist? (The one exception in the film? “In olden days a glimpse of stocking/Was looked on as something shocking/But now, God knows, /Anything goes.” 4) Some Christians, especially TV evangelists, might regard Porter’s crippling accident and Linda’s painful death as God’s direct judgment upon them. What do you think? That simple? Despite what one might think of their lifestyle, how does grace and beauty pass from their lives into the lives of others, including our own? (For the prime example of the theme of grace bestowed upon an unworthy, see Peter Shaffer’s film about another composer, Mozart—Amadeus.)

5) Porter speaks of God in one scene: “If I believed in God, He’d be a song and dance man.” What do you think of this image of God? What do the two have in common? Could the image of Christ in Godspell be something of what he had in mind?

6) Cole then asks, “You think He’d like one of mine (songs)?” What do you think—any Cole Porter songs in Heaven? Or only Bach and Handel, and Natalie Sleeth and such? What do you think of singers and songwriters who become Christian and decide that they can only sing (or compose) “religious” songs now? Can we make such a sharp division between sacred and secular? Can “True Love” or “So In Love,” along with “Amazing Grace” or “Pass It On,” also be precious in God’s sight?

7) For young adult viewers: Compare what is regarded as “sophisticated” in the Porters’ time with “cool” today. How are the clubs and salons then similar to the clubs and faves of today? How did cigarette ads and the movies portray smokers and their cigarettes then? Drugs apparently were not a large part of the Porters’ lives, but what about alcohol and tobacco?

8) If you could have had a conversation with Cole Porter what might you have said about God and the gospel? What kind of a friend was Cole to the Murphys and Monty Wooly?