Life And Art

It’s Delightful, It’s Delicious—It’s Wrong

De-Lovely allows that Cole Porter was gay, but doesn’t tell the whole story.

The revisionist Porter and his wife

Irwin Winkler’s film De-Lovely, in which Kevin Kline and Ashley Judd portray songwriter Cole Porter and his wife, Linda, takes numerous liberties with the lives of its subjects, some more significant than others. We do not learn, for example, that Linda Porter was eight years Cole’s senior, a brittle but attractive socialite already in delicate health early in their marriage. Instead, Judd—who is 20 years Kline’s junior—plays Linda as a vivacious Jazz Age heroine. (Judd looks undeniably wonderful in Armani’s versions of vintage couture; she even miscarries elegantly.) The movie also restages the accident that deprived Porter of the full use of his legs from 1937 on. He fell during a riding party at the Countess de Zoppola’s estate on Long Island, and always maintained that he honed the lyric for “At Long Last Love” as he and the other guests waited for the ambulance. In De-Lovely, Kline takes his spill during a solo ride, loses consciousness while still pinned beneath his horse, and comes to in the hospital with Linda’s face swimming toward him–a dramatic revision in keeping with the film’s single-minded focus on the couple’s relationship.

De-Lovely is intended in part as a corrective to its sanitized predecessor, 1946’s Night and Day *, which starred Cary Grant and Alexis Smith as the Porters andwillfully obscured Porter’s homosexuality. (It also left audiences with the impression that he had been injured in Europe during World War I.) But in De-Lovely, Winkler and screenwriter Jay Cocks have simply offered a misleading counter-myth—one that tells fewer outright lies. Their Porter is sexually promiscuous with men but romantically faithful to Linda, an impression fortified by Winkler’s habit of cutting away when the character’s flirtations with other men threaten to grow too physical.

The film takes nearly as many liberties with Porter’s music as it does with his life. Like other composer biopics— Rhapsody in Blue (George Gershwin), Words & Music (Rodgers & Hart), Till the Clouds Roll By (Jerome Kern)— De-Lovely offers up a pageant of songs with little regard for their order of composition. In the film, the young Cole attracts Linda’s attention by regaling a swellegant party with “Well, Did You Evah?”The Porters met in 1918; the number wasn’t introduced until 1939’s Du Barry Was a Lady **, long after Porter had become a Broadway fixture. Later, Judd sings the uncharacteristically sweet ” True Love” while eyeing a friend’s daughter with maternal envy; in reality, this song was written two years after Linda Porter’s death. Chronology aside, the filmmakers deserve credit for slipping lesser-known songs into Porter’s hit parade, especially “Goodbye, Little Dream, Goodbye,” a mordant ballad dropped from a Hollywood film (Born to Dance) and a Broadway show (Red, Hot and Blue) in 1936.

Kline sings his own numbers (“Easy To Love,” ” Experiment“) unprofessionally, as Porter did; a nice technical trick, but somewhat silly given the film’s framing device. In the film, Porter is dead—or dying, it’s never clear—and he spends the movie viewing idealized and musicalized scenes from his life, guided by a solicitous “Gabe” (Jonathan Pryce). Among the fully staged songs, only ” Anything Goes,” which features a credible Ethel Merman impersonation by Caroline O’Connor, reproduces period performance style. This is just as well: The stiff orchestrations and rhythmic precision of prewar Broadway would sound hopelessly mannered to those who know these songs through Sinatra and Fitzgerald, to say nothing of Rod Stewart. 

But the worst thing De-Lovely does to Porter’s music isn’t musical, precisely; it’s interpretive. After a few bars of ” In the Still of the Night,” the angel Gabe says, “You wrote that for her, of course.” Porter responds, reasonably, “A song doesn’t have to be about someone.” The rest of the movie ignores this caution, and makes Porter out to be a kind of proto-James Taylor. It shows Porter jotting down a love song upon waking beside Linda, and generally suggests that his lyrics closely tracked his personal life. This is to impose a rock ’n’ roll—or perhaps singer-songwriter—aesthetic on a prerock mode of production. Notions of sincerity and self-expression have little direct application to songsmiths of Porter’s era, who produced romantic, rueful, or raucous material according to the needs of a given form, be it stage show, film, or the individually marketed song.

For example, Porter turned out “True Love” for High Society, a 1956 musical adaptation of The Philadelphia Story, at a much grimmer time in his own life than De-Lovely suggests. His first attempt was rejected by producer Sidney Chaplin as too sophisticated—too typically Porteresque—for Bing Crosby’s character, a ne’er-do-well ex-lush. Ever the professional, Porter willingly supplied an entirely new song, the folksy waltz with which we’re familiar.

Porter’s professionalism doesn’t mean that his songs lack feeling, or that none arose from deep personal sources. But it makes Cocks’ vision of him as a confessional singer-songwriter hard to stomach. And linking Porter’s work to his marital ups and downs also serves to neutralize Porter’s sexuality. Despite its apparent frankness about Porter’s homosexuality, De-Lovely, no less than Night and Day, conceives of romantic love as possible only between one man and one woman. Kline’s Porter hesitates before leaving a beautiful boy from the Ballet Russes for Broadway, but gay sex is otherwise depicted as a meaningless tumble, a sensual distraction from what the song ” It’s De-Lovely” terms “the riddle called married life.” Anything goes where the body is concerned, but his heart—and talent—belong to Linda.  

Cole Porter and Jean Howard*

There is no doubt that Linda Porter was much more than a beard. But some of Porter’s same-sex attachments, according to William McBrien’s * 1998 biography, were more sustained and sustaining than the film allows. In the 1940s, Porter engaged in a largely epistolary romance with dancer (and U.S. Marine) Nelson Barfeld; if it’s “about” that you’re after, see Porter’s wartime lyrics. (“People tell me, ‘never mold your/ Life around a soldier’.”) Later, there was Robert Bray, a married Californian whom McBrien calls “Porter’s last intimate.” These were more than one-night stands. By means of a strategic dissolve, Winkler also implies that Porter lost the will to compose immediately after Linda’s death in 1954. In fact, over the next four years he completed Silk Stockings, Les Girls, High Society, and Aladdin (a subpar television musical.) He descended into creative silence (and social isolation) only in 1958, when his right leg was finally amputated.

Kline portrays Porter’s decline movingly, but the suggestion that his wife was his sole muse is an exaggeration. Still, neither myth, counter-myth, nor the truth is likely to damage the songs on which Porter’s reputation rests. Despite his professionalism, Porter was already something of a throwback by the mid-’40s, showing little interest in the plot-driven “integrated musical” pioneered by Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! His last major success, Kiss Me, Kate, showed that he could master the new form. But for the most part, he was less interested in believability or dramatic unity than in showcasing his latest compositions—the best of which have survived far longer than the shows and films for which they were written. In this respect, De-Lovely could not be more firmly in the Porter tradition.

Corrections, July 22, 2004: This article originally stated that Night and Day came out in 1943. In fact, Cole Porter agreed to allow Warner Bros. to make a film based on his life in 1943; Night and Day, the resulting film, was released in 1946. Return to this corrected sentence. Also, the article originally listed the date of the play Du Barry Was a Lady as 1944; the play’s actual date was 1939. (Return to that corrected sentence.)

Correction, August 3, 2004: This piece originally misstated the name of the author of Cole Porter, the 1998 biography of the songwriter. The book was written by William McBrien, not William McBride. (Return to corrected sentence.)

Correction, March 12, 2008: The caption accompanying this photograph originally incorrectly suggested the woman in the photo was Cole Porter’s wife. (Return to the corrected area.)