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Photograph by Simon Mein

Cole Fronting: Kevin Kline's Cole Porter and long-suffering wife, Linda Lee (Ashley Judd), try to put a good face on things in 'De-Lovely.'

Porter's Ailing

'De-Lovely'—not so de-bad. The music, you know.

By Richard von Busack

IT'S IN Pauline Kael's 5001 Nights at the Movies: a story about how William Bowers, a co-scripter on 1946's Night and Day, the Cole Porter biopic, couldn't bear the movie on his conscience anymore. A year after it came out, he called up to apologize to Porter. To his surprise, Bowers claimed that Porter told him he loved Night and Day, even though in the new Cole Porter biopic, De-Lovely, we see Kevin Kline's Porter exiting Night and Day, justly stricken with distaste. This baffled the writer until Oscar Hammerstein spelled it out for him later: "Well of course he loved it. ... You don't think he heard that stuff that went on between his songs, do you?"

The music, then: "Let's Misbehave," with a Dixieland arrangement, is sung by the unsinkable Elvis Costello, plump, bespectacled, wearing a white dinner jacket and looking pleasingly like Benny Goodman. Diana Krall's acrid "Just One of Those Things" reveals the core of ruthlessness in some of Porter's most insouciant songs. The bleached Cuban jazz in the minor-key version of "Begin the Beguine" by Sheryl Crow is an interesting experiment, but one I wouldn't care to hear repeated. Kline's "I Love Paris," with musette accordion, is as fresh as "Well Did You Evah?" is stale, the 70-year-old jokes in the couplets bracketed with hearty stage laughter. It would take unseen comedy talent in Kline or anyone else to survive the rubber-nosed forced jollity of the "Be a Clown" number. (Gene Kelly had enough firepower to sell it in The Pirate. Not many others do.)

Kline plays Porter from the point of his arrival in Paris just before the 1920s until his lonely, embittered last days. And scriptwriter Jay Cocks goes with a framing device of having a perhaps angelic narrator (Jonathan Pryce) leading the aged Porter back through his life and digging up his buried bones. The real subject is Porter's long marriage to his wife, Linda Lee (Ashley Judd). She was both his lifesaver and his anchor, if that isn't a mixed metaphor. They had an open marriage, since Porter got a kick out of men. De-Lovely proposes that Porter's familiar trick as a songwriter, using the indefinite to suggest the ineffable—"It Was Just One of Those Things," "What is This Thing Called Love?"—was a way of masking the then-unspeakable kind of romance he preferred.

Alexander Pope once warned critics not to break the butterfly on the wheel. But this advice goes against centuries of show-business tradition. Audiences love seeing butterflies get it. And Cocks doesn't shy from the implication that Porter's agony, the shattering of his legs after a horseback accident, was payback in the good old-fashioned way: comeuppance for his high living, his hanging out with boys and the neglect of his poor suffering wife. (This movie is so square it stages Vivian Green's perfect rendition of "Love for Sale" in a male brothel.) Kline's shallow charm is about right for Porter, even in the old-age makeup. Judd has the appropriate build for the art deco gowns, and she's patrician and chilly. But after watching her heart crack and crack again, I kept thinking of Basil Fawlty's apostrophe to the fair Sybil: "Do I detect the odor of martyred wife?"

De-Lovely (PG-13; 121 min.), directed by Irwin Winkler, written by Jay Cocks, photographed by Tony Pierce-Roberts and starring Kevin Kline and Ashley Judd, plays at selected theaters.

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Web extra to the July 14-20, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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