Our resident musicologist Max DeCurtins revisits De-Lovely and examines both the historical impact of Cole Porter’s music and the personal impact of being in the closet (even if that closet is lined with Armani suits).
I was gay in 2004. Actually, I was gay long before that. When I first saw De-Lovely I had just finished my freshman year of college, the liberating environment of which often provides the necessary freedom for exploring and acknowledging one’s sexuality. But not me. I would not come out of the closet for another eight years. To this day I still can’t understand why. While I won’t call those years wasted time, I regret almost nothing as much as the fact that I should have come out at some point early in my college career and yet didn’t. I could not completely square my public-facing self with my internal self-knowledge, the cost of which failure I have only begun to learn.
Unlike a number of the films I’ve re-viewed for 10YA, I haven’t once seen De-Lovely since that initial viewing. I definitely didn’t remember just how frankly the film approaches Porter’s sexuality. To some extent, De-Lovely tells the story of Cole Porter’s struggle to bridge the gap between his internal and external lives. I qualify the preceding statement because the film doesn’t really present a central theme or narrative. De-Lovely isn’t necessarily aboutanything in particular; as Cole Porter (Kevin Kline) admonishes the angel Gabriel (Jonathan Pryce) in the opening moments of the film, “Songs don’t have to be about someone, you know.” To me it feels accurate to call the film a true biopic; we live in Cole Porter’s life for a while, experiencing what he experienced, not focusing too heavily on the arc of his career, the details of his engagement and wedding, his marriage to Linda, his homosexuality, or his taste for indulgence. All of these elements come together in an uneasy balance—tense, but balanced nonetheless.
De-Lovely makes use of an unapologetically self-conscious frame story. The angel Gabriel, appearing to Porter as a theatre director, reviews his life in Dickensian fashion, playing at once the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. Sometimes this framing comes off as just a little too self-conscious, particularly when Pryce’s Gabriel plays up the directorial persona. Despite a shaky opening number (“Oh my God, it’s an opening number, of course!”), director Irving Winkler skillfully effects transitions in and out of the frame story, which contributes significantly to the success of the film, but at times the transitions feel self-indulgent. I suppose that Winkler’s style in this film invites comparisons to Rob Marshall’s, particularly Chicago, in which a very loose frame story provides the glue for the narratives of Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly as told through musical numbers in the Cook County jail, and in fact I do find a similar quality in the cuts and transitions of De-Lovely as I do in Chicago; the problem in De-Lovely, perhaps, is that the musical numbers don’t really advance any kind of narrative or understanding of the context for the story. A number such as “Be a Clown” doesn’t tell us much of anything, unlike the Chicago number “When You’re Good to Mama,” which informs us—in whatever limited fashion—about the quid pro quo nature of life in Chicago at the time, and along with Billy Flynn’s numbers (“All I Care About”), paints a picture for the viewer of rampant corruption. What I do appreciate about De-Lovely is that it offers a glimpse into the constraints of the turn-of-the-century closet, however plush the interior. Cole’s closet presents few problems for him, until it does, and this parallels my experience.
Linda (Ashley Judd) arguably represents the most challenging character for contemporary audiences to understand; in our age of reality shows, a woman married to a possibly-gay, or definitely-gay, man, would probably end up on Big Brother or The Real Housewives of New Jersey. To be certain, Cole and Linda—who did in fact love each other—know that their marriage conferred mutual benefits in a society that still had nineteenth-century expectations and social class structures. Cole’s sexuality seems, moreover, a relatively open secret, and given the now-stereotypical attraction of gay men to the arts, and to musical theatre in particular, it makes sense that the circles in which he travels have well-developed ways of serving the needs of its gay members. Linda too appears quite open-minded regarding Cole’s sexuality, but we begin to see over the course of the film that, when confronted with the actual evidence of Cole’s dalliances with men, her open mind narrows considerably. Now let it be said that I do not, by any stretch of the imagination, consider myself a “sassy” gay, but even I found myself heckling my screen with occasional cries of “oh, honey, no….”. While I hope that we’ve learned enough about human sexuality in the last six or seven decades to know that romantic attachment and sexual desire may not happen with members of the same sex, I found it hard to find too much sympathy for Linda when she discovers holes in her bubble of tolerance. Her tolerance lives at an abstract, theoretical level. Being gay isn’t, however, an abstraction. It’s not theoretical. She puts up with it at first, but after a while the subtext coursing through Linda and Cole’s interactions sheds all the subtlety usually associated with subtexts and positively takes over what they say to each other and how we as the audience interpret the lyrics of Cole’s songs. This became for me the most disagreeable part of De-Lovely—I began to feel as if I had watched the same insinuations multiple times. It makes the film feel, unnecessarily, like it drags its feet. Perhaps Judd’s performance, which doesn’t quite play at the same level as Kline’s, contributes to my dissatisfaction. The degree of tension injected into the portrayal of their relationship does, however, highlight their devotion to each other; Linda, aware that she will die, tries to arrange a male companionship for Cole with Jack, and Cole, for his part, ensures that Linda’s final moments are filled with love and peace.
Anyone who watches De-Lovely and doesn’t feel as if they’re watching an alien culture has, I think, not fully grasped the scope of the change in the practice and experience of music over the course of the twentieth century. A standard course of Western music history generally covers everything from the emergence of written musical notation in the ninth century to notable musical trends in the twenty-first. That’s some twelve hundred years of music history, the teaching of which gets precisely zero attention in public education and in higher education it often falls to
indentured servants adjuncts. Yet it’s absolutely crucial, I think, to understanding the world of De-Lovely.
The early twentieth century stands out for developments in many areas: mechanized and chemical warfare, modern medicine, manufacturing, the first aircraft—and also music. The advent of recording, first acoustic and then electric, as well as the explosion of access to radio meant that music now had the unprecedented capacity to reach the public in numbers absolutely unimaginable to any composer preceding those active at that time. Recording radically reshaped musical form itself: the duration of music one could fit on each side of a record directly influenced the length of each song or composition. The price of printed sheet music, historically relatively expensive, dropped to the point that new hits, relatively easy to play by amateur musicians, became affordable to even those of solidly middle-class means. In other words, Cole Porter came along at just the right moment in music history. Until recording and broadcast technologies came along, the only way one experienced music besides going to a concert hall would have come through at-home performance. If you wanted to hear music, you made it yourself, with family and friends; if you wanted music at your party, you hired musicians. This stands in such stark contrast to our current culture’s consumption of music that I couldn’t shake the alien feeling I had watching De-Lovely’s preponderance of live music.
I can only wonder what it must have felt like to live in the middle of such dizzying musical and cultural change. Music whose significance we have codified in retrospect had yet to reach the public, now much more unified in its ability to consume culture than ever before. One of my favorite professors in graduate school, a man who looks like the human incarnation of Grumpy Cat, comes from a New York era in which Leonard Bernstein is the name on everyone’s lips. My professor, then a young man, can go to his local music shop and ask if Stravinsky has anything new. The Rite of Spring premiered a century ago last year. We know these pasts and these artists only by the works that they have left behind, works that we have canonized (think The Great Gatsby or The Grapes of Wrath) perhaps because they carry some spirit of the context that produced them. This epitomizes De-Lovely for me: a glimpse of the context that produced Cole Porter, a context I cannot possibly know and which therefore feels alien to me. As Belloq says in Raiders of the Lost Ark: “Indiana, we are simply passing through history. This, this is history.”
If you’ve read any of my previous re-views, you will probably have guessed by now that I don’t have much of a penchant for pop music, a fact surely to my detriment as a would-be academic given that pop music studies lately have captured an increasing share of the attention of musicologists and ethnomusicologists. Sometimes the De-Lovely soundtrack exhibits the gentle caress of pop music and its hallmarks. You can hear it Lemar’s vocals in “What is this Thing Called Love?” and Alanis Morissette’s performance of “Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall in Love).” I think this probably makes De-Lovely more accessible to twenty-first century viewers, but it does confuse the historical impact of the music somewhat.
It’s easy to forget that Cole Porter’s career overlapped with composers such as Claude Debussy, Gustav Mahler, and Igor Stravinsky, all of who caused considerable consternation in the musical world and whose works count among the most influential of the time. Small, almost imperceptible clues appear to remind us of this fact, such as the deliciously subtle nod to Vaslav Nijinsky’s costume for the ballet version of Debussy’s Prélude à l’Après-Midi d’une Faune that one of the costumed young revelers at the party in Venice wears as he ascends a staircase. (Song for reference: “Let’s Misbehave.”) A stylized faun, he wears brown-spotted nylons, laurel, and sports little horns in his hair, recalling the art direction of Léon Bakst, who did costumes, sets, and even program design for the ballet. Debussy’s work itself takes its inspiration from the eponymous poem by Stéphane Mallarmé, the sensuality and eroticism of which strongly informed the music, and especially Nijinsky’s choreography. Nijinsky, with his somewhat androgynous appearance and style of dance, himself pushed the boundaries of modern queerness just as Debussy pushed the boundaries of musical modernism. His story, in fact, parallels Porter’s somewhat: Not only had he received considerable acclaim for his natural talent and commanding technique, he also lived as a semi-openly gay man, marrying a woman of relative stature. The direct link back to De-Lovely comes through Sergei Diaghilev, the impresario who founded Paris’Ballets Russes, had an affair with Nijinsky, and in the film dated blonde bombshell Boris, hispremier danseur, whose eye Porter caught early in the film, in Paris. They later hook up in Venice, where Porter meets composer and songwriter Irving Berlin for the first time.
Porter’s musical output occupies a space in which musical theatre and jazz mingle in a way that eschews the notorious divide drawn between “low art” and “high art.” Certainly “In the Still of the Night” speaks to Dave Brubeck and the more experimental side of cool or “West Coast” jazz—moreover, I can’t imagine a contemporary musical figure of similar stature to Porter producing a song so profoundly un-danceable and meditative. The orchestrations done for the film certainly speak to the exotic space between the two types of art; the instrumentation doesn’t just call for a plain old jazz combo and leave it at that—some numbers push the envelope of musical timbre. “Begin the Beguine” immediately springs to mind, as its ensemble includes a bass flute—yes, there exists such a thing. Notice the thickness of the body and the way that the head joint (the part into which the flutist blows) doubles back on itself—the only way to lower the pitch of the instrument without making it unwieldy to play. The bass flute has a seductive timbre like the flute equivalent of sexy congested cold voice that finds little use in orchestras because the sound it produces is by necessity extremely soft and easily covered. These are the subtleties of music that De-Lovely inspires us to reconsider in every number, and ten years on, I find it still does just that.