Since it’s a slow summer and since the Cole Porter biopic is still making its way across the country in a platform release, I thought I’d focus on some of the many, many letters I’ve gotten about the film. They run the gamut from rapturous to furious, with people commenting on items large and small, but the overall impression appears to be . . . well, I’ll let you read for themselves.
The way director Irwin Winkler dealt with Porter’s homosexuality came up in a slew of responses, most of them displeased. Larry’s was the most interesting:
“Did Cole ever have any really serious male lover or lovers? Who knows? Did he suffer emotionally — just a little bit — from having to publicly sublimate who he really was? I guess that's not relevant. According to this script, he was just an extremely talented cad who finally got his comeuppance by becoming a cripple and realizing too late that his one true love was a woman after all. Soundly punished, sentenced to eternal regret for a frivolous lifestyle choice.”
Russell announced his plan to use my quote that the news of Porter’s preference “shocked about three people nationwide” and not give me credit, so be on the lookout for some suspiciously droll guy named Russell. Donald felt otherwise:
“Saw 'De-Lovely' yesterday and enjoyed it very much. I guess it helps that I'm a fan of Kevin Kline. I also liked the creative way in which the story unfolds. Though I understand and can agree with your criticism of the way in which some of the songs were staged, I still liked them. I guess I'm one of the three people in America who didn't know about Cole Porter's homosexuality and convenient marriage. I feel kind of foolish that I didn't know about his personal life, since I am a big stage musical fan, but I didn't! Maybe the other two people will e-mail you as well. My wife enjoyed it also. I'm not sure, but she may be one of the three people, too!” Joe’s response was short and sweet:
“Greetings. You were way too kind.”
Greg, on the other hand, found lots to like:
“I have to tell you that I am a relatively new theatre enthusiast but I enjoyed ‘De-Lovely’ very much. I am not usually a fan of biographical plays or movies. My working premise is ‘Why do I need to know this person's life story?’ I knew nothing about Cole Porter's life prior to seeing it. My exposure to his music had been largely confined to a book of piano adaptations of his songs and the terrific rendition of ‘You're the Top’ by Barbra Streisand in ‘What's Up, Doc?’ But spending two hours listening to Cole Porter songs is enough to make me purr like a kitten. Maybe I'm a philistine but I did enjoy it.”
Like many readers, David focused on the music:
“My main criticism is that, despite the tragedy of his life (the accident), Porter had a lot of fun, too — sexual fun — and there are endless song lyrics reflecting this. More upbeat, suggestive numbers would have made the film less lugubrious and apologetic about his sex life.”
Mollie was a bit broader in her criticism:
“Good to know I wasn't alone in my suffering. I actually walked out at the end of the ‘Be a Clown’ number, unable to stand another minute of bad direction, bad dialogue, bad editing and bad singing. It sounds like I made the right decision. I thought the whole thing was de-moralizing.”
The last two responses are a bit more personal. The first one was the only anonymous letter I got, so I can’t tell you who it’s from; the second, from Gary, serves in some ways as a response:
“Since when did Playbill start printing reviews in addition to reporting the stage and stage-related items? This so-called review looked nothing more than an amateur hack job by someone who knows nothing about film. This biopic musical is in and of itself a fantasy. I don't think anyone would take material 100 percent seriously where the lead character breaks into a song with Louis B. Mayer. . . . Believe it or not, there's a whole country out there that is not part of the gay theatre scene and might not know anything about Porter's personal life. Having grown up in a small town, I thought how great it would have been to see a film like this as a not-yet-out gay teen. The scene in the bar was a wonderfully cinematic way to show this aspect of his life that included the most beautifully sung and scored version of ‘Love for Sale’ I've ever heard. . . . Please leave the nonsensical hatchet jobs to Ben Brantley.”
“I read your review. The numerous reviews I've read of this movie are, without a doubt, primarily negative. It has not come to my city yet (Kalamazoo, MI). Perhaps it never will. I know I will see the movie and buy the DVD, regardless of how bad it is. I love the old movie musicals and love Cole Porter music. My late father used to play the piano for silent movies and he loved the music of Cole Porter (and of Gershwin, Berlin, Rodgers and others). When I was a kid, we would go to a movie musical, and when we came home, he would play the songs he would remember on the piano. . . . I wanted so much for ‘De-Lovely’ to be good. But I'm optimistic about ‘Phantom of the Opera.’ I've got my fingers crossed that movie musicals will make a comeback. I know that you wanted to like ‘De-Lovely’ too and were hoping to give it a good review.”
Why did I pair these letters? Well, because everyone’s entitled to their opinion. And the first writer’s opinions on “De-Lovely” are far more valid than Gary’s because he or she has actually seen it. But the second letter touches on something that a lot of people forget: The vast, vast, vast majority of critics want to like every single movie or play that they see. Maybe their standards are too high, or maybe they have bad taste. Speaking for myself, though, I’m never happier than when I walk out of a theatre itching to tell people to see something. It happened when I was ten and saw “E.T.” for the first time, and it happened when I was 28 and saw “You Can Count on Me.” It happened when I saw Our Lady of 121st Street and Once on This Island, when I saw Vanessa Redgrave in Long Day’s Journey Into Night and Brent Carver in Parade. The flip side of that urge is the equally strong desire to keep people away from the bad stuff. “De-Lovely” engendered just such a reaction, and Gary’s right. I wish it hadn’t.
I’ll deal with the New York Musical Theatre Festival more in my next column, but there’s a special component to the festival devoted to movie musicals. Among the highlights are a Faust-themed movie with two 2004 Tony winners (Michael Cerveris and Anika Noni Rose) plus Alice Ripley and Adam Pascal; a Q&A with John Cameron Mitchell following a “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” screening; a batch of short films featuring work by Tonya Pinkins, Scott Schwartz, Ted Sperling and Julia Murney; and an extremely rare screening of “Evening Primrose,” the 1966 Stephen Sondheim-James Goldman TV musical. The whole festival begins September 13, with the movie component starting on the 27th. Like I said, more next time.
I finally saw the preview for “Stage Beauty.” (I have a policy of not watching a preview on the Internet until I’ve actually seen it on the big screen — it helps keep the movieness intact for me.) Lions Gate is clearly aiming for the “Shakespeare in Love” crowd: There’s a lot of romance, a lot of backstage intrigue, a lot of toying with genders on stage, a lot of royalty making epigram-laden cameos and a lot of Rupert Everett. Richard Eyre appears to be going for a similarly light take on the period, and Billy Crudup and Claire Danes make for a charismatic couple. We’ll find out more on October 8, when it opens, but I’m optimistic.
Cutting-Room Floor: Zach Braff, the “Scrubs” star who has received good notices for his writing-directing debut, “Garden State,” has reportedly been approached about directing “Pippin” for Miramax. Seems like a strange pick, but “Garden State” apparently uses music beautifully, so why not? . . . Look for Eileen Atkins and Geraldine McEwan among the many Brits lending Reese Witherspoon a hand in “Vanity Fair,” which opens September 1. And in case anyone missed Farrah Fawcett in Bobbi Boland, she can be seen two days later in “The Cookout.” . . . Rick McKay’s “Broadway: The Golden Age” continues to rack up prizes, most recently a Contribution to Film Award at the Stony Brook Film Festival, and has just landed a spot at the aforementioned New York Musical Theatre Festival. And McKay himself pops up in the strangest places: He was quoted extensively in the Fay Wray obituary in the New York Times, including his recounting of a dinner party he threw last year for Wray and “Lord of the Rings” director Peter Jackson. Who doesn’t this guy know? . . . Add “rewrite guy” to Tony Kushner’s resume: In between editing anthologies, writing plays, racking up Emmy nominations and doing his best to get John Kerry elected, Kushner is apparently tweaking a script on the 1972 Summer Olympics massacre for Steven Spielberg.
Your Thoughts: The floor is open to discussion. “Phantom,” Stage Beauty,” “Pippin” — write in about whatever you’d like.
Eric Grode is associate editor of The Sondheim Review and a theatre critic for Back Stage. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.