STAGE TO SCREEN: Kevin Kline Has a "De-Lovely" Time

By Eric Grode
20 Jun 2004

Kevin Kline as Cole Porter in "De-Lovely"
Kevin Kline as Cole Porter in "De-Lovely"

Once you get past the framing device of a ghostly guide (Jonathan Pryce) bringing Cole Porter to an empty theater for a ?This Is Your Life?-style stroll down memory lane, ?De-Lovely? is a fairly straightforward biopic.

Director Irwin Winkler and screenwriter Jay Cocks save most of their creative liberties for the conceptual, almost Brechtian treatment of Porter?s songs.

Most of the buzz around ?De-Lovely,? which opens July 2 in New York and Los Angeles, has centered on the depiction of Porter (played by Kevin Kline with his usual charm and skill) having male lovers before and throughout his 35-year marriage to Linda (Ashley Judd). But theatre buffs will likely be more intrigued by the way Winkler uses the classic tunes to shed light on various moments in Porter?s life. Cole Porter serenades Linda with ?Easy to Love? early in their courtship, launches into ?Be a Clown? as he begins to dumb down his work for the movies, delivers ?Experiment? as a veiled endorsement of his sexual dalliances in Hollywood, etc., etc.

Winkler freely admits that he and Cocks drastically shuffled the Porter catalog?we first see the composer in Paris in 1918, singing a song that wouldn?t be written until 1939. But he insists that they did not assign any meaning to the songs that wasn?t already there. ?Cole Porter gave them meaning,? he says. ?We simply put them in a context that audiences would accept. We just didn?t want to be bound to the traditional ?and then he wrote, and then he wrote? convention.?



The great irony here is that Porter was one of the last songwriters to try his hand at what we now called integrated musicals. It really wasn?t until 1948?s Kiss Me, Kate, more than 20 years after Jerome Kern and Richard Rodgers made the plunge, that he made any attempt to advance the story or develop the characters through song. Most of the theatre songs used to illuminate a particular mood or emotion in ?De-Lovely? were originally written to generate nothing more than another great tune.

The film is packed with renditions of Porter standards by everyone from Natalie Cole to Elvis Costello to Alanis Morrisette. Anyone who saw The Pirates of Penzance or On the Twentieth Century knows that Kevin Kline can hold his own among this crowd, but you wouldn?t know it from seeing ?De-Lovely.? Kline?s take on Porter?s reedy, flat-voweled singing voice may make for slightly less stirring renditions of songs like ?In the Still of the Night,? but it?s absolutely authentic, as an authentic Porter recording makes clear during the end credits. ?We didn?t want him to jump out and compete with Sheryl Crow,? Winkler says of Porter?s unassuming singing voice. ?In fact, I had to ask Kevin to tone it down a few times.? (For what it?s worth, Kline?s piano playing is impeccable throughout.)

While he concedes that some of these performers may appeal to younger audiences, Winkler says the range of singers is a testament to the universality of Porter?s melodies and the messages contained in them. ?His songs are constantly questioning the nature of love,? he says, ?and people are still asking those questions.?

As packed as ?De-Lovely? is with Porter songs, fans will need to wait a bit to see all the numbers Winkler filmed: ?I shot ?Don?t Fence Me In? but couldn?t find a place for it. That and ?You Do Something to Me,? which I also shot, will be on the DVD.?

***

Perhaps the strangest moment in ?De-Lovely? comes when Porter and his tour guide watch a snippet from ?Night and Day,? the infamously sanitized 1946 take on Porter?s life starring Cary Grant. If you think characters in a biopic watching themselves in an earlier biopic is Pirandellian, you haven?t been exposed to ?Frankie and Johnny Are Married,? which is now playing in New York, Los Angeles and five other cities.

The title of Michael Pressman?s film may sound cryptic to those familiar with Terrence McNally?s Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune: Isn?t the whole point that the two characters are deciding whether they want to get to know each other? But Pressman, a television writer and producer, has written, directed and starred with his real-life wife (and son) in a movie about a guy directing and ultimately starring with his wife in a play. It sounds unbelievably incestuous and navel-gazing, and it sort of is. But it?s also a lot of fun.

And it?s also (mostly) true. Pressman really did direct his wife, Lisa Chess, and another actor in Frankie and Johnny at a 99-seat L.A. theater in 2001. The leading man bailed at the last minute to do a movie, and Pressman was forced to cancel the production, losing every penny he and Chess had put in for the six-week run. Six months and $35,000 later, he pulled the set out of storage (an additional expense of about $10,000) and mounted another production, this time starring opposite his wife. ?When it was over,? he says, ?Lisa said, ?What we?ve been through sounds like the kind of thing you could write an independent film about.?? The result is ?Frankie and Johnny Get Married,? a painful and fun look at the vagaries of Off-Off-Broadway playmaking.

As natural and affecting as Chess is, the spark plug of the film is Alan Rosenberg, a familiar TV face (?Cybill,? ?L.A. Law?) who has made either the smartest or the dumbest choice of his career. He plays the role of Alan Rosenberg, a familiar TV face who signs on to star with Chess in Frankie and Johnny and proceeds to reduce everyone without earshot into tears and/or rage with pronouncements like ?I did not become an actor to learn lines.? Anyone who has ever set foot on a stage will wince at the sight of Chess standing helplessly as Rosenberg takes Method pauses, refusing to overlap her line of dialogue as specified in the script.

?What?s amazing about the reaction to the film is the sense of, ?Wow, is he really like that??? Pressman says of Rosenberg, whose egomaniacal tyrant he calls ?a fictionalized version of about 20 actors I?ve worked with over my life.? Despite the presence of major players like Les Moonves and David E. Kelley (whose wife, Michelle Pfeiffer, played Johnny in the movie), the world of television production does not come off terribly favorably here. In fact, one of the first scenes is of Pressman on the set of ?Chicago Hope?--a show he has produced and directed in real life--talking down a hysterical Mandy Patinkin.

But back to the original question: What significance can a happily married couple derive from Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune? ?It?s such a heightened, romanticized view of commitment,? says Pressman, who plans to move to New York with Chess this fall and pursue theater work. ?It seemed to mirror our relationship a little--my Don Quixote-like tendencies and her tendency to hold back.

?Marriage ain?t easy. And working together ain?t easy. And we really tried not to sugarcoat either of them.?

***

Now we?re talking. I feel like I spend half my time in this column bellyaching about why this play or that musical won?t make for a good movie. But word just came out that Bug is coming to the big screen. This is very good news.

If you haven?t seen Tracy Letts? off-Broadway creepfest, it is every bit as unnerving as his earlier Killer Joe but a lot more psychologically insightful. It?s a funny, nasty freak-out of a play, and it looks like William Friedkin may begin filming Letts? screenplay before the year is out. Friedkin has had some tough luck in Hollywood in recent years, but the guy directed ?The Exorcist,? for crying out loud. He knows scary. And Bug is scary. Mark my words: If this happens, it will be worth the effort.

So the question becomes: Which young Hollywood actor has the guts to take the leading role, that of a virile Gulf War soldier with lots of charisma and some really bad ideas? Several women have shown a willingness to get gritty in the recent past?Maria Bello would be perfect for this?but the men have been a bit more resistant. Guy Pearce? Heath Ledger? Viggo? Leo? Some actor stands to gain a lot of credibility if they can do this and do it right.

***

My Favorite Thoughts: Last column elicited dozens and dozens of responses to my questions: Is Chris Columbus a bad choice to direct the ?Rent? movie, and what Broadway legend would you jump into a time machine to see?

In terms of Columbus, I hardly seem alone in questioning him as the ideal ?Rent? director?only one respondent seemed to have any faith in him. The vast majority was dismissive of the idea. And a sizable minority were tepid for one of two reasons: Either you thought ?Rent? is an overrated musical to begin with, or you had your doubts about Columbus but suggested we give him the benefit of the doubt. Many suggested Spike Jonze instead, but I have yet to see him really take his tongue out of his cheek and make a heartfelt, irony-free movie (or video, now that I think of it). And many of you expressed terror at the idea of ?American Idol? divas and boy-band escapees getting cast, but I?m confused: Haven?t Frenchie Davis and Joey Fatone, just to name two recent ?Rent? additions, gotten good feedback?

I?m going to focus more on the Broadway legend question, just because I got so many great responses. The answers varied from the Globe Theatre to Michael Crawford, but here are a few personal favorites.

Ed: ?Jeanne Eagels in Rain. Have been fascinated by her ever since I was 10 years old--back in 1956, when I received Daniel Blum's Great Stars of the American Stage. I've never spoken to anyone who actually saw it, but have spoken to some of the old-timers at Sardi's who knew some old-timers (from their vantage point) who did see it and it's unanimous: there was nothing like Jeanne Eagels in that part.?

Jon had several moments to choose from:

?1. The original 1927 production of DeSylva-Brown-Henderson's musical Good News. See what a 1920s show really looked like, sans parodies like The It Girl and The Boy Friend. You'd also get to see Jazz Age Broadway...

2. Opening night of Show Boat in December 1927. See how it worked. See all the material that later disappeared. See the olio tap routine long since dropped. See Helen Morgan. See the glory of Urban's Ziegfeld Theatre. See the ?authentic? version.

3. See George M. Cohan in anything he wrote after 1902 or before 1920. Just to see if he really behaved like James Cagney.

4. Travel back to the hot summer of 1925 and see the Garrick Gaieties. You'll see young Richard Rodgers conducting his first ?big time? score...and hear how ?Manhattan? was originally performed.

5. Zip back to the 1860s or 1870s and catch George Fox in one of his vehicles, preferably Humpty Dumpty. Decide if he was the most gifted comedian and pantomimist in the history of the theatre.

6. Sit through Jolson in Bombo. Including the hours of encores. See if you are overwhelmed by the sheer force of his performance.

7. Go back to the turn of the century and see Lillian Russell in anything she's in. Find out why she was a legend in her own time. See her the night she sang ?Come Down, Ma Evenin' Star? and cried--as she had found out composer John Stromberg had died.

8. See Cole Porter's first Broadway show, See America First, in 1916 (and his first bomb). After the show, pat Porter on the back and say, ?Don't worry. Things'll get better.??

Mark: ?How about the opening night of Girl Crazy? I didn't see the Merm until she toured Annie Get Your Gun in the mid-?60s. She was a marvel still, but to be there at the start would have been priceless.?

Your Thoughts: Who?s excited about ?De-Lovely? or ?Frankie and Johnny?? Who?s shocked to hear that Cole Porter was gay? Who?s shocked to hear that directing your naked wife is a risky proposition? Who do you want to see in ?Bug??