I seem to have a rather conflicted relationship to self-awareness in films: I was quite unkind towards Anna Karenina (2012) and its efforts at presenting the action at times through a proscenium arch as if it were on stage, but elsewhere it’s the kind of thing I love, and I can’t really pretend I’m in any way consistent. The stage is a big feature of this biopic about the life of Cole Porter and his relationship with Linda Lee Thomas, too, but for some reason I’m more sympathetic towards it here. Perhaps that’s because Porter’s life is one very much lived out on and through the stage and performance, so presenting his life as a pageant to his older self, with periodic flourishes of artificial staginess, all seems of a piece to his story. It’s also filled with delightful musical performances of his work, such that whatever its shortcomings, it drew me in quite nimbly.
That framing device has Jonathan Pryce as the archangel Gabriel, come down (apparently to London’s beautiful Wilton Music Hall) to take the elderly and infirm Porter (Kevin Kline, under heavy layers of prosthetics) through scenes from his life, starting with his meeting the beautiful Linda, played by Ashley Judd. In real life, she was eight years his senior, but this is a show, and such details aren’t to get in the way of the feelings. The subsequent couple of hours gamely skip through scenes from their life together, his marriage to her at the tail end of the 1910s, his increasing success on Broadway in the 1920s, his (at least privately) unconcealed gay lovelife, his crippling horse-riding accident in the 1930s, and then the couple’s decline from there in the 1940s and 1950s, neatly avoiding any of the significant world events that may have happened in this period. This is, above all, a portrait of the artist, with only tenuous connections to the world at large.
What anchors the film, then, are the performances from Kline and Judd in the lead roles. Kline captures a benevolently patrician gravitas along with a self-laceratingly comic worldview, while Judd foregoes suffering — Linda was, it appears, quite aware of Porter’s sexual orientation, and their marriage had plenty of genuine and closely-felt love. It’s a difficult line to walk, but there’s a wonderful affection between the two, which reaches some moments of unforced pathos towards the end, even if the swiftly advancing passage of time in the film’s final third means the prosthetics and make-up are laid on rather quickly and heavily.
The director Irwin Winkler has been a producer in Hollywood for quite some time, working with the directors of the New American Cinema in the 1960s and 1970s. Clearly his work producing the likes of Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas (1990) have rubbed off, and there are some bravura sequences of technical virtuosity, particularly a single-take scene in a Los Angeles gay club as both the sultry lounge singer onstage as well as Kline quickly change costumes and re-enter the frame of the sinuously moving camera to mark the passage of time. Elsewhere there are some similarly well-staged movements through time, as the elderly Porter remembers his youthful self, not to mention the almost off-handedly integrated song numbers. Famous musical faces of the early-2000s pop up in passing to perform his songs, and the line between stage and life is effectively blurred (remembering that this is all very self-consciously framed as a pageant), so Robbie Williams mingles amongst a restaurant crowd singing the title song, Kline himself mugs through “Be a Clown” in front of producer Louis B. Mayer on a Hollywood backlot, and John Barrowman starts out reheasing “Night and Day” before segueing into a nighttime tryst in Central Park. Given the film’s way with staging, it’s entirely appropriate that we even see Cole and Linda watching the 1946 film Night and Day with Cary Grant, and commenting on the depiction of their own lives on screen.
It’s a strange blend of musical sequences, stagy flashbacks and romantic melodrama, and it clearly doesn’t work for everyone, but I enjoyed it. It’s all staged with flair and virtuosity, not to mention impeccably costumed. It’s like something out of time, a strange curate’s egg of a film, which I imagine as further decades roll past will be ever more consigned to a curious and dusty little corner of film history. However, it’s a corner worth exploring.
Director Irwin Winkler; Writer Jay Cocks; Cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts; Starring Kevin Kline, Ashley Judd, Jonathan Pryce, Kevin McNally; Length 120 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 26 February 2014.