Nice and Gay

Kevin Kline and Cole Porter are both the top. Kline is that rare thing, a graceful comic; and Porter is simply the gold standard of 20th-century song. But this movie disappoints, for two reasons: music and sex.

First music. The reviewers seem to fall into two camps, those who get a kick out of the songs as performed here, and those who don't. My guess is that the first haven't heard many Cole Porter songs before, so renditions by Robbie Williams, Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow and others sound pretty good. Curiously, the most accomplished vocalists on the soundtrack, Natalie Cole and Diana Krall, are played down, while the lesser lights – most egregiously Alanis Morissette meowing “Let’s Fall in Love” – get the full spotlight.

Still, these songs can take a licking and keep on ticking, and some are done imaginatively. For example, “So In Love,” the great torcher from Cole's Broadway classic, “Kiss Me Kate,” is croaked by Kline in a whisper to his dying wife at home, then smoothly interspersed with a full-throated version on stage.

Now for the sex. In a self-conscious improvement over the 1946 biopic “Night and Day,” this film portrays Porter as two things he wasn't: bisexual and nice. By all accounts, he was not at all interested in women (he treated Linda, who was eight years older than he, as a mother figure).

Nor was he all that nice. This film makes him nice when wooing socialite Linda Lee (Ashley Judd) and explaining that he wants a beard, not a bride; nice when leaving the bed of ballet dancer Boris Kochno and explaining that during the day his heart belongs to Linda; and nice when helping a strapping young singer to learn “Night and Day” then accepting his overtures.

Please, listen to Cole Porter's voice. Look at Cole Porter’s photograph. This wasn't a bad man, but not such a bloody nice one, either. Tom Hulce (wherever he is) could play Porter, or Robert Downey, or (don't laugh) Jack Black. The role needs someone who can do the imp, rascal, throughgoing decadent Porter was. For all his talent, Kline just isn't the rapscallion type.

Porter was madly in love his whole life, but not with Linda. His passionate affairs with other men -- Kuchno, Howard Sturges, Ed Tauch, Nelson Barclift, John Wilson, Ray Kelly -- were the smoldering fuel of his songs. His erotic life was crowded, back-biting, steamy, and amazingly uncloseted for its time. It was not a Sunday School picnic with the parsons holding hands.

How quickly the mainstream depiction of gay life has become...well, mainstream. Porter didn't write these lines, Jerome Kern did; but they capture perfectly what is wrong with this movie: "True love should have the thrills that a healthy crime has / But we don't have the thrills that the March of Dimes has."

July 21, 2004 9:22 AM |



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