De-Lovely is a 2004 musical biography about Cole Porter, America’s version of Noel Coward (they were contemporaries, and according to John Derbyshire’s review of the movie, they met – it would have been astonishing had they not, although neither of their Wikipedia entries mentions the other). The title “De-lovely”is the name of one of Porter’s songs (sung and performed in the movie by Robbie Williams).

John Derbyshire (and no doubt others) is dissatisfied with all sorts of aspects of the movie: the songs are not in chronological order, the actors don’t look realistic, etc., and most importantly – as the movie is really about Porter’s marriage – he thinks the movie does not explain why Cole and Linda stuck together so long: “Why? What on earth was this all about?”

I disagree with Derbyshire’s opinion of the movie. I think the movie works well. Perhaps this is because I am not familiar with Cole Porter. So I am not constantly comparing the movie with my knowledge of Porter’s life: I don’t have any (for some strange reason, I had always assumed the man was black – maybe I was thinking of a coal porter, or possibly confusing him with Nat King Cole).

And I think the movie does answer the question of why Cole and Linda “stuck together so long”. But I’ll come back to that in a minute. First, let’s deal with the matter of whether a movie or story that is apparently based on a real person’s life, must be biographically accurate.

The play and later ITV movie about Rudyard Kipling‘s son, My Boy Jack, “does not claim to be a documentary account, but a representation of the experience of so many families in losing a son during the Great War.” (Wikipedia.) In a similar way, De-Lovely is not a documentary account (as Derbyshire points out): it is the story of a romance between a rich, talented yet superficial young man who is typically cynical about “true love”, and a woman who teaches him its true meaning. I don’t know if this is what actually happened (although they remained married until Linda’s death in 1954, and as Derbyshire tells me, “It is clear from the biographies that Cole just adored Linda, and she him.” ) And in a way, it doesn’t matter. This is the story the movie tells.

The movie is a story about a woman who loves her man, even though she knows he does not love her in the same way, and that doesn’t mean only sexually. “You don’t have to love me the way I love you Cole, just love me.” To which Cole replies, “It’s so easy”. Given his track record and character, it’s easy to hear his meaning as “You let me do whatever I want, and I get to look respectably married AND you have oodles of dosh. Yeah, I love you, baby!” But his attitude changes by the end of the movie. In the movie, Linda is his rock. She provides gravitas to his flippancy. After she dies, his life rapidly goes downhill. It takes Cole all the time he and Linda have together, right up to her last dying moments, to teach him that love is not an empty word; that it means something.

Again and again, Cole is stunned by how much Linda loves him, the lengths she will go for him, while yet remaining clear-eyed about his faults. Towards the end, when they both know she does not have long to live, she introduces him to her interior designer.

Linda: We’ve become such fast friends. I was hoping you might. He’d be a good companion for you.
Cole: Linda?
Linda: I don’t want you to be lonely.

Linda is no angel, and she makes mistakes. She is also guilty of a similar cynicism and lying. However, she recognizes some of her mistakes. At one point, when she is blackmailed with compromising photos of Cole, she says to Cole, “I admit I am partially responsible for all this because I have encouraged you, I have indulged you, and what for? Just a little music.” The next day, she leaves him. She understands his art and his talent well enough to realize that a tight rein would either kill his talent or their relationship, but it is a tightrope walk. She is also disappointed that Cole has not turned his musical talents into classical channels, and she (just once) expresses exasperation at the superficiality of Cole’s music.

The problem is, Cole is a spoilt genius, and he knows it. He has great musical talent, is clever, knowledgeable, educated, charming, outrageous. He takes hardly anything seriously (that would be very bad form), not even his own talent. A regular Oscar Wilde.  Left to his own devices, he might well have burned out much earlier than he did, or even committed suicide, like the prodigy Lenny Ross.

The words which  folk-music buff Gary North wrote about Linda Ronstadt apply:

A problem for anyone who hits stardom or at least profitable celebrity status early in a career is that public tastes keep changing. This year’s pop-sensation can become a trivia question fairly fast. What seems like the wave of the future to the spending public becomes a distant memory when the next fad rolls in. This is not a tortoise/hare problem. Whether you’re a tortoise or a hare, Andy Warhol‘s estimate applies: your 15 minutes of fame run out before you notice. But it didn’t for Linda. Not many people can stay ahead of the crowd. A few performers sense the change and do change.

Bobby Darrin had this ability. In Linda’s case, she carried her fans with her after the mid-1970s, when she was unquestionably the queen of rock. She recorded albums that nobody would have thought could sell, and nobody else did sell anything like them, yet hers sold.She made it really big in the mid-1970s: “Heart Like a Wheel,” “Prisoner in Disguise.” “Trio,” her legendary country music CD with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris, was over a decade away. She never stopped performing. (“Three Career Role Models“, Gary North, October 29, 2004. Click here to see some photos of how stunning Linda Ronstadt looked in the 1960s when North met her.)

That Cole Porter did not burn out early probably owes more to his wife Linda than to Cole. He had the talent, but she had the strength of character. Perhaps that was not the way it really was, but that’s how it is in the movie. That’s the story this movie tells.

In the movie, it is Linda who persuades Cole to leave Paris and go to Hollywood (even though she had hoped he might make a career in classical music). Likewise, after Cole’s riding accident, it is Linda who insists that he will recover, keep his legs and walk again.

Doctor: I’m afraid his right leg should be amputated. Perhaps the left as well. There’s really no alternative.
Linda: If you amputate his legs, you will cut out his pride. You’ll break his spirit. He would never work again. He’ll have nothing without his music, it’s the essence of him. He’d have nothing to live for.
Doctor: He would have his life, his friends, you.
Linda: Nothing. He would just be living out his death.
Doctor: You’re asking a lot of him.
Linda: We are accustomed to asking a lot of one another.
Cole: So what did the sawbones say?
Linda: You get to keep the old things. And he expects you to walk, and so do l.
[Thanks to Drew’s Script-o-Rama]

These episodes may not be biographically true, but they fit the theme of the movie, which is true love – specifically, how a woman teaches its meaning to a man who is so cynical about it he is quite happy churning out clever songs about it (usually including homosexual double-entendres) all the livelong day; a man for whom “love” meant sex (“Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love“) and who assumed that’s what everyone else meant by it, too.

Cole is an inveterate and unrepentant homosexual of the early 20th century. He thinks he knows that love is a meaningless term invented by well-meaning but stuffy bourgeois to lend dignity to the institution of marriage. “Love” for Cole means secrecy and deception of a peculiar kind: while everyone knows what you’re up to, neither you nor they are supposed to mention it. (In a modern-day example of this kind of world view, a famous man famously said “Whatever ‘in love’ means” (“Diana: Story of a Princess” ITV documentary, part 3, watch from 9 minutes 30 seconds in).) Cole’s cynicism is summed up in this line from the movie: “What is discretion but dishonesty dressed up in a little good breeding?”

But Linda did not succeed in changing Cole’s ways (not in the movie, and possibly not in real life either), one might justifiably claim. Cole prefers a night of dalliance (after lying about his purpose) to attending a party held in his honour; he apologizes but without apparent contrition or remorse. Later, Linda tells him about being blackmailed with compromising photos of Cole. Cole knows about the photos and the blackmailer – he’s already paid him a large sum. Again, Cole shows no sign of contrition, and this results in Linda leaving him and returning to Paris. So how can I say that she taught him the meaning of true love? I admit, Cole did not change his ways, and by its end, the movie does not show a contrite Cole determined to “do better”,  but a more mature one: less flippant and superficial, less cynical, someone who has at last learned to appreciate the kind of love that Linda gave him, something real and true, something which he has disbelieved in all his life.

Derbyshire (and other critics) complain that the songs in the movie do not appear in chronological order, but the order of songs fits with the theme I have identified: the songs gradually become less obviously bawdy, less cynical, (“Every Time We Say Goodbye“, “You’re the Top“); the cliches and supeficiality are still there, but events in the Porters’ lives and in their relationship provide a background that makes a song like “So In Love” not only not sound trite but actually moving  – Cole is finally understanding what true love can mean, even though the only way he can express it is through his schmaltzy, sentimental ditties.

I don’t see the movie as a musical biography at all; it is rather a love story of a rich and cynical and clever playboy who is taught the meaning of love by a woman, and the movie tells this story with the help of Cole Porter’s songs. That is why the order of the songs in the movie is not the order they were written or performed in real life. As (the angel?) Gabe says right at the beginning of the movie, “The music will be our guide.” Exactly.

You can trace the Beatles’ musical development simply by listening to their songs in chronological order.  To trace the development of Cole Porter’s cynical and superficial heart, director Irving Winkler has made deft use of Porter’s songs, but not in their original, chronological order.

By the time Sheryl Crow sings “Begin the Beguine“, for example,

we understand enough about Cole’s character and Linda’s influence on him to hear double-entendres of a different kind in the lyrics.

As the song plays, Cole glances at the empty seat beside him,  for Linda is usually there  (in fact, she has just lost her unborn child, but neither Cole nor the audience know that yet). It is a powerful piece of cinema. I don’t see this as being in any way part of a plan to show a documentary about Cole Porter’s life. Rather, it uses elements of his life and music to create a mythical story – of a kind that perhaps harks back to the medieval concept of courtly love, although that makes Cole a rather unwilling knight. A story about every thoughtless man loved by a woman of deeper understanding. Perhaps it is a cinematic example of that old adage, “Every woman marries hoping her husband will change, every man marries hoping his wife never will”, but with a happy ending.

I’m not a fan of Porter’s songs (I prefer Fats Waller). I respect their musical cleverness and the verbal dexterity, and their energy, as I do those of Noel Coward and Gilbert and Sullivan, but I feel no strong desire to hear them again (I’ll make one exception: since starting this post, I’ve listened several times to “Begin the Beguine” and find it grows on me).  I grew up with the Beatles, not Cole Porter or Noel Coward, so I think I can be excused a lack of sentimental attachment. I had only heard one of Cole Porter’s songs before seeing this movie (and I did not know it was . The double-entendres in almost all of them, while clever, are really just schoolboy humour. The lyrics of a song like “Anything Goes” show the complete moral disorientation of an age. It’s not joie-de-vivre exuberance, it’s rather a giddy realization that there are no moral codes any more; that all those forbidden things you’ve been doing are now permitted – not by any high authority but simply because there IS no high authority. Ooh! how exciting…  for about 15 minutes, or 50 years, perhaps. Then you realize you are in a spiritual desert.

The kind of cynicism expressed by Cole and others in the movie, is corrosive and contagious: a belittling of love, an undercutting of any powerful passions, of belief in truth. A brilliant and sickening, though fictional, example of the logical extreme of this worldview is Ellsworth Toohey, and in her novel “The Fountainhead”, Rand makes clear that this worldview, like every other, has philosophical roots. Rand’s introduction to the 25th anniversary (1968) edition, is a very powerful indictment of this philosophy, which is the antithesis of Rand’s “romantic realism”. Superficial, trite, decadent: the adjectives belie the deadly seriousness to which this philosophy eventually leads. It is from this fate that Linda saves Cole by teaching him to love her.

At one point in the movie,  Porter says, “We couldn’t hear songs the same way anymore. The words sounded like code.” But they HAVE ALL sounded like code, right from the beginning of the movie, darling!  This is the movie’s success: by its end, songs like “So in Love” and “In the Still of the Night”, which normally I would not listen to right through even once,  sound genuine and moving. Instead of the sleazy, smirking double-entendres, the lyrics reveal a deeper, higher, ennobling meaning, a meaning revealed by the episodes that link the songs in the movie.  To paraphrase Professor Higgins, “By George, he’s got it.” Cole Porter was a very lucky man. Not in the way he thought (money, talent, charm), but because he met and married and learned to love a woman like Linda Lee Thomas. He began to learn the true meaning of love.

If you need any more enticement to see this movie, let me just add that it includes some knock-out performances by Robbie Williams, Sheryl Crow, Natalie Cole, Alanis Morissette, Elvis Costello and Caroline O’Connor.

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