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Just one of those things

Ella Fitzgerald and Rosemary Clooney? Let's do it. Sheryl Crow and Alanis Morissette? Don't go there. There is a correct way to sing the works of Cole Porter, and when it's done right, it's true love.

August 08, 2004|Gary Giddins | Special to The Times

Among connoisseurs of the Hollywood musical, a special ring in hell is reserved for songwriter biopics of the 1940s, which followed two inviolable rules -- tone down the Jewishness (imagine the brainstorming that cast Tom Drake and Mickey Rooney as Rodgers and Hart in "Words and Music"), and avoid any indication of polymorphous sexuality (hence the straight or straightened Cary Grant as Cole Porter in the largely fictitious "Night and Day").

In the marginally less fictitious "De-Lovely," Kevin Kline's Cole Porter says of the earlier film, "If I can survive this movie, I can survive anything." And Porter did survive it for 18 pain-ridden but often creative years. "De-Lovely" might have proved fatal.

"Night and Day" ignored Porter's partiality for men. Big deal. "De-Lovely" degrades his genius for songwriting -- a far graver dereliction. "Night and Day's" wall-to-wall music was ably performed by singers who, excepting Mary Martin and Ginny Simms, were not well known then and are entirely forgotten now. Yet they imbued the songs with a glowing conviction.

"De-Lovely" gives Porter's music plenty of screen time, but here the interpretations denude it of all its wonders: melodic distinction, harmonic ingenuity, rhythmic elan, erotic subversion, debonair wit, unconstrained gaiety.

The producers slipped on the oldest banana peel in show business, recruiting inappropriate performers in the hope of making a historic work look au courant. Most of these singers handle Porter's lyrics as though they were learned phonetically; they mangle his expressive melodies like melisma-addled amateurs who, unable to hit a note on the button, sidle into it -- usually with a groan to let you know how involved they are.

Many contemporaries can do or might have done justice to Porter's art (Dee Dee Bridgewater, Dianne Reeves, Michael Feinstein, Karrin Allyson, Cassandra Wilson, Mary Cleere Haran, Rebecca Luker, Sting, Allan Harris and Madonna, not to mention a certain Mr. Bennett, come to mind), including two who are in the picture -- Diana Krall and Natalie Cole.

The former is undermined by a lifeless arrangement and relegated to background ambience, leaving only the latter to shine with a rendition of "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye" that, significantly, recalls classic renditions by Ella Fitzgerald and Betty Carter.

Porter will survive this too -- he survives everything. No songwriter is more frequently rediscovered, decade after decade, always with renewed surprise at the depth and breadth of his work.

Repeated revivals

In the years after his crippling 1937 equestrian accident (which "De-Lovely" stages as cosmic punishment for the sexual indulgences it pretends to absolve), he scattered some of his finest songs in uneven stage shows, until the 1948 masterpiece "Kiss Me, Kate" spurred the first Porter renaissance.

The second occurred only eight years later, when in quick succession a woefully expurgated film version (the second) of "Anything Goes" was offset by the smash double album "Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook" (one of the bestselling jazz albums of all time) and the film "High Society," in which Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly introduced Cole's last million-seller, "True Love."

In "De-Lovely," Porter composes "True Love" in the 1920s, deriding it as froufrou designed to please his wife; in truth, he took pride in its waltzing simplicity, subtle diminished chords and great popularity and hoped in vain it would win him an Oscar.

Although his songs sparked a dozen films, Porter had never been an easy fit for Hollywood. His 1932 stage show "Gay Divorce" was adapted as a 1934 vehicle for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, "The Gay Divorcee," with all but one of his songs cut.

A couple of years later, Ethel Merman joined Crosby to bring Broadway authenticity to the first film of "Anything Goes," and the censors went nuclear. "All Through the Night" was killed because of the line "You and your love bring me ecstasy" and "Blow, Gabriel, Blow" because it might have offended religious propriety.

A hack lyricist was hired to rewrite the title song, but it was still nervously relegated to background music for the credits; "I Get a Kick Out of You" and "You're the Top" were cleaned up. Only four of Porter's songs were Oscar-nominated -- he never won.

After his death in 1964, cabaret singers Bobby Short and Mabel Mercer generated another Porter revival, which was given weight in 1971 by the publication of Robert Kimball's anthology of lyrics, "Cole."

A more comprehensive collection, in 1983, seemed to trigger additional interest, generating records and shows and culminating in "Kiss Me Kate's" 1999 return to Broadway.

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