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As a challenge, it's 'De-Lovely'

Actor Kevin Kline didn't have to be note-perfect as a pianist or singer to portray composer Cole Porter. Channeling the man behind the songs was the key.

June 27, 2004|Elaine Dutka | Times Staff Writer

Kevin Kline, who studied piano and composition at Indiana University, had to hone his musical muscles before taking on the role of Cole Porter in "De-Lovely" -- a film about the legendary composer of classics including "Just One of Those Things," "Begin the Beguine," and "Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love)." But not too much, he explains. Cole was only a so-so singer, and unlike Gershwin, an equally bad pianist. ("He played on a riverboat," says Kline, "and developed a strong left hand so that he could be heard over the engines.")

Still, the two-time Tony Award winner ("Pirates of Penzance" and "On the Twentieth Century") and star of movies such as "A Fish Called Wanda" (a best supporting actor Oscar) and "Sophie's Choice" was apprehensive about plunging into what he calls a "musical movie" rather than the more conventional "movie musical" -- a cinematic version of a stage production.

Using songs as a soundtrack for Porter's life, the Irwin Winkler film shows him reminiscing about the highs and lows -- from his loving but sexless bond with wife Linda (Ashley Judd) to the horseback riding accident that cost him a leg. Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow, Alanis Morissette, Diana Krall and others interpret Porter's work in the movie, which opens in limited release on Friday. Kline sat down recently to talk about capturing a complicated life in a musical biopic.

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A number of musicals are in the works in the wake of the Oscar-winning "Chicago." Is the genre still a challenge for modern-day audiences?

Bursting into song can be intrusive, of course, but as a composer, I had a motivation. Porter's songs are a main character in the film, one that permits us to know him more intimately. The music and the narrative scenes work contrapuntally, several voices at once. Though Porter was the most social of creatures, he was a private man who expressed his pain, his passion through his music. He rarely talked to the media. The press collaborated in his self-mythologizing, just as they did with FDR, who was never shot below the waist. Today, the media would be analyzing his X-rays or asking about his rehab.

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"Night and Day," the 1946 Warner Bros. picture starring Cary Grant, never revealed that Porter was bisexual -- a central element in his life.

That's true, though whenever Porter hugs his wife in the movie, his eyes are focused elsewhere. And a scene on a train with a lot of men may have been a "code." Porter was a contradictory, complex man, and I'm glad our screenplay didn't whitewash that. Unlike Tchaikovsky, he didn't seem tortured by his sexuality. He was unapologetically who he was, boasting that he had an insatiable appetite for life and all it had to offer. Porter had a ruthlessness, a commitment to the creative process, that interfered with a healthy, conventional daily existence. There's a great quote by the artist Fernand Leger at the end of [the Calvin Tomkins book] "Living Well Is the Best Revenge": You have a good life, you'll have mediocre work. Great work, mediocre life. Chekhov, too, said that the pram, the baby carriage, in the doorway is the enemy of art.

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Did you have to figure out what line to walk -- neither sanitizing Porter's bisexuality nor playing it too camp?

Cole wasn't camp ... and to play a gay man like that would be a cliche which I always try to avoid. When I kissed Boris goodbye in the bedroom in Venice, we shot some lingering, more passionate kisses, but Irwin wanted it a little less carnal. At a test screening for [the 1997 comedy] "In & Out," I was told, a 250-pound football player-type stood up and screamed "Stop the madness," when he saw me kissing Tom Selleck. But then, that was a very long, insane kiss with my legs wrapped around his waist. Some people can't stomach that, even between a man and a woman.

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Screenwriter Jay Cocks, who had been criticized for taking liberties in "Gangs of New York," sent out a memo cautioning that his Porter interpretation was impressionistic, not literal.

I would go so far as to say "cubistic." While you're seeing one thing, you're seeing the back of it -- off stage, on stage -- at the same time. The setup is similar to "All That Jazz," in which choreographer Bob Fosse is commenting on his life. Porter wants it to be entertaining, good theater. But he's torn between the truth and a good story. Sarah Monzani's makeup helped me get into the role. I was able to act through it -- it didn't wear me, as so many prosthetic makeups do. It took five hours to apply the old-geezer stuff and ... an hour and a half to take it off. The Armani clothes also fed the performance. Porter was almost foppish. They made fun of him at Yale.

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You insisted on singing live instead of lip-syncing later on.

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