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Flick Chick

Published July 28, 2004 at 4:00 p.m.

When some Las Vegas high rollers booed Linda Ronstadt recently, news reports suggested it was because of her onstage praise for Fahrenheit 9/11. But apparently the audience was also peeved that she had been singing classics by George Gershwin and Cole Porter in what the casino billed as a show of her "greatest hits."

Ronstadt's good taste in music, from whatever era, ought to be celebrated by savvy people on the right and the left. De-Lovely, a substantially fictionalized Porter biopic now playing at the Roxy in Burlington, is a bit of a mess, but his tunes are still brilliant. For four decades, Porter tempered the de rigueur sentimentality of his day with a deliciously subversive wit.

Unfortunately the 125-minute film, directed by Irwin Winkler, doesn't always use Porter's songs to their best advantage. That's due primarily to the confusing and oddly structured screenplay by Jay Cocks, which starts off in 1964. Looking weary at 73, Porter (Kevin Kline) is tapping out a melancholy "In the Still of the Night" on his piano when he's visited by Gabe, played by Jonathan Pryce.

With a framing device like that of Dickens' A Christmas Carol, Porter embarks on a dramatized tour of his life with Gabe --symbolizing death --as guide. In this case, personal history begins unfolding as a Broadway musical when friends, lovers and colleagues tap-dance into an otherwise empty theater.

Many of them are long gone, but reappear as youngsters hoofing in an energetic chorus line. They belt out "Anything Goes," a frothy melody with a message that hints at the duality of Porter's existence. He was gay, or at least bisexual, at a time when such things were forbidden.

The chronological story is revealed scene by scene, although the elderly Porter often expresses his reluctance about the version that Gabe wants him to witness. The action soon switches to a swank 1920s Paris apartment full of well-appointed guests, who join the bon vivant composer in an over-choreographed rendition of "What a Swell Party This Is."

A beautiful divorcee named Linda (Ashley Judd) catches Cole's wandering eye. She finds his marginal interest in women refreshing after her abusive first marriage. In lieu of lust, her romance with Porter is built on emotional, intellectual and creative compatibility.

At an outdoor cafe, Porter tickles the ivories to woo Linda with "Easy to Love" and a Frenchman in a beret accompanies him on the accordion. Is it schmaltz? Yes, but few actors can go mushy with the aplomb of Kevin Kline.

Porter's dark secrets initially don't faze Linda. "You have a dazzling gift and a life to go with it," she suggests. "What can you possibly be afraid of?"

"Myself," he replies, and with good reason.

The already successful Irving Berlin pulls strings to get Porter a gig on the Great White Way, but the songwriter is reluctant to leave Europe and his dalliance with a handsome Russian ballet dancer.

"I wanted every kind of love that was available," Porter says in voice-over narration. The kind of love that Linda makes available -- intimacy -- proves more important than the closeted affair, so off they go to America in 1934. But not before we see Elvis Costello as a crooner entertaining with Porter's naughty-but-nice "Let's Misbehave."

In New York City, Porter produces the music for a string of hit plays, one of them starring an actress-singer portrayed by Alanis Morissette. But his newfound celebrity only increases the opportunities for cheating on Linda. He pals around with character actor Monty Wolley (Allan Corduner), who procures new same-sex heartthrobs for Porter's assignations in the shadows of Central Park.

Linda eventually persuades him to relocate to California in hopes the movie world will somehow tame his extracurricular urges. In Hollywood, Porter compromises on his lyrics to please MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer, but pursues an even more openly gay lifestyle. One of his non-cinematic compositions, the risque "Exper-iment," proclaims this freedom of choice.

Although Cole Porter's story should be dynamic and elegant, De-Lovely is mostly neither. Every time the ensemble launches into a big production number, a la Chicago, it seems de-ridiculous. Contemporary artists in retro nightclub settings fare somewhat better, except for a misfire by the otherwise talented Diana Krall. Maybe a Ronstadt cameo would have saved the day.

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Susan Green


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