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STAGE TO SCREEN: Not So De-Lovely

Category: Phantom of the Opera News
Article Date: July 18, 2004 | Publication: Playbill.com | Author: Eric Grode
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Eric Grode offers five reasons why "De-Lovely," the new Cole Porter biopic, doesn't live up to its name.

I apologize for biting my tongue until now about the serious, serious problems with ”De-Lovely.” My last column went up two weeks before the Cole Porter biopic opened, and I take press embargos seriously. Basically, if you can’t say anything nice before the film opens, you’re really not supposed to say anything. So I didn’t. Now that it’s open, however:

Five Reasons Why “De-Lovely” Is as Misguided a “Prestige” Motion Picture as I Can Remember, Bearing in Mind That I’m Not Even Touching the Whole Jonathan-Pryce-as-Enigmatic-Godlike-Tour-Guide Conceit:

1. “Be a Clown” is by far the most egregious example, but the songs are staged with either complete indifference to or complete ignorance of how to shoot a musical sequence on film. If you’re going to pull the camera in during a crowd scene, you’d better make sure the people in the crowd are doing something interesting. In my worst nightmares, I don’t picture Chris Columbus mangling “Rent” like this.

2. The real-life Linda Porter was eight years older than Cole; here, the age disparity has been reversed. This sounds nit-picky, but it’s not: Changing that dynamic wrecks everything on a psychological level. The marriage of convenience between Cole, whose mother kept him afloat to the tune of $2 million after his grandfather disinherited him, and Linda presumably worked so well because she was an older woman who had seen her share of the world (she was 36 when they married) and was ready to play as much a maternal role as anything else. Claiming otherwise is as fraudulent in its own way as the 1946 Porter biopic “Night and Day.”

3. While we’re on the subject of Linda Porter, the extended shots of her stewing at the bar while Cole sings an oh-so-apropos rendition of “Experiment” represent a low point in poor Ashley Judd’s career. I really hope Ned Beatty doesn’t see this movie.

4. Nelson Eddy is played by Mick Hucknall.

5. For all of the director’s and producers’ talk of exposing the “truth” about Porter’s homosexuality (something that shocked about three people nationwide), the “Love for Sale” sequence in the gay bar is just embarrassing. Take a look at the scene in “Far From Heaven,” which is set in a comparable period, when Dennis Quaid goes into that narrow, smoky bar. (Thanks to my coworker Ken for reminding me of this.) You can’t ask for a better example of a director who really grasps both the “text” and “subtext” of a period. And that’s where Irwin Winkler’s swooning cameras and extras in sailor outfits fall dismally short.

For the record, Kevin Kline does a terrific job with some terrible dialogue, and the costumes are pretty swell. And with the exception of Sheryl Crow, nearly all the pop and rock performers give credible renditions of the Porter songs. (Alanis Morrisette was a particularly nice surprise.) But “De-Lovely” comes up limping in the very first scene and rarely gets any better. The pressure on “Phantom of the Opera” was already pretty intense, and I suspect the box office on “De-Lovely” will be sufficiently tepid to raise the bar even higher. Hollywood wouldn’t mind walking away from musicals, or at least old-style musicals with Broadway scores. They’re too expensive, the studios argue, and the kids aren’t interested. Two flops in 2004 could prove them right.


***

Speaking of “Phantom,” mark your calendars for December 2. That’s when both it and “Closer” debut. Closer playwright Patrick Marber will see his screenwriting debut, “Asylum,” open a few weeks earlier. Interestingly enough, two of Marber’s leading ladies may be doing Tennessee Williams on Broadway this year--”Asylum” star Natasha Richardson seems like a definite for a Roundabout Streetcar Named Desire this spring, and Natalie Portman of “Closer” may have opened in The Glass Menagerie by then.)

2004’s other two largish theater adaptations, “Stage Beauty” and “Proof,” have yet to set opening dates.

***

Of all the 2003-04 Broadway plays, it looks like Frozen has the best chance of making it to the big screen. Playwright Bryony Lavery says she has been asked to adapt it for a film version, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she pulls it off. Anna in the Tropics and The Retreat From Moscow could have some potential, and don’t forget those Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks talks.

Drowning Crow, the critically demolished hip-hop take on The Seagull, has not generated any such discussions. But just about everyone involved in the play will be seen on screen in the next few weeks. (The two exceptions are Stephen McKinley Henderson, who’s stepping into Dracula: The Musical on Broadway, and Peter Francis James, who’s doing Much Ado About Nothing in Central Park.) Both of the younger leads have movies opening July 30: Anthony Mackie stars in “She Hate Me,” the controversial new Spike Lee film, and Aunjanue Ellis has a smaller part in “Garden State.” Alfre Woodard follows up a few weeks later in “The Forgotten” (September 24).

Last but not least, Joe Morton--who was replaced by James in the Trigorin role--makes his directorial debut July 26, when “Sunday on the Rocks” debuts at Long Island’s Stony Brook Film Festival. This adaptation of an early-’90s play by Theresa Rebeck stars such familiar theater names as Cady Huffman (The Producers) and Julie White (who earned great notices in Rebeck’s Blind Dates). It will be quite a week for Rebeck: In addition to “Sunday on the Rocks,” she also has a writing credit on “Catwoman” (July 23). The Halle Berry superhero flick has apparently gone through several versions since Rebeck chimed in, but she shares a story credit on the film.

 


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