The Unicorn Scale: De-Lovely

By Jennie Roberson

July 08, 2019

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And a good day to you, dear Unicorn readers! You know, I’ve just got to tell you: you’re the top. Night and day, you are the one. I’ve got you under my skin. Sure, those are pat phrases these days, but ever wonder where the phrases came from? All of the songs conjuring those clichés come from the brain of one of the greatest American songwriters of the 20th century, Cole Porter. But who was the genius behind these genial melodies? Well, the 2004 biopic De-Lovely, starring Kevin Kline, aimed to explore just that question. And that very film is the fodder of our friendly fare of the day.

Recently I came across a question on a queer online community forum: “When was the first time you heard the word ‘bisexual?’” Such a simple question with such profound answers. For myself, I think the first time I heard it was in a dismissive description of one my first high school crushes – used derisively as if he would switch genders to get any kind of action. But I think the first time I ever saw it in print was in my hometown newspaper’s review of this film. Even to this baby bi, that intrigued me all those years ago, and I put it on that that ever-growing mental list of “I should watch that one day.” Well, my dear Unicorns, today is that day.

Before I get too far down the rabbit hole of this song catalogue, let’s make a detour for our dutiful disclaimers. Please note this review will contain SPOILERS for De-Lovely. Also if you have no idea what we are talking about when we talk about this scale, or you’d just like a reminder on how I am gauging this review, feel free to flit over to the original article here LINK.

Okay, now that the housework is taken care of, please feel free to enjoy this soundtrack of some of Porter’s best works as you read the review:

De-Lovely is a musical drama that focuses on (and exclusively utilizes the songs of) Cole Porter, an American songwriter whose witty ditties dominated the first half of the 20th century. Packed with musical cameos and engaging performances, the story focuses on Porter’s marriage to Linda (Ashley Judd), a clever socialite who is devoted to Cole, but has a changing relationship with his same-sex encounters.

WHAT I LIKED:

While some reviews or editorials liked to label De-Lovely’s summation of Porter as gay and using Linda as a beard (including Scotty Bowers’ depiction that Cole was gay in his memoir reviewed on this site), Porter’s actual behavior and his characterization in the movie is clearly bi. While Cole did not always sexually desire Linda as much as he did men, it was not out of the question. Plus I always go back to Robyn Ochs’ description of the term

I call myself bisexual because I acknowledge that I have in myself the potential to be attracted – romantically and/or sexually – to people of more than one gender, not necessarily at the same time, not necessarily in the same way, and not necessarily to the same degree.

I thought of that definition over and over as I watched this story unfold. It’s clear Cole’s devotion to Linda is not just for superficial appearances, but deep and abiding love. And not only that, they have a deliberate conversation about his queer attractions early on in the film, with Linda outlining her acceptance but later on asking for some discretion (lest they lose their livelihood.) This exchange was not only progressive for its time, but also executed in a loving and open way rarely seen between couples in most modern cinema.

Kevin Kline and Ashley Judd as Cole and Linda Porter

I also appreciated that the script depicted that Porter’s songs were not only personal (“they’re all for you”), but open to interpretation once we know a bit more about the Porters’ personal lives. Consider the lyrics to “It’s All Right With Me”  - perhaps the most telling is the final verse:

It's the wrong game, with the wrong chips
Though your lips are tempting, they're the wrong lips
They're not his lips, but they're such tempting lips
That, if some night, you are free
Dear, it's all right, it's all right with me.

On a different front, I appreciated the fact that both Kline and the film were unafraid to show that Cole could be callous from time to time. While Porter was an unassailable genius and a loving and (in his own way) devoted husband, De-Lovely does not shy away from showing the strain Cole’s flagrant same-sex affairs had on his marriage. Nevertheless, Linda’s protestations are based not on wanting him to change or go back in the closet, but the consequences his behavior in Hays Code-era Hollywood could have on his career. While that is tragic, it is historically correct.

While some may argue the film pursues a queer-as-conflict theme, I assert that it’s such a rare treat to show a film, let alone a biopic, that focuses on a bi man, let alone a bi man as successful as Porter that shows what huge risks it took for him to be his most authentic self. Maybe some will call me apologists for that claim, but until I see more films – not television (which I think is undergoing a bi representation renaissance), but films – daring to tell these stories, I will be happy for this type of addition to queer cinema.

WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE:

Bi. Bisexual. Queer. None of these words appeared anywhere in the movie. Come on, everybody. Porter was throwing orgies in Paris for all orientations even before Linda showed up on the scene. He had to have known the term, but this film won’t even utter something like “the love that dares not speak its name.” Sure, Porter was all about innuendo and wit, but sometimes it’s good to just call a spade a spade. Call a bi man a bi man.

THE RATING:

This is a rare queer film that often gets overlooked in LGBTQIA discussions, and unfairly so. Not only is it a glittering, entertaining affair, but it showcases a queer man who was at the crux of the songwriting community, who perhaps contributed more to the American songbook than any other writer. It deserves recognition, praise – and a few unicorns besides.

3.5 Unicorns

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