DVD: How One Cole Porter Flop Made Another Look Way Better
There's a whole lot of Cole Porter coming down the pike this week: Peter Bogdanovich's legendary (and infamous) musical At Long Last Love, featuring 16 Porter compositions, pops up on the Netflix Instant roster on April 1 and will screen several times in April and May on the Fox Movie Channel. Meanwhile, De-Lovely, the Porter biopic starring Kevin Kline, makes its Blu-Ray debut on April 5 from MGM Home Entertainment. Funny thing, though -- De-Lovely wound up being such a stinker that At Long Last Love suddenly started smelling sweeter.
A brief bit of history: Cole Porter is one of the giants of the American musical theater, having written a significant percentage of what we now think of as the Great American Songbook (i.e., the standards that people like Rod Stewart record when they want an easy cash-in late in their career). And Bogdanovich himself was something of a giant before At Long Last Love's 1975 release, having established himself as a New Hollywood wunderkind with modern retro hits like The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon, and What's Up, Doc?
But then ALLL happened -- a hugely expensive musical with numbers shot live on set, meaning that stars Cybill Shepherd and Burt Reynolds couldn't hide behind the pre-recorded sweetening that makes the Glee kids sound so good every week. Despite the film's lush Art Deco trappings, and a snappy supporting performance by actual singer Madeline Kahn, the film got raked over the coals by critics, lost a ton of money for Twentieth Century Fox (which remains so embarrassed over the film that it has yet to release it on any format of home video), and basically torpedoed the careers of writer-director Bogdanovich and his then-paramour Shepherd for years to come.
And yet...while I admittedly sought At Long Last Love out via bootlegs and exceedingly rare TV screenings to see if it was as bad as its reputation, I find the film strangely compelling in its own way. While it's not a total success, it's interesting to see how Bogdanovich was trying to pay homage to the musicals of the early talkie era, and frankly, the thing works more often than it doesn't. The Porter music is handled with a fair amount of respect (as opposed to what De-Lovely would do with it), so even if Shepherd's not the best dancer in the world and Reynolds seems somewhat miscast, there's a spirited energy that makes the film eminently watchable. And seeing Kahn warble "Find Me a Primitive Man" with a chorus line of cavemen is pretty awesome.
While At Long Last Love has its small pockets of admirers, the film got its biggest boost with the 2004 release of the sluggish De-Lovely, about which critic John Powers memorably opined, "De-less said, de-better." This film has the gall to include a scene where Porter (Kline) and beard/wife Linda (Ashley Judd) walk out of a screening of the 1946 Porter biopic Night and Day rolling their eyes -- but that older film, phony as it may be, makes for more entertaining viewing.
For one thing, Jay Cocks' screenplay actually has Porter telling his life story on his deathbed to the archangel Gabriel (Jonathan Pryce), which is pretty hoary as framing devices go. That might be forgivable if director Irwin Winkler hadn't decided to "young up" the movie by having contemporary singers like Alanis Morrissette, Robbie Williams, and Sheryl Crow butcher the great Porter songbook with some of the worst renditions imaginable. And after you've heard Kline and Judd duet on "In the Still of the Night," the thought of Eileen Brennan and John Hillerman taking on "But in the Morning, No" in ALLL suddenly seems more palatable.
The streaming and cable appearances of At Long Last Love represent the film's most public availability in over 35 years -- could the studio finally own up to this bizarro classic and release it on DVD? Here's hoping someone at Fox is taking a page from the Porter songbook and humming "Let's Do it."