Kevin Kline considers himself an actor, not a singer, despite the fact that his two Tony Awards were both for musicals - "The Pirates of Penzance" and "On the Twentieth Century."
But when he was cast as Cole Porter in "De-Lovely," a film that's a musical biography of the composer, he had definite ideas as to how he should sing - and this despite the fact that Porter was known as being one of the least effective interpreters of his memorable body of songs.
Kline objected to the way singing has traditionally been done in the movies: He didn't want to lip sync - synchronizing his lip movements to a prerecorded rendition of the song. "When I did [the film version of] 'Pirates of Penzance,' I got to the studio and recorded the music I'm going to be singing in a couple of months," he recalls. "It's ridiculous. It's insane. How can I act when I'm lip synching?"
The actor noted that Porter was not a great singer, so there was no need to create some idealized rendition in the scenes where he sang. If anything, he was more concerned about playing the part so that "if a nice accident should happen" during the scene, it could be used. He points to the moment when he sings of a great love while romancing his future wife, Linda (played by Ashley Judd), in a Parisian park. Turning to a passerby, he ad libbed, "Not you, dear."
"The sound technicians were tearing their hair out," he says. "It was about me just singing, not filling a house. It was more about acting."
In spite of a score consisting of numerous Cole Porter classics rendered by Kline and a variety of contemporary musicians (including Elvis Costello, Alanis Morissette, Natalie Cole, Diana Krall, and Sheryl Crow), "De-Lovely" really is about the acting. Porter was one of the great popular composers of the first half of the 20th century, writing songs such as "Let's Misbehave," "Begin the Beguine," "You're the Top," and "I've Got You Under My Skin." His Broadway and Hollywood work include "Kiss Me, Kate," "Gay Divorce," "High Society," and "Anything Goes."
The previous film biography of Porter was the highly fictionalized "Night and Day" (1946) with Cary Grant and Alexis Smith in the roles played in "De-Lovely" by Kline and Judd. There's even a witty scene in "De-Lovely" in which the Porters attend a private screening of the movie. What the earlier film could not even mention was the truth about Porter's private life. Although, as depicted here, he and Linda loved each other, Porter also indulged his urges for gay relationships at a time when public exposure might have ended his career.
"He was promiscuous, and he was devoted to his wife," says Kline, neatly summarizing the contradiction.
Given that "De-Lovely" will likely appeal to older viewers who might not be aware of Porter's private life, Kline says he didn't know how audiences would react. "I know what my parents would say, 'Why did you have to show that? Who cares?' "
Kline agreed with the decision of the filmmakers to include this aspect of Porter's life - which is not presented in a lurid fashion. "It was definitely an element to this unique love story that couldn't be demonstrated before," he says.
As challenging as that might be for Kline, he also had to deal with Porter's physical disability. After a riding accident, Porter had a leg amputated. In the film, Kline appears to be missing a leg, but he explained that's easy to do in this day of computerized special effects. "I had to wear this green sock and make sure my feet didn't cross," he said. The part of his leg covered by the sock was then digitally removed from the shot.
Kline is currently working on the "Pink Panther" remake with Steve Martin, playing the Inspector Dreyfus role originated by Herbert Lom. While that movie seems to have hit potential, Kline refuses to predict whether "De-Lovely" will attract younger viewers who may not have heard of Porter. Instead, he tells an anecdote about taking a part in a quirky comedy featuring some cult British comics against the advice of friends and colleagues. "Who's going to go?" they asked him.
The movie was the hit "A Fish Called Wanda" which earned Kline his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.