CANNES, France – Generally bemused over the conventions of celebrity journalism, Kevin Kline (search) groans when he reads about himself in print with one of his best-known films inserted as his middle name:
Kevin "The Big Chill" Kline or Kevin "Sophie's Choice" Kline.
Just now, though, Kline's doing his own alteration on his middle name.
"My middle name's Delaney, but this week, it's 'De-Lovely.' Kevin 'De-Lovely' Kline, at least for a week. It's better than Kevin 'A Fish Called Wanda' Kline," the actor said in an interview with The Associated Press at May's Cannes Film Festival, where film biography "De-Lovely" (search) was the closing movie.
Kline, 56, who studied piano and music before switching to drama in college, plays Cole Porter (search) in a fanciful portrait of the composer whose tunes include "Anything Goes," "You're the Top," "Love for Sale," "Night and Day" and the title song "It's De-Lovely."
Unlike the sanitized 1946 Porter biopic "Night and Day," starring Cary Grant," "De-Lovely" pulls no punches in depicting the composer's double life as a spouse in a largely platonic marriage with Linda Porter (Ashley Judd (search)) and a gay man with a fondness for picking up pretty young things at boy brothels.
Cole and Linda were best friends and soul mates, and she remained his muse, even though he found sexual pleasure elsewhere, Kline said.
"There are lots of great juicy stories of nefarious, prodigious sexual encounters," Kline said of Porter. "He never was apologetic. He may have been tormented by it. Certainly, he wrote a lot of songs, `What Is This Thing Called Love?' I think he was constantly investigating, exploring what love was. ...
"What I love is, here's a movie, a Hollywood love story, that doesn't use sexual passion as the foundation, where there's got to be the great love scene, where they make love. So here's a really different kind of love story."
The film's structure is equally unconventional, with a theatricality suitable to Porter's grand and showy personality. The movie opens on Porter as an old, lonely man nearing death (in 1964) when a mysterious stranger who turns out to be the archangel Gabriel (Jonathan Pryce) materializes in the composer's home.
Gabriel whisks Porter off to a theater where long-gone loved ones are in rehearsal mode for a performance of his life story. "De-Lovely" then flits back and forth between a more standard film-biography structure and the Gabriel fantasy, eventually building to Pryce and Kline performing Porter's spirited tune "Blow, Gabriel, Blow."
That approach, crafted by screenwriter Jay Cocks ("Gangs of New York"), nicely fit the self-mythologizing image that raconteur Porter sought to create, Kline said.
"Cole Porter was not ever keen on hanging out his dirty laundry or telling his real story to anyone. He was creating a myth, a good story, which I think Jay Cocks captured," Kline said.
"It's like, come on, this is theater, it's got to be entertaining. And he lived a life which was a kind of theater. So I think it's the perfect sort of conceit for the movie, in that blip, that split second before you die, when your life flashes before your eyes. For Cole Porter, it would be a musical."
Kline is a Hollywood rarity equally at home in broad comedy ("A Fish Called Wanda, which earned him an Academy Award) and heavy drama ("Sophie's Choice," "The Ice Storm").
A two-time Tony winner, Kline had another Tony nomination this year for his performance as Falstaff in "Henry IV."
Kline now is filming "The Pink Panther" with old pal Steve Martin, with whom he co-starred in 1991's "Grand Canyon." Martin fills the bumbling Inspector Clouseau role created by Peter Sellers, while Kline takes on the part originated by Herbert Lom as the detective's long-suffering boss.
His versatility served him well in "De-Lovely," which required Kline to play an effervescent wag in Porter's early days and a tragic cripple in the later years, after a horseback-riding accident that crushed the composer's legs.
"Kevin's so abundantly talented and can play the grace and elegance of Porter and be the clown with equal flair," co-star Judd said.
Kline was especially adept at capturing Porter's neuroses, Judd added, laughing.
"De-Lovely" was a reunion for Kline and director Irwin Winkler, who previously collaborated on 2001's "Life As a House." Winkler had been developing "De-Lovely" for years and mentioned it to Kline while they were making that earlier film.
The director joked that Kline usually spends three years mulling whether he's interested in a role, then says no.
"But this time, it was three minutes, and he said yes," Winkler said.
They had a warm working relationship on "Life As a House" but had an early disagreement on "De-Lovely." Winkler intended to put modern pop and rock singers into the film as 1920s and '30s crooners of Porter tunes.
Kline felt it was a terrible idea, worried that the singers' styles would undermine a period film.
"He thought I was making a big mistake and told me so. And I said, `No, I think I'm on the right path.' And he said, `You sure?' and kind of wandered away," Winkler said. "But I'm the director, he's the actor, and we have a very, very good relationship, and he basically trusts me."
Kline concedes he was wrong and Winkler was right. The musical numbers — including Elvis Costello singing "Let's Misbehave," Alanis Morissette performing "Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love)" and Sheryl Crow doing "Begin the Beguine" — are highlights in "De-Lovely."
For his own musical performances, Kline concentrated less on his voice and more on sharpening his rusty piano skills. A talented vocalist whose credits include the musical "The Pirates of Penzance," Kline found it comparatively easy to croon as Porter, who had a passable voice but was not known as a singer.
"It's that thing of being able to play without looking at the piano keys. You're playing something for the first time for someone, and you own this song," Kline said. "So I was more concerned by the harmonic structure of the song, having my fingers find the right place to bend, than singing. I think we have enough great singing in the movie, so that part wasn't a burden."