Midnight in Paris & Fantasy Linda
A sincere thank you to everyone who wrote me to make sure I knew about Midnight in Paris. This is the conversation I imagined having with all of you about the movie.
Hey, you said, do you know that Cole Porter is a character in this new Woody Allen film?
Yes, I do know this.
Have you seen it?
Yes, I went to see it with my mom, with whom I also saw De-Lovely, as a matter of fact.
Well, what did you think?
No, Midnight in Paris?
I liked it. Who doesn’t like [spoiler alert!] a time-travel fantasy/love story with a happy ending?
Are you being sarcastic?
Sorta. I can see why it’s Woody Allen’s highest-grossing film to date. But it’s not really about traveling back in time. [You know that, right?] Gil/Woody doesn’t return to the real past so much as he enters his own Golden Age, his idealized perception of that time and place and the people who inhabited it. Inez tells Gil, “You’re in love with a fantasy,” as they embrace on a bridge, surrounded by water lilies.
Even if you can’t tell a Monet from a Manet from a Degas, I’ll bet you recognize this scene in the movie. We’ve all been to Fantasy Giverny—thanks to hotel room decorators and Deck the Walls and college poster sales.
See, that’s what makes Midnight in Paris so enjoyable, and why it’s doing so well at the box office. The movie makes us feel smart, because we recognize Hemingway doing HEMINGWAY and Scott and Zelda doing SCOTT AND ZELDA and Cole Porter doing COLE PORTER.
The only people I know who don’t like Midnight in Paris are people who actually know a lot about Paris in the 1920s. It’s hard to be swept away by the romance of it all when you’re invested in the reality.
Cathy, everyone likes this movie. What’s your problem?
Look, I like it, too, but here’s my problem. For as many times as Gil invokes their famous couple-dom (“Cole and Linda!“ he keeps saying throughout the movie), you’d think Woody Allen might have hired an actress to actually play her. And he didn’t. I know. I stayed and watched all the credits.
Well, it’s not like Cole got a lot of screen time either.
True. It’s his music that makes him seem so present in the film, when actually, he’s only got a bit part, played by Yves Heck. On his first midnight trip to Paris, Gil sees Cole at the piano, and later, they drive in a large group to a bar
Showoff. So you’re saying that Linda should have had a bit part, too?
I’m saying that if you really traveled back to Paris in, say, 1925, Linda was the big deal, not Cole.
But he’s Cole Porter!
He wasn’t THAT Cole Porter yet. By virtue of her high-profile first marriage to Edward R. Thomas (a millionaire playboy) and her high-caliber friends, Linda was well known long before she met Cole Porter. She was the celebrity. In fact, you might say that by marrying him and making sure that the papers referred to her as “Mrs. Cole Porter,” she was doing him the favor, not the other way around.
But he’s Cole Porter!
As far as most people she knew were concerned, he was just this little musical fellow from Peru, Indiana.
But he went to Yale!
Maybe that makes him royalty in Indiana, but it doesn’t get you very far with actual royals.
But I love his music! He was so talented!
I love his music too, but in 1925, his talent wasn’t apparent yet. A few years earlier, his first Broadway effort, See America First, had flopped. The New York Herald review said “its plot is silly, its music unimpressive” and suggested “it would be delightful as a college play . . . with the audience consisting of fond relatives.” The critic for The New York Tribune agreed, observing “Gotham is a big town and it may be that the sisters, aunts, and cousins of its Yale men will be sufficient to guarantee prosperity for See America First.”
Ouch. But he must have done something good at that point?
Cole had enjoyed only one hit, a song called “Old Fashioned Garden,” which, when it was released in 1919, struck a sentimental chord with soldiers returning from World War I. Listen to this song! It’s seriously hokey. There’s no hint of “Let’s Misbehave” or “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love” or any of the kind of music that will come.
Okay, remind me: what is the big deal?
I’m writing a novel about Linda Lee Thomas Porter, a woman who—despite being featured in numerous biographies, despite being portrayed in two major motion pictures, despite her contributions to Cole’s career—nobody recognizes by name unless I refer to her as “Cole Porter’s wife.” And just as I’m writing that novel to try to rescue her from this oblivion, a movie comes out in which she’s constantly talked about, but only her more famous husband actually appears in it. So yeah, it’s a big deal to me.
You mentioned the other movies. What about De-Lovely? Wasn’t that movie, that Linda much more historically accurate?
Well, De-Lovely (2004) certainly did a better job of telling Linda’s story than Night and Day (1946), which, among its many, many inaccuracies, never mentions that Cole was gay.
Well, they couldn’t…you know…talk about…that.
Yes, I know. Film execs believed that Cole’s story, particularly the focus on his crippling leg injuries, would resonate strongly with a country anxiously welcoming home soldiers from World War II. Watch the clip I linked to above. The filmmakers–on America’s behalf–needed Fantasy Linda to run to Fantasy Cole with love and acceptance in her eyes. That’s the story they needed to tell, and Real Linda and Real Cole were happy to go along with the charade. I mean—who doesn’t want a freaking movie made about your life while you’re still alive? Who doesn’t want to be played by Cary Grant and Alexis Smith?
Or Kevin Kline and Ashley Judd?
Right. But Kline and Judd were playing Fantasy Cole and Fantasy Linda, too. While I certainly give this film credit for finally addressing Cole’s homosexuality and at least attempting to capture the Porter’s unique marriage, De-Lovely tries very, very hard to heteronorm Cole and Linda. Fantasy Cole has sex with Fantasy Linda, who miscarries their Fantasy Baby. (I’ve read all the Cole Porter biographies, and only one—the least reliable one—makes this claim.)
De-Lovely also makes it seem as if Cole and Linda were “couple friends” with Gerald and Sara Murphy, when the truth is the Murphys really didn’t like Linda at all.
When Cole and Linda were together (which wasn’t all that often), they were among their tribe of interesting single individuals. Even their friends who were married (or in committed same-sex relationships) socialized on their own. Cole and Linda just didn’t do bourgeois couple things, but the filmmakers of De-Lovely needed them to, presumably so that this biopic might enjoy the same wide appeal as Ray and Walk the Line.
When I reviewed the contents of the Cole Porter Collection at Yale a few years ago, I read an interesting letter from the company that produced De-Lovely, a routine bit of correspondence, really, asking for photos of the real Cole and Linda to accompany publicity stills of Kline and Judd. “We want shots of Linda and Cole…without the entourage that seemed ever-present in their fascinating life.” Ha. There aren’t many of those. Over the last few years, I’ve reviewed thousands of pictures in different Cole Porter collections, and there are very, very few of just the two of them together.
There’s definitely nothing like this:
Cathy, if a Daimler pulled up one night and offered you a ride to Linda’s house at 13 rue Monsieur, would you go?
Would you rather meet the real Linda Porter, or your Fantasy Linda?
Good question. I’m going to say, Fantasy Linda,” Linda Porter doing LINDA PORTER, but I hope I’ve worked hard enough, researched enough, so that even my dream of her will be closer to the truth than what’s come before.