Stephen Frears, director
Nicholas Martin, script
Starring: Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins), Hugh Grant (St. Clair Bayfield), Simon Helberg (Cosmé McMoon), Rebecca Ferguson (Kathleen Weatherley), Nina Arianda (Agnes Stark)
The story of Florence Foster Jenkins is legendary in music circles. A rich society dame, she was a supporter of the arts and the financer and producer of the Ball of the Silver Skylarks, an annual production she put on at Manhattan’s Verdi Club. But Mme. Jenkins, as she used to call herself, was not an ordinary patroness of the arts.
She was a singer, a soprano, who possessed, according to her accompanist Cosmé McMoon, an “excruciating quality” to her voice. Florence Foster Jenkins was beyond awful: she couldn’t carry a tune, had an awful rhythmic sense and couldn’t hit high registers if her life depended on it. The lady was so delusional that she persisted in presenting private concerts throughout her long life in high society venues in Newport, Rhode Island, Washington and, of course, Manhattan.
Jenkins also recorded nine arias, which immediately became cult hits, beloved for their sheer ineptitude. In 1941, Time magazine reviewed her astonishing performance of the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s Magic Flute, pointing out that its “nightqueenly swoops and hoots, her wild wallowings in descending trills, her repeated staccato notes like a cuckoo in its cups, are innocently uproarious to hear.” In a gesture that seems beyond hubristic, Florence Foster Jenkins rented Carnegie Hall and sold it out to such notables as Cole Porter and Lily Pons in her final concert in 1944.
Lately, the Florence Jenkins story has become of interest to writers and the public again. Perhaps in the age of selfie culture, when Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian can become famous simply by asserting themselves, a society star of yesteryear is relevant again. There have been two plays on her presented in recent years and a French film.
Now, Jenkins is the subject of a wonderfully funny and sentimental film starring Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant with eye-catching turns by character actors Simon Helberg and Nina Arianda. Director Stephen Frears has always been a great handler of actors—think of Daniel Day-Lewis in My Beautiful Laundrette, Glenn Close and John Malkovich in Dangerous Liaisons, Angelica Huston and John Cusack in The Grifters, Helen Mirren in The Queen and Judi Dench in Philomena for starters—so it’s no surprise that Florence Foster Jenkins is an acting delight.
I can’t imagine a reviewer who won’t suggest that Streep will get her 20th Oscar nomination as the musically inept Mme. Jenkins. She is a singer and is able to render the uniquely horrendous racket that made Jenkins so notorious into something hilarious. And her self-regard is wonderfully spun out by Streep into a number of comic set pieces.
Given Streep’s reputation as a consummate performer, the acting revelations begin with Helberg and Arianda and continue through to Grant. Helberg, who is consistently fine in the TV hit The Big Bang Theory, is astonishingly good as Jenkins’ accompanist Cosmé McMoon. Helberg has to underplay to Streep and Grant and he does with brilliant timing and comic aplomb. The expression on his face when he first accompanies Streep’s Jenkins is exquisitely funny: his eyes register absolutely amazement at her singing but he discretely continues to play, while visibly holding back his laughter.
Arianda, in a less developed role, offers a variation on Billie Dawn, the supposedly dumb blonde role, which she reprised in a Broadway remount of the classic play Born Yesterday in 2011. She plays a gorgeous girl from New York, married to a rich devotee of Jenkins’ concerts, who falls to the floor, engulfed with laughter, and has to crawl out of the room, where la Jenkins is singing. Later on, she jives to the ecstatic Swing Era classic “Sing, Sing, Sing” with Grant and gets to deliver a heart-warming speech near the end of the film. Perhaps not Oscar-worthy but certainly a star turn.
But the revelation is Hugh Grant, in what is essentially a comeback role. The years have been kind to Grant. He’s still handsome but not impossibly so—and the role of St. Clair Bayfield, a thespian who never reached an artistic peak suits him to a tee. His look of mild regret merged with a British stiff-upper-lip style is perfect for the character. So is his gradual assertion of love for the magnificently deluded Mme. Jenkins.
There are script problems with Florence Foster Jenkins. The lady surely knew that she was criticized but an inordinate amount of the plot is taken up with trying to keep the truth of her awful singing from her. This being a movie, it is also necessary to assert that the philandering Bayfield/Grant loves Mme. Jenkins. While that may have been true in real life, the film does suffer from excessive sentimentality in order to repeatedly make that point.
Still, Florence Foster Jenkins is a delight, despite its weaknesses. It is truly one of the funniest films I’ve seen in years. Classical 96 listeners: go to this movie! It’s for you.
Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus
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