Meryl Streep Is Perfectly Awful as a Singer with Delusions of Talent
Director: Stephen Frears/2016
What a strange story this is, and all the stranger for being close to the truth. Florence Foster Jenkins was a wealthy New York socialite with a passion for opera and a thoroughly unrealistic view of her own talents. Throughout the 1930s and ’40s she gave private, invitation-only performances for friends, performing arias that would have been too difficult for a singer of reasonable talent. With Jenkins very limited abilities, the results were spectacularly bad – consistently flat, screechy, rhythmically out of whack. But her spirited commitment to her “craft” and her elaborate costumes still gained her a devoted following among friends, perhaps boosted by her generous patronage of the the New York music community. At the age of 76 she gave her only truly public performance, at Carnegie Hall – the first time that serious music critics had heard her perform live. Their reviews, needless to say, were not kind.
And now Jenkins is being portrayed by Meryl Streep in a new film from director Stephen Frears (Philomena, High Fidelity). It’s an well made movie in every way, although the falsehood at the center of it makes me uneasy. After an early marriage that left her with syphilis, Jenkins entered a “companionship marriage” to an English Shakespearean actor, St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant). The movie begins with Jenkins already an old women, comfortably cushioned by her husband, voice teacher (David Haig) and friends who reinforce her belief that she’s a gifted coloratura soprano. This bubble is momentarily threatened when Jenkins auditions a new accompanist, Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg). His shock and disbelief as he plays along with Jenkins, overseen by her beaming husband and teacher, makes for one of the funniest scenes in the movie. Of course, what makes the scene work is not simply Helberg’s reactions but Streep’s singing. It is extraordinary. She chirps, she shrieks, she puffs, she comes within the neighborhood of notes then falls short; and she does it all with both confidence and joie de vivre. Meryl Streep is herself a genuinely talented singer, a fact on display in many movies from Postcards From the Edge to Wicked. She needs to be: it takes real skill to sing as compellingly badly as she does in Florence Foster Jenkins. Whatever else might be said about this movie, you need to see it in order to hear Streep sing this role.
As Bayfield speaks to McMoon about working for Jenkins he says something that becomes a theme of Florence Foster Jenkins: “Ours is a happy world.” Florence lives in a “happy” world because almost everything in it is tailored to her whims and wishes. She has a peculiar fondness for sandwiches and potato salad? There will always be an ample supply of sandwiches and potato salad. She wants to believe that she is a brilliant singer? Her husband will bribe music critics to flatter her in the press. Their marriage is a more delicate matter: Bayfield tenderly puts Florence to bed every night and then leaves for his own apartment, which he shares with his mistress, Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson). The marriage is understandably not physically intimate, because of Jenkins’ syphilis, and the movie depicts the relationship between Bayfield and Jenkins as one of real sweetness and care despite Bayfield’s infidelity. When he is forced to choose between Kathleen and Florence, Bayfield makes his priority clear.
Bayfield and Jenkins’ happy world may, in some ways, be a “paper moon, sailing over a cardboard sea”, but it’s holding together until Florence furtively makes a recording of her singing and submits it to a radio station. Jenkins becomes an ironic sensation, inspiring wartime America with her sheer gumption. She then decides to rent out Carnegie Hall and not only invite the public but give a number of free tickets to service members. All of this endangers the careful delusion that Bayfield has been maintaining, and so he’s resists the idea. But Florence always gets her way, and Bayfield will do whatever it takes to keep his physically fragile wife happy.
Streep is wonderfully dowdy and awkward. Her Florence tears through life with bravado, only occasionally acknowledging all the loss and pain of her past. She is often hilarious, absurd but oddly sympathetic.
Florence Foster Jenkins has meticulous period design and costumes, and a solid cast (with the exception of Helberg, who hams it up as the cloying, ever-smiling McMoon). Grant portrays Bayfield as dashing, flawed, a bit wistful, but unshakably devoted to his wife, in his own way. Streep is wonderfully dowdy and awkward. Her Florence tears through life with bravado, only occasionally acknowledging all the loss and pain of her past. She is often hilarious, absurd but oddly sympathetic.
My problems with Florence Foster Jenkins are two. Firstly, the tone of the film is uneven. There are times when I laughed at Jenkins, but other times when she is depicted with almost pity. The end of the movie rises to a level of melodrama that seems almost lifted from a different film altogether. Secondly…there’s the “happy world” that Jenkins and Bayfield have crafted. It’s built on a lie. Jenkins may not know that it’s a lie, but Bayfield certainly does: he’s wrapped his wife in a blanket of flattery and well meaning deception, with the result that even the tiniest hint of criticism is now unacceptable to her. At one point, trying to discourage Florence from her Carnegie Hall concert he mentions that another singer (to whom Florence is favorably comparing herself) has a “young voice” and “perfect technique”. Florence replies petulantly, woundedly, “Isn’t my technique perfect?” And as he’s done so many times before, Bayfield lies to his wife.
This may have been a real life love story, and it may have been the best way that these two flawed and frail people knew to love each other. That makes it a deeply human story, perhaps, but I can’t really admire it. Happiness built on a lie? That seems more sad than beautiful to me.