By: BabyRuth (Two Beers) –
Have you ever watched American Idol during the audition rounds and wondered why the families and friends of the bad singers let them go through with it? Why won’t someone just tell them they aren’t talented and spare them the embarrassment of being humiliated in front of millions of viewers?
Before there was American Idol, there was a woman named Florence Foster Jenkins (1868-1944). Jenkins was a wealthy socialite, patron of the New York City art scene, and music lover. After a hand injury ended her career as a pianist, Florence decided that she would focus on becoming an opera singer.
There was just one little, itty, bitty problem.
William Hung’s sounding pretty good now, isn’t he?
But what Florence lacked in talent, she made up for in spirit.
Those close to her, or at least fond of her money and generosity, were very much like those enabling family members and friends of the American Idol contestants and cheered for Florence at her recitals, which she paid to put on. Her second husband, St. Clair Bayfield, devoted much of his life to shielding her from the truth, carefully making sure only to invite the right people to her concerts and to paying off critics for favorable reviews. Of course, this only fed Florence’s confidence and eventually she sought out to realize her biggest dream: performing at the legendary Carnegie Hall.
Florence Foster Jenkins, the film, picks up right around this time and focuses on the relationship between Florence (Meryl Streep) and St. Clair (Hugh Grant), as well as the close bond she forms with a hired pianist/composer Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg), leading up to that grand performance. Will St. Clair be able to protect Florence from the “mockers and scoffers” or will it be a huge, soul-crushing disaster?
Like Florence herself, the film is endearing, entertaining, and often very funny. But while the trailers make Florence Foster Jenkins out to be a light-hearted and silly farce about Dreaming Big!, the film is a much sadder and more poignant portrayal of the woman behind that awful, awful voice. Not that there is anything wrong with that. The story of Florence Foster Jenkins is a bizarre, and often, heartbreaking, one. But Director Stephen Frears and writer Nicholas Martin manage to balance everything out and pay homage to their subject with an engaging portrait that is never one of pity.
Meryl Streep is… oh come on, it’s Meryl Streep. Of course she’s wonderful and flawless and amazing. She’s even great at singing terribly (we all know Streep herself is most definitely not a terrible singer), and perfectly mimics Jenkins’ warbling. But while the character is often cartoonish (wait until you see some of her costumes- again true to the real Jenkins), Streep portrays Florence affectionately and sincerely, never mocking her or turning her into an actual cartoon. She humanizes what on the surface is an entitled rich lady with no talent who has enough money and yes-men around her to get whatever she wants. (Achoo! Excuse me.) There is a tragic character beneath the bleeding lipstick and ridiculous gowns and it’s impossible not to root for Florence and want to defend her as staunchly as St. Clair does.
Speaking of, Hugh Grant delivers his best performance in years. The character is a complex one. While St. Clair is undoubtedly devoted to his wife, theirs is not an intimate relationship and he keeps a separate home with girlfriend Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson). It’s easy, at first, to write him off as a gold-digging philanderer (the couple have an “understanding” but it’s never clear if Florence is aware of what exactly that entails, especially since he hides Kathleen the same way he hides those bad reviews) balancing his two worlds to have his cake and eat it too. But by the end of the film there is no doubt as to whom his heart truly belongs. Like Streep, Grant disappears into the character, which is not something he’s known to do, usually playing some variation of a lovestruck, bumbling, romantic or a sly cad. In Florence Foster Jenkins, there are bits of both, but so much more. He’s incredible and it would be hard to imagine anyone else in the role.
The true surprise, though, is Simon Helberg, who proves he is more than his Howard Wolowitz character from TV’s The Big Bang Theory with a career-changing performance. He not only holds his own against Hugh Grant and Meryl-freaking-Streep, but damn near steals the entire movie from them. His facial expressions the first time he hears Florence sing are worth the price of the ticket alone. Though his character is quirky and provides many of the film’s laughs, it is during the emotional moments as Cosmé and Florence grow close where he really gets to shine.
Helberg also gets to demonstrate his impressive piano-playing skills. Those that watch TBBT – oh, shut up, you know you do –have seen a little of this but likely have no idea just how talented he is. I sure didn’t. The first shot of his playing shows only his hands, which was likely an intentional little fake-out to make audiences think it was a double. But then it becomes very clear that nope, he’s playing for real. And he is fantastic. (Fun fact: all of the musical performances were filmed live.)
Another surprise is Tony-winning actress Nina Arianda who steals a few scenes herself as a tacky trophy wife. She turns what could have been a one-note caricature into a fully-formed character, making a lasting impression in very little screentime.
Finally, it’s a beautiful-looking film with period-perfect set designs and costumes. There are a few gorgeous panning shots of 1940s New York City.
The film picks up later in Florence’s life and only briefly touches upon important events of her past. We learn she suffers from syphilis (that she caught from her first husband), which at the time was incurable and eventually fatal. The film uses the illness to explain her unconventional marriage with St. Clair, but I personally was more interested in learning if the disease or possibly the medications (mercury and arsenic, seriously…) may have contributed to her mental state and even her hearing. It seems bizarre that a skilled pianist (a child prodigy, no less) and music enthusiast would not realize she could not stay in tune or hit certain notes. I suppose a conclusion could be drawn from the information the film provides, but it would have benefited from it being explored a little more.
Despite its subject’s inability to, Florence Foster Jenkins hits all the right notes with must-see performances from its phenomenal cast, a smartly written screenplay, and heartfelt direction. It’s a welcome break from all the disappointing summer blockbuster and sequels; perfect for a weekend matinee with your mom.
Florence Foster Jenkins (2016) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: potato salad!
Take a Drink: whenever anyone mentions the mysterious briefcase Florence always carries
Take a Drink: whenever Florence’s eyes well up with tears as she listens to music
Take a Drink: whenever St. Clair pays someone off
Take a Drink: every time someone stifles laughter (go easy)
Chug: when you need to to cope with that voice
Last call: stick around for the credits to see photos and hear some recordings of the real Florence Foster Jenkins.
Also recommended: For a more in-depth look at the life of Jenkins, there’s a very well made documentary available free on YouTube here .
Finally, there is another film out now based on Jenkins (though about a fictionalized character) called Marguerite. I will definitely be checking that one out.