The difficulty in writing a screenplay about any famous eccentric, is battling the temptation to make fun of them. You know, in a funny, but also kind of mean way. Florence Foster Jenkins’ life was eminently mockworthy–she’s mostly famous for being the most atrocious opera singer to ever perform in public. Which is why I was so delighted to see that Stephen Frears’ new film about her is so splendidly generous and open-hearted and kind.
It helps that Jenkins is played by Meryl Streep, who brings a remarkable combination of confidence and vulnerability to the role. And yes, when she sings, it’s incredibly funny–my wife, my daughter and I were doubled over. But there’s more to her than bad singing. Her husband, St Clair Bayfield, could well have been played as the smarmiest sort of git, especially since that’s a characterization easily in Hugh Grant’s wheelhouse. Instead, he gives the most sensitive and complex performance of his career. And Simon Helberg, from Big Bang Theory, could have made Jenkins’ accompanist, Cosme McMoon into a comic caricature. Instead, Helberg imbues McMoon with an undercurrent of loneliness that became deeply touching. (That name, Cosme McMoon, is, astonishingly, historical–that was the actual name of her actual accompanist).
The film is set in 1944, when Jenkins presided over The Verdi Club, a society of wealthy patrons of the musical arts, mostly all women. They enjoyed evenings of dramatic recitations (by Bayfield, who had been an actor), and tableaux vivants, in which Madame Florence would dress up as a muse or something and be lowered into a scene by ropes. This was what passed for entertainment back in the day before we invented fun.
St Clair and Florence had, um, an unusual relationship. Her house was where she socialized, featuring her collection of chairs-in-which-famous-people-had-died, which no guests were allowed to sit in. There was also a bathtub kept full of potato salad for parties. At night, they have a routine; he recites, to help her sleep, then replaces her wig with a turban, kisses her gently, then heads off to his apartment. Which she pays for. Which he shares with his girlfriend, Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson).
But Miss Florence had a yen to sing again. So St Clair hires a voice teacher, the associate conductor of the Metropolitan Opera, Carlo Edwards (David Haig), whose job it is to keep reassuring Florence how splendidly she’s singing. And St Clair begins auditioning accompanists. Cosme gets the gig because he plays softly–Miss Florence abhors bombast.
And that’s one of the directions this film’s narrative could have chosen. It’s Florence as victim, and St Clair as a hustler. As long as he indulges her every whim, he has everything he could ask for–a pretty girlfriend, a nice apartment, plenty of money. But he has to keep scrambling. When Florence gives small subscription recitals for her club, St Clair has to keep unsympathetic newspaper critics at bay. He has to hand-pick every invitee. Nothing can be allowed to intrude on her serene self-confidence. Toscanini stops by–he wants to feature a young coloratura in a recital, but needs another thousand bucks, which Florence happily forks over. After all, she’s supporting the musical arts–nothing makes her happier. Cosme’s in on the hustle–he is being overpaid for his services and knows it, and if that means offering no criticism of Florence’s ambitions, so be it.
So that is a story the movie tells. But there’s more than that going on. St Clair is well-compensated, sure. But he also does genuinely love Florence. He protects her from bad reviews, because he has to–the con depends on her being happy. But he also wants to protect her out of affection, out of love and loyalty. Cosme doesn’t want to perform in public as her accompanist; he has a musical reputation to preserve. But when she comes over to his tiny, crummy apartment, scolds him for its untidiness, and sets about doing his dishes, and he’s touched by it. He likes her. He even admires her, for her persistence. And they play a Chopin prelude together. And it’s lovely.
So that’s another story; a story of love and friendship and mutual respect. And yes, Florence thinks she’s a marvelous singer, and she’s atrocious, and it’s really funny when she sings. The film is a comedy, and a richly humorous one. But she’s also worthy of our respect.
There’s one character, I think, who personally embodies the journey we go on with Florence. One of her Verdi Society acolytes is a wealthy older man named Phineas Stark. As has been known to happen with old rich bald guys, he has remarried, to Agnes (Nina Arianda), a cutie-patootie forty years his junior. Bad blonde dye job, gum-chewing, Brooklyn accent. (Arianda is spectacularly funny in the role). Anyway, her husband drags her to one of her subscription recitals. She’s reluctant, but goes, expecting to be bored. And when Florence begins singing, Agnes perks right up. She loves it. It’s the funniest thing ever! Overcome with laughter, she has to be physically hauled out of the recital hall.
Spoiler paragraph: Florence’s life ambition is to sing at Carnegie Hall. She has enough money to make that happen, and does. And when a recording she’s made begins playing on local radio stations, her Carnegie appearance gets some buzz. She’s becoming famous, as the worst singer anyone’s ever heard. She decides, patriotically, to give a thousand tickets to the concert to Our Boys in Uniform; a thousand tough marines descend on Carnegie Hall, primed to laugh. And when they do laugh, it’s Agnes, converted by Florence’s courage and grit, who shouts them down, gets them applauding, and gives Florence, already faltering because of the laughter, to continue.
Is it admirable to pursue one’s dreams no matter how unrealistic they are? Is there power in perseverance, even when it’s preposterous? Is it better to have sung really badly, than to never sing at all? Florence Foster Jenkins, the movie, insists that the answer must be yes.
It’s a wonderful movie. Prediction time: Meryl Streep will receive her twentieth (20th!) Oscar nomination for this movie, and will win again for it. Hugh Grant will win his first, for Best Supporting Actor. (Although actually, St Clair is the movie’s protagonist, now that I think about it). And when you go see it–and you must–you will laugh a lot too, and be moved by the end. It’s a lovely movie.