FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS – ***** (out of 5 stars)
now I had never heard of Florence Foster Jenkins. Now Hollywood has
made a movie of her eccentric life and the world is better for it.
Florence only made a handful of private recordings, four of which can be
accessed on YouTube (per my research). But before you go there, realize
she was then, in the early part of of the 20th Century, and is now
considered the worst singer, opera or otherwise, of all time. And Meryl
Streep, who is padded to look frumpy, portrays her flawlessly (and her
record 20th Oscar nomination is on its way undoubtedly).
As written by Nicholas Martin and directed by Stephen Frears (Philomena, The Queen), Florence Foster Jenkins
is biographical, but not all-encompassing, since it centers only on the
last year of her life in 1944. By this stage in Jenkins’ life, the
wealthy New York heiress felt empowered to share her life long love of
opera with the world. For years she headlined her own per se music club,
and dabbled in singing for club members who seemed appreciative of her
musical “gift.” The fact that Jenkins was rich and a socialite no doubt
influenced their tin-eared adoration. However, Florence herself was
truly tone deaf, and never heard herself except as the most skilled
singer of opera.
As viewers and listeners of this film, we DO hear her voice, which
Meryl Streep emulates perfectly….that is, with perfectly awful pitch.
Florence had true fingernails-on-chalkboard voice talent.
Yet, as depicted in this movie, Florence is surrounded by enablers
who tell her otherwise. There is her younger husband St. Clair Bayfield,
impressively played by Hugh Grant—his best role in years. Add her club
members, who seem to thrive on her every musical note. Then there is the
legendary conductor, Arturo Toscanini (John Kavanagh), and a suffering
vocal instructor, whose loyalty and perseverance is encouraged by the
extravagant fees for her lessons.
Then a young piano accompanist is hired, Cosmé McMoon (The Big Bang Theory’s
Simon Helberg in a most impressive turn) who at first laughs out loud
at Florence’s grating voice. He is set straight, however, by Florence’s
husband, St. Clair. So at risk of losing his new job, Cosmé suppresses
his giggles. Thus, this sweet, kind, narcissistic lady continues to live
Half-way through Florence Foster Jenkins, the laughs end for us
as well since her obsession to become a major singing star has
downturns. Her vision of grandeur has propelled her into a self-financed
booking at no less than Carnegie Hall. The concert, which is recreated,
results in a gamut of emotions both in the audience and on stage.
Threading throughout the story is the unique (to say the least)
relationship between Florence and St. Clair. While they are happily
(common law) married and devoted to each other, he maintains a sexual
relationship with his mistress, Kathleen Weatherly (Rebecca Ferguson).
He usually kisses his wife good night, and then totters off across town
to his apartment to sleep with Kathleen. It is implied that Florence’s
long time medical condition (syphilis) inhibits a similar relationship
with her husband.
Florence’s story makes a great movie. It’s is undoubtedly the best
summer movie of 2016 so far, and seems out of place in—as usual—a summer
of comic book superheroes. Streep, Grant and Helberg are all Oscar
worthy. So are the direction and writing, as well as the costumes and
Not to mention the potato salad in the bathtub. Er, you have to see
it to believe it.