There was a lot of singing at my friends’ wedding reception a couple of weeks ago. The older of the grooms sings with the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus, of which at least half of the guests were members. Some of them, as well as a few of the rest of us, he had asked to sing solos. I chose “All the Things You Are” by Jerome Kern – it’s a beautiful song, it sits well in my voice and I’ve sung it a few times before.
It came off well. Many people told me that it was one of their favorite songs, and I received compliments for the way I sang it. After a performance, I usually have a good sense of how it went, and particularly where it didn’t go as I would have preferred. But comments from other singers, whether good or bad, are always useful. These days especially, when (apart from the wedding) I haven’t sung publicly for a year, I’m very aware of the qualities I can bring to a performance and those that I can’t (and all too often don’t). Mine is a medium-sized voice, clear, fairly well controlled, suitable for vocal recitals, musicals and operettas, too small for opera. I don’t think I have any serious delusions about my own singing.
Which brings me to Florence Foster Jenkins, the new film about a real-life socialite and patron of the arts in the early half of the twentieth century. (By the way, although Florence and most of the other characters in the film are American and the entire film is set in or about New York City, Florence Foster Jenkins is a British film. The screenwriter, the director and the majority of the cast, apart from Meryl Streep, Simon Helberg and Nina Arianda, are all British, and the role of New York City is played by Liverpool and Glasgow, with a little assistance from CGI.)
When we first see Florence in the film, it’s at a performance at the Verdi Club, an arts appreciation organization of which she is the founder. She’s being lowered into a tableau vivant (which consists of a group of people standing motionless while representing a scene from mythology or history) dressed as an angel and introduced to an appreciative audience by her “husband” St. Clair Bayfield, the second-rate English actor with whom she’s been living for many years.
Illness ended her youthful hopes for a career as a concert pianist, but her love of music has led her to take singing lessons and inevitably she decides to give a solo recital at her Verdi Club. She hires an ambitious young pianist named Cosmé McMoon to be her accompanist and, with the assistance of her money and St. Clair’s determination never to let Florence realize just how terribly she sings, the recital is enough of a success that she proceeds to make some recordings, which become surprisingly popular.
This success convinces Florence to book Carnegie Hall for a one-night performance and to give away a thousand tickets to soldiers (it’s 1944) who she feels need something uplifting to cheer them up.
All this is based more or less loosely on fact. Classical singers have known and laughed at her recordings for decades – I discovered them at chorus parties during the 1970’s. What most of us didn’t know until fairly recently was her backstory. Florence Foster had been something of a childhood prodigy at the piano, giving a recital at the White House before she was a teenager. She also eloped with a man from whom she contracted syphilis on their wedding night; less than a year later, she left him but kept his last name. Because of her illness, her relationship with St. Clair Bayfield, depicted in the film as loving, was also sexless; he kept a mistress in another apartment.
A few reviews have criticized the film for ridiculing mental illness, which seems to me to miss the point in a number of ways. Some syphilitics do lose their sanity; others become Keats and Schubert. The film never claims that she was mentally ill, just eccentric, which is a very different thing. She was also wealthy, which allowed her to cocoon herself (or at least to be cocooned) from the reality of her aspirations. In the early part of the film, her voice teacher showers Florence with words of encouragement even as it’s obvious that she’s a hopeless case and he’s simply taking the money.
In addition – and this is one of the things that makes Florence Foster Jenkins such a wonderful film – where it could simply have spent two hours ridiculing a rich woman with an exceptionally awful voice, the film chooses to celebrate her. It’s not unlike Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, another wonderful film based on a real-life character, this one a movie director with no talent but boundless optimism and a determined belief in himself. Florence may be delusional about her abilities, but thousands of people are (some find their fifteen minutes of infamy on television shows like America’s Got Talent, others run for President). She wants to bring pleasure into other people’s lives, and she believes she can, and somehow the film makes us see her point. If she hadn’t been rich enough to deflect contradiction, if St. Clair hadn’t bribed vocal coaches and newspaper reviewers to praise her, she might have been less delusional. And more unhappy.
It has to be admitted that newspaper critics are not treated well in this film. Most of them are easily and cheerily bribable, and the closest there is to a villain is the self-important music critic of the New York Post, who insists on reviewing Florence as if she represented an assault upon the virtue of Art.
Meryl Streep portrays Florence Foster Jenkins, and it’s become almost impossible to say anything new or, for that matter, anything sufficient about Streep’s acting. Her impersonation of Florence’s singing is perfect, and the moment at the end of the film where she sings in her own voice lets us hear how Florence heard herself.
Streep’s performance is no surprise; Hugh Grant’s is. He began as a pretty young actor with a certain amount of talent and a lot of promise, and then for much of his career, while he stayed pretty, the talent was dribbled away in terrible films where he sank into his charmingly bumbling Hugh Grant persona and gained nothing but contempt and bad reviews. He was brought out of semi-retirement by the opportunity to play with Meryl Streep, and suddenly all his youthful promise seems to have been fulfilled. His portrayal of St. Clair Bayfield is easily the best thing he’s ever done – complex, deep, thoroughly convincing. Streep will probably, and rightly, get her annual Oscar nomination; there’s no question in my mind that Grant deserves one.
There are two other superb performances here: one is by Simon Helberg as Cosmé McMoon. Helberg is very good as one of the stars of The Big Bang Theory, one of the few television series I make it a point to watch, but his performance in Florence Foster Jenkins is on another level. The scene after his first rehearsal with Florence, where he’s in a crowded elevator trying desperately not to burst out laughing, is brilliantly handled. More importantly, his character grows to love Florence as we in the audience do.
The other standout performance is by Nina Arianda, a Broadway actress who won a Tony Award a few years ago but hasn’t made many films. Here she’s a loudmouth blonde who starts out laughing so hard at Florence’s performance that she falls out of her seat and has to crawl out of the auditorium. Her big moment during Florence’s Carnegie Hall debut provides one of those scenes that can make your eyes water with happiness.