At least two people I know have paid good money to cut an album singing old standards in the fervent belief that a career in show business loomed. Surprisingly, one of these optimists actually has achieved something of a late bloomer’s success. The other, as far as I know, sells real estate.
The point is many folks hear a voice when singing in their showers they just know belongs in Carnegie Hall despite the fact that others, when hearing this voice outside the bathroom, would beg to differ.
However, none of these deluded souls holds a candle to one Florence Foster Jenkins, a New York socialite and opera buff, who simply could not hear how awful her warbling was. Indeed she did book Carnegie Hall for a one-night public concert in 1944, which due to her following in private venues sold out in two hours.
It was, reportedly, a combination of what later generations would call “high camp” plus a genuine admiration for her steely determination to sing no matter what that attracted the likes of Cole Porter, celebrated soprano Lily Pons and the great Enrico Caruso to her “performances.” And no doubt many were also aware of her financial support and contribution to music programming in the city of New York.
“Florence Foster Jenkins,” written by Nicholas Martin and directed by the accomplished English director Stephen Frears, treats this true story as a twist on Hans Christian Andersen’s tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Through elegant wit, whimsy and sophistication, the film achieves that remarkable and nearly unobtainable artistic plateau of sad-funny.
Much of it is funny, by which I mean very funny. Yet once you realize why this courageous woman lives in a world of delusion sponsored by a “husband” and coterie of loyal friends and workers, there is great sadness to this story as well. She indeed suffered for her art.
Meryl Streep, who actually has a magnificent singing voice, gives one of her most brilliant performances, which I realize is saying a lot, in the title role. She really embodies the old cliché about having to be very good at something to do it very badly.
There is no note her Florence cannot miss, no range that does not elude her and no pitch that she cannot destroy. And she does all this in an array of outrageous costumes and hairpieces donned with childlike glee. (The best known photograph of Jenkins shows her wearing angelic wings.)
Backing her every (mis)step of the way is her spouse, a seemingly aristocratic English Shakespearean actor, St. Clair Bayfield, played with such effortless élan by Hugh Grant that you wonder where he’s been keeping himself lately. (Apparently, his involvement in the “Hacked Off” press transparency campaign has been all consuming.)
Bayfield was indeed an actor of no great success who took on the role of Florence’s manager, MC and pseudo-husband with complete sincerity and love, protecting her from all doubters and detractors by creating a bubble around her where her voice could not be anything other than iridescently beautiful.
Not that Florence doesn’t do her share in creating this bubble. She pays for Bayfield’s off-premise apartment, where he may keep a girlfriend (Nina Arianda, superb in a small role) and can remove his MC’s tux and tails to share a drink or several with his more bohemian friends.
Auditioning and securing a position as Florence’s piano accompanist is Cosmé McMoon (“The Big Bang Theory’s” Simon Helberg), whose wide-eyed looks (especially upon hearing the voice he must accompany) and diminished stature is a perfect foil to the socialite — a skinny and easily frightened yin to Florence’s oversized and fleshy yang.
Often Helberg can create comic merriment with a startled look or pained expression that reflects his inner turmoil. How is his involvement with Florence going to affect his actual career as a musician and composer?
In theory, there shouldn’t really be much of a movie in the story of the world’s worst singer. Only Frears and Martin catch the gossamer wings (to steal from Cole Porter) of this funny-sad tale and perform a magic act.
“Florence Foster Jenkins” is a rueful comedy about the human spirit and the kind of love that’s as rare in that time as it is now. Sometimes, the film says, it’s more courageous to live with one’s delusions than to face cold reality. It may also be necessary for survival.
Similarly, there is seemingly no need for the role for Kathleen, a lower-class woman who has married upward and into the circle of fans that surrounds and protects Florence, yet who cannot suppress gales of laughter when that voice descends on her ears.
But Rebecca Ferguson, so impressive opposite Tom Cruise in “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation” and at times in a blonde wig nearly as gauche as some of Florence’s hairpieces, delivers a standout comic performance that pays off big time in the film’s penultimate sequence in Carnegie Hall.
Consequently, what seems like merely a strange-but-true tale turns out to be utterly fascinating in so many unexpected ways. The genuine love between Florence and her faux husband is intriguing as are his dicier relations with Cosmé, his increasingly frustrated girlfriend and others whom he needs to surround his beloved like protective tigers.
The Manhattan of the war years is magnificently recreated in the U.K. by designer Alan MacDonald (a regular member of Frears’ British-based team) and DP Danny Cohen to give a real sense of that thriving, tempestuous, always out for a good time city of seekers and followers looking for the next hep-cat thing.
In truth, Florence was probably aware to some degree of her detractors. She saw to it no real critics received any tickets to her private concerts. And there is certainly more than a level of self-awareness in a quote attributed to her and repeated by Streep in the movie: “People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.”
Opens: August 12, 2016 (Paramount Pictures)
Production companies: Qwerty Films, Pathé, BBC Films
Cast: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, Rebecca Ferguson, Nina Arianda
Director: Stephen Frears
Screenwriter: Nicholas Martin
Producers: Michael Kuhn, Tracey Seaward
Executive producers: Cameron McCracken, Malcolm Ritchie, Christine Langan
Director of photography: Danny Cohen
Production designer: Alan McDonald
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Costume designer: Consolata Boyle
Editor: Valerio Bonelli
PG rating, 110 minutes