“Florence Foster Jenkins” is a charming gem of a film, sweet, sad and hilarious all at once, the more so because it’s based on a true story. The woman really did exist, and really did many of the things director Stephen Frears captured on film.
Jenkins was an heiress who spent lavishly on the classical music scene in New York until her death in 1944. Everyone owed her, even the great conductor Arturo Toscanini. And therein lies the price: the woman fancied herself as a great coloratura, even though she couldn’t hit a note with a 12-gauge shotgun and had a voice guaranteed to send cats running for their lives.
Meryl Streep plays Jenkins as someone so sweet, you can’t bear to break her heart, which is what saves the film from cynicism. We all want Florence to succeed -- and then she sings. Yet everyone around her -- from her husband St. Clair Bayfield (a perfect Hugh Grant; more on that below) to her vocal coach and her long-suffering accompanist, Cosme’ McMoon -- provides nothing but encouragement.
Divine though Streep is as Madame Florence, Grant is the one who steals the show. I wish he could be nominated for an Oscar for this; the man is pure charm as he protects Florence from the truth, as he persuades everyone to participate in the conspiracy, and yet the deep affection he actually feels for Florence is always there. Grant’s St. Clair makes you want to believe in Madame Florence. They have a May-December marriage of convenience. St. Clair was a failed actor who Madame Florence rescued from poverty. She pays his bills while he keeps her spirits up. Theirs is a platonic marriage, but the reason is a genuine surprise. The important point is that neither spouse comes across as exploiting the other. This story could easily have gone into “Sunset Boulevard” territory, but Frears keeps it on course.
There is no way to avoid discussing the singing. Streep, in fact, could have had quite the career in music had she chosen it. Knowing how good she is in real life when she goes into her recitals in the film makes it hilarious, the more so because the audience has to do its best to keep from laughing, which makes these scenes even funnier. As in real life, Madame Florence booked Carnegie Hall for what turned out to be her final performance. McMoon (a deft Simon Helberg) is quite properly terrified, telling St. Clair, “They’re going to murder us.” To which St. Clair replies, “Is there any other way you’ll play Carnegie Hall?” The look on McMoon’s face says it all.
In an interview, Frears said that he never told the extras in the audience what they were going to experience, and he had a hidden camera on the audience when Streep begins to sing. Those dropped jaws and amazed looks are not acting. They're the typical reaction.
To this day, Florence Foster Jenkins’ Carnegie Hall appearance is one of the most requested, and her recordings are considered comedy classics. (Give this one a try: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DMu9PKWthLE ) As for the film, don’t miss it.
Tags: cinema, classical music, comedy, florence foster jenkins, hugh grant, meryl streep
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