arteejee

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Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Florence Foster Jenkins



So, who was Florence Foster Jenkins anyway?

In the film based on true events of her life, she is a socialite who uses her modest inheritance (her words) to promote the art of opera in New York’s high society.  The patrons of the salons adore her for bringing the silent tableaux to them and dutifully look the other way when she is inspired to sing for them. Jenkins is joined by her husband, St. Clair Bayfield, an actor who once aspired to greatness, but settled on being the devoted love of her life and loyal manager to her aspirations. 

In retrospect, the real Florence Foster Jenkins couldn’t catch a break. Her ambitions to be a pianist were ended with an arm injury.  She contracted syphilis from her first husband, which may have affected her neurologically and, hence, her vocal capabilities.  Still, you have to give the old girl credit for trying!

Meryl Streep delivers a wonderful portrayal of the bosomy, matronly elder of New York’s high society at the height of World War II.  For Jenkins and her peers, the war is a distant nuisance which provides dire headlines in their newspapers, a fervent fan base of her singing (!) among the men and women fighting that war, and a shortage of chives for the bathtub potato salad she serves at her luncheons.  (We are calling it bathtub potato salad because they create enough of this American picnic delicacy to fill an entire bathtub whenever she invites her society friends over for a meal.)  Ever the perfect hostess, Jenkins frets that she has not made enough salad, or that she has done Wagner justice as she poses as the Valkyrie for her salon audience.

She is aided, abetted, supported and whatever else by her husband/partner St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), who is eager to do anything to please her.  He arranges her performances, lines the wallets of every critic within earshot with cash bribes for their glowing reviews, and even buys up copies of any newspaper which would dare to be overly critical of his wife’s talents.  He does all this because he does love her, but only up to a point.  There are hints that they were never intimate due to her affliction, and, as Bayfield explains, he and Jenkins have an understanding.  She allows him to maintain a separate apartment in another part of New York, where he keeps a mistress.  Apparently, Jenkins is aware of the apartment, but not the girlfriend. 

Into this world she and Bayfield bring a pianist and composer with symphony hall ambitions of his own, Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg).  A slight man who compensates for his stature with a pursuit of lifting weights, he is delighted to play piano for Jenkins…at first.  His delight soon turns to trepidation when Jenkins opens her mouth and he realizes she can’t sing a note correctly to save her life.  Panic strikes him since his dreams might be dashed with his association with Jenkins.  Eventually he realizes that it is best to swallow his pride - after all he is earning $150 a week in World War II New York to be her accompanist - and become a loyal part of Jenkins’ team.

This arrangement goes well until one day when Jenkins decides she wants to sing at Carnegie Hall.  Bayfield frets that the venue is too big for her talents, but this is something that his aging wife really, really wants to do.  Blind love and loyalty win out and all around her prepare Jenkins for what turns out to be her final performance in public.

The day of the concert arrives, and nothing seems to go right.  Cosme is late to arrive, the audience is full of boisterous service people who find her recordings a welcome respite (!) from the horrors of the battlefield, yet can’t help laughing when they hear the tones that come out of her mouth, and that damned critic from The New York Post refuses to take a bribe from Bayfield.  Okay, kudos for this journalist having ethics, but really, someone should tell him that he’s only working for a tabloid.

After some initial laughter from the audience, the crowd is shamed into giving Jenkins a chance to show her talent.  All is considered to end well with the concert and Jenkins believes that the realization of her dream ambition is her greatest triumph.  One problem:  the next day dawns and, despite Bayfield's and McMoon’s efforts to shield her from the truth, Jenkins reads the damning Post review. 

There is little else for the film to show other than the affirmation of true love, respect and loyalty from those she chooses to include in her life.  Jenkins, Bayfield and McMoon never gave up on her dream, and they certainly didn’t let the truth get in the way.  This should be the lesson 2016 audiences take away as we try to make sense of the current election cycle.  This is why the ambitions of a failed singer 70 years ago should matter to us today.

The leads are all wonderful. Grant as Bayfield gets to expand beyond his usual roles as a lovable rogue and cad when he curls up next to Jenkins to reassure her that all will be fine.  The role of McMoon could be the breakout role for Helberg.  American television audiences are so used to seeing him as the oversexed engineer Howard Wallowitz in The Big Bang Theory, that the McMoon role is a welcome change of pace for him.   We still love Wallowitz, but now we’re eager to see what Helberg will do in the future.

And this brings us back to Streep.  The role of the elderly, vulnerable Jenkins is a far cry from her role in The Deerhunter, where many of us saw her for the first time.  It seems that we have really watched Streep grow up and older in front of our eyes.  We are all wiser and better for the experience. 

So go ahead and sing for us, Florence Foster Jenkins!  You may not know that your true talent lies in the enduring faith in yourself, even as the faux music and life’s other critics around you alternately praise and laugh at you.  And yes, we will have seconds of your potato salad.

(Thank you for reading.  Seriously, try the potato salad. There’s plenty for everyone!)

7 Comments:

Blogger Bob Slatten said...

We saw this on Sunday afternoon and loved it.
Your review is spot on.

September 6, 2016 at 10:33 PM  
Blogger Raybeard said...

Good film - and shot in England too!

September 7, 2016 at 2:23 AM  
Blogger todd gunther said...

Thank you, Bob. I hope I didn't spoil the ending for anyone.

Thank you Raybeard. I have a friend in Merseyside. She told us that a friend of hers spotted Hugh Grant sitting in a car between takes last year. I'm guessing the beach scenes were shot in Merseyside.

September 7, 2016 at 7:09 AM  
Anonymous Janey, Lover of Potato Salad and Chives said...

I had the pleasure of joining RTG and his spouse at the screening of FFJ. He sat between spouse and I so that we would not have to fight for his company. :-)

I love Simon Helberg in The Big Bang Theory, especially in the early episodes, when he was a one-man pussy posse. His role in FFJ should earn him at least an Oscar nomination; same for Streep (of course).

To whom may I serve more bathtub potato salad? Please go easy on the chives...

September 7, 2016 at 9:22 AM  
Blogger Jimmy said...

We loved the film as well. Ms Streep had a touch of Hyacinth Bucket in her performance.

September 7, 2016 at 6:02 PM  
Blogger Ur-spo said...

I enjoyed it as well.

September 8, 2016 at 11:37 PM  
Blogger todd gunther said...

It was a wonderful film to see with you, Janey. Just a little disappointed that you didn't get the chance to put an old woman in her place, but perhaps next time.

Thank you for your comment, Jimmy. Had to google Hyacinth Bucket, but yes I see a slight resemblance.

Thank you Spo. I'm sure you were more familiar with her opera pieces then we were.

September 9, 2016 at 7:14 AM  

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