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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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!)