When I first saw a trailer for Florence Foster Jenkins, my immediate thought was, “Oh crap!” followed by an immediate 180 when I saw that the project was headed by Meryl Streep. Streep is one of the few people I would trust for sympathetic handling of this superficially ridiculous biography. If that’s an odd beginning for a movie review, let me jump to the conclusion and say that as the credits rolled I was crying and giving a standing ovation. (Not even so much for the movie as for the character.)
But this is a hard story to analyze. I’m still not certain whether it’s the story of the importance of art, of the triumph of the human spirit in the face of immense odds, and of the power of love and compassion, or whether it’s a story of the fine line between support and enabling, of the blunt force of wealth and privilege, and of the endless ability of people to live lies for their own benefit. I think the genius of the movie is that it’s all of those things.
Florence Foster Jenkins was an heiress and socialite (1868-1944) who had what was probably an adequate musical talent (although family connections were probably more important than talent when she gave a piano recital at the White House as a child). When disability left her unable to play (Wikipedia says an injury, the movie more symbolically attributes it to the effects of the syphilis that was the only lasting legacy of her brief marriage to Mr. Jenkins) and when a sizable inheritance gave her the means, she turned her interest to singing and to the production of amateur theatricals among New York City’s wealthy elite. She was lauded for her genuine support for the performing arts, and counted many prominent musicians among her friends. At the same time, her insistence on taking the stage for her own vocal performance, combined with her complete lack of skills in pitch, rhythm, enunciation, and vocal power must have strained the limits of friendship and the ability of those friends to dissemble. Admission to her performances was tightly controlled, and a combination of genuine affection and respect for her social position (and generous patronage) allowed Jenkins to remain in ignorance of her own flaws (though it’s still debated exactly how much self-delusion was involved).
The movie revolves around the lead-up to her performance at age 76 at Carnegie Hall—a venue where she no longer controlled access and which resulted in a deluge of open mockery in the media. Five days later, she suffered a heart attack that would prove fatal.
Such are the bare facts. In the remainder of this review, I’ll be talking about the events and relationships as portrayed in the movie, without concerning myself with potential dramatic divergences from history.
The movie features her relationship with actor St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant)—nominally her manager, also her long-term “gentleman companion”—and with the hired pianist Cosmé McMoon who found a gravy-train in accommodating both her whims and her singing deficiencies. What makes this a tragic and heartwarming story is the depiction of how both men, though clearly anchored solidly by financial benefit, are motivated by affection to forge a balance between Jenkins’ dreams and their desire to protect her from ridicule and disappointment. Jenkins has occasional moments of self-doubt, masked as a sort of fishing for compliments, but for the most part simply bulls her way forward, secure in the belief in her own abilities.
For supporting characters (and characterizations) I also want to give a shout-out to Nina Arianda as Agnes Stark, the blonde eye-candy trophy wife (with low-class manners) of one of Jenkins’ circle who at first encounter with one of Jenkins’ performances has to be extracted, giggling hysterically, but when later attending Jenkins’ public recital admonishes the laughing audience to shut up and listen. “This lady is singing her heart out!” [paraphrased] In this, she stands in for the movie viewer who can’t help but both wince and cheer at the same time.
The storyline in the movie clearly sets up the Carnegie Hall performance as the last finale for Jenkins, with Bayfield and McMoon knowing that her health is on its last legs, wanting to help her to her heart’s desire, then trying vainly to shield her from the adverse publicity which is depicted (and perhaps rightly so) as leading directly to her death (in combination with the exhaustion of the performance).
So. Florence Foster Jenkins: icon of those striving against all odds and common sense for their heart’s desire, or walking advertisement for the Dunning-Kruger effect? All I know is that I cried at the end.