The Diva of Delusion

Hugh Grant, Lloyd Hutchinson, Meryl Streep, and Simon Helberg in Stephen Frears's <em>Florence Foster Jenkins</em>, 2016
Qwerty Films/Pathé Pictures International/Paramount PicturesHugh Grant, Lloyd Hutchinson, Meryl Streep, and Simon Helberg in Stephen Frears’s Florence Foster Jenkins, 2016

At select gatherings of audiophiles a half-century ago, there came an inevitable late hour, as the Grand Marnier, Strega, and B&B flowed, when a special LP was put on the hi-fi: A Florence! Foster!! Jenkins!!! Recital!!!! Released in 1954, a decade after the death of the eponymous artiste, this unintentionally comedic favorite of musical cognoscenti preserved the astoundingly awful voice of a septuagenarian New York clubwoman who bulldozed her way to a legendary, self-financed 1944 Carnegie Hall recital, oblivious to the fact that she was considered by experts to be the world’s worst classical singer.

Forget being an operatic has-been: “Lady Florence,” as this Margaret Dumont impersonator preferred being addressed, was the very definition of a never-was. Yet Jenkins’s profound disconnect from reality never deterred her, and indeed endeared her to a small battalion of Camp followers that included Cole Porter and Tallulah Bankhead, and other aficionados of grand self-delusion. But there was pathos there, too, as suggested by Stephen Frears’s predominantly schmaltzy but sporadically affecting new film, Florence Foster Jenkins, with Meryl Streep in the title role.

Fans of Frears’s acerbic early work—especially such superbly cynical studies of deception and betrayal as Dangerous Liaisons (1988) and The Grifters (1990)—are likely to find Florence Foster Jenkins mawkishly sentimental. However, one can understand the dramatic problem of how to sympathetically depict a heroine who was widely perceived as a figure of fun, for to further ridicule her might lead audiences to ask why should we care about such a grandiose buffoon to begin with.  

The closest cinematic analog to Jenkins is Susan Alexander Kane, the hapless second wife of the titular publishing magnate in Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941). There is, of course, a major difference. Whereas the lower-class Susie was reluctantly pushed onto the operatic stage by her fame-seeking husband, the wealthy Jenkins craved the lyric limelight all on her own. Furthermore, Citizen Kane’s devastatingly accurate sendup of grand opera, in a dazzling score composed by Bernard Herrmann, can never be surpassed. Herrmann’s learned parody of Jules Massenet’s overheated fin-de-siècle orientalisme—the aria “Ah, cruel” from an imaginary opera, Salammbô, set to an equally humid, devilishly funny French text concocted by the actor and producer John Houseman—is so accomplished that several stars, from Eileen Farrell to Kiri Te Kanawa, have recorded it.

A more class-appropriate equivalent would be Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale, a socialite aunt of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and one of the voracious co-stars of the Albert and David Maysles cult-classic documentary Grey Gardens (1975). Beale, known as Big Edie to differentiate her from her even battier daughter, called Little Edie, retreated from an unhappy marriage and into an abortive attempt to become an opera singer, a folie à deux abetted by her musical accompanist and lover, George “Gould” Strong. Big Edie’s thin and quavery voice, heard as she listens to her decades-old recordings, was perhaps no better than Jenkins’s, but Beale lacked a deep purse to advance her similarly futile reverie.  

Florence Foster Jenkins offers some marvelous set pieces, including Streep’s hilariously inept version of “The Laughing Song” from Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus and her fearsome-for-the-wrong-reasons rendition of the Queen of the Night’s stratospherically high and fiendishly detailed aria from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. For the latter, draped in nocturnal black velvet and crowned by a headdress of golden stars en tremblant, the would-be diva screeches her way through punishing passages with enormous brio but complete imprecision. Streep, as we know from Mike Nichols’s Postcards from the Edge (1990) and several other films, has a fine singing voice, and here she deftly carries off the tricky business of making her character sound just bad enough, but no more.

Despite her encyclopedic repertoire of accents from aristocratic Danish to outback Australian and working-class Bronx to arriviste British—even Streep does not possess an infinite range. Thus for the new movie she recycles her imitation of Eleanor Roosevelt, first heard in voiceovers for Ken Burns’s 2014 PBS documentary The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. (I still recall being startled by the former first lady’s fluty patrician intonations in a 1959 TV commercial she made for Good Luck margarine, the proceeds from which she donated to UNICEF.) Here Streep followed the lead of Katharine Hepburn, who was advised by John Huston, director of The African Queen (1951), to base her characterization of that film’s prim but resourceful British spinster on the doughty Mrs. Roosevelt. Hepburn later recalled this note as “the goddamnest best piece of direction I have ever heard.”

Because I find a pronounced element of Camp in many of Streep’s performances—particularly her cartoonish impersonations of a loosey-goosey Julia Child in Nora Ephron’s Julie/Julia (2009) and a huffing, bustling Margaret Thatcher in Phyllida Lloyd’s The Iron Lady (2011)—her evocation of Jenkins surprised me by its relative restraint. The same is true of her co-star, Hugh Grant, who as Jenkins’s ever-solicitous if unfaithful spouse finally drops his repetitive rom-com persona of a blinking, commitment-phobic lothario and does his finest work since playing a scummy Liverpool theater director in Mike Newell’s An Awfully Big Adventure (1995).

Streep is not the only Florence Foster Jenkins cast member to apparently model a role on a specific source. Simon Helberg, as Jenkins’s piano accompanist, Cosmé McMoon, channels the barely controlled nervous hysteria and suddenly awakened eagerness for bigger things that Gene Wilder so brilliantly combined as Leo Bloom, the long repressed but easily corrupted accountant in Mel Brooks’s The Producers (1967). And, like Bloom’s blossoming affection for the overbearing Broadway producer Max Bialystock, McMoon comes to love his bossy benefactor in much the same way.

Regrettably, Florence Foster Jenkins avoids probing the degree to which money can insulate untalented artists from realizing that they are no good at what they do. Yes, we do see the mechanics of protection as Jenkins’s husband, a failed British actor named St. Clair Bayfield, carefully controls tickets to her recitals so that no negative audience reactions will puncture her pretty bubble of self-regard. But can her clueless vanity have been all that endearing, no matter how much Bayfield may have prized his wife and meal ticket?

I can think of several present-day New York parallels to Jenkins—rich socialites who, if not quite as amusingly bad at their respective mediums as she was in hers, are nonetheless able to present themselves as serious artists because some gallerist, publisher, or producer is happy to take their money in return for a public platform that gives some degree of credibility to their otherwise insupportable pursuits. They attract their own claques of bought-and-paid-for admirers, and doubtless attribute their lack of legitimate critical acclaim to the same injustice that has led many great artists to die in poverty. This solipsistic syndrome strikes me as the real tragedy of Jenkins’s faux career, not her lack of a secure G above high C.    

In the film’s most touching scene, Jenkins, at loose ends one weekend when her husband flits off with his girlfriend to the Hamptons for a tryst, shows up unannounced at McMoon’s grungy loft. She insists on tidying up his disheveled digs, and asks him to play the piano while she washes dishes. This ruefully reflective grass widow recalls how as a child prodigy—“Little Miss Foster”—she gave a piano recital at the White House (for the music-loving President Rutherford B. Hayes, whose frequent musicales included an 1878 performance by the coloratura soprano Marie Selika Williams, the first African-American artist to perform at the Executive Mansion). She explains how nerve damage to her left hand—which Nicholas Martin’s frustratingly sketchy script never connects to her phobia of knives, or perhaps to the syphilis she contracted from her “alley cat” first husband—ended her hopes for a concert career, just as the venereal disease did her ability to bear children.

As Jenkins hesitantly picks out the opening notes of Chopin’s Prelude in E minor, her impaired dexterity makes her falter, whereupon McMoon takes over the left-hand part and they work through this hauntingly elegiac composition with extraordinary reciprocal tenderness. The suspension of disbelief central to all successful artistic collaborations is palpable here, and for a few wonderful moments one is fully drawn into the fantasy life of this thwarted but undaunted dreamer.               


Florence Foster Jenkins is playing at select theaters across the country.

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