Mediocre amateurs are legion – but not many have fans throughout generations, including Cole Porter and David Bowie
Long celebrated as the “world’s worst singer,” Florence Foster Jenkins was a soprano of such outrageous inability that her notoriety filled concert halls. With her recordings appreciated among irony-attuned music lovers for decades, it’s no wonder that she would eventually be immortalized with an eponymous film.
Director Stephen Frears, no stranger to biopics (The Queen) or period pieces (Dangerous Liaisons), approaches his subject matter with an eye for historical accuracy and a commitment to characterization, sometimes losing himself in details. The plot is simple, so the 110 minute running time feels a bit bloated. Florence Foster Jenkins could have benefited from losing a scene or two.
A New York heiress and socialite during WWII, Jenkins (Meryl Streep) struggles with illness, but her passion for music knows no bounds – she spends immense sums on the city’s cultural life and promoting the arts, also putting on musical tableaux vivants inevitably starring herself.
After seeing legendary soprano Lily Pons perform, she is inspired to resume her passion for singing, undeterred by previous failures – much to the consternation of her partner, the English gentleman St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant).
Unaware of her incredible lack of talent, she throws herself into her studies, accompanied by a well-compensated and long-suffering teacher and pianist. When she decides to share her “gift” with the world, Bayfield struggles to maintain the illusion for her, carefully vetting the guest list of her concerts as her reputation grows – until she decides to perform a benefit for the troops at Carnegie Hall.
A Legend in her own mind
It would have been all too easy to belittle Ms. Jenkins; the film does not sugarcoat the fact that she was detached and vain, wearing flamboyant costumes and exacerbating her limitations by tackling only the most difficult coloratura arias. Yet Streep never makes light of her character, masterfully maintaining an aura of dignity and naive joy even when dancing little jigs to her cringeworthy performances.
At times letting a glimmer of realization shimmer through her vacant expression, Streep also masters the considerable challenge of singing both falsely and hilariously – going along tolerably before inevitably crescendoing to an ear-splitting screech.
Hugh Grant likewise adds nuance and sympathy to a potentially disagreeable character: A pompous, untalented and penniless thespian, St. Clair Bayfield sponges shamelessly off Jenkins, who even knowingly pays for an apartment where he lives with his girlfriend.
Though he may be toffee-nosed and not above basking in his rich spouse’s prominence, he’s also painfully aware of his own mediocrity and status as a kept man, and it informs his entire demeanor. And though resentment for his partner occasionally shines through, nothing shakes his devotion to her, tirelessly protecting her from hecklers and showing genuine admiration for her courage.
Sing like no one’s listening
Jenkins’ saving grace was that her childlike enthusiasm was sincere and, above all, infectious. It sustained her through decades of sickness and elicited fierce loyalty from her entourage and admirers. It inspired large swaths of high society to appreciate – and support – classical music, even garnering her the friendship of giants like conductor Arturo Toscanini (who nonetheless found excuses to not attend her recitals).
She unreservedly loved both life and music, even if music didn’t love her back. As Jenkins lies in bed, devastated by the shock of what people truly think of her singing, she takes comfort from that fact, proudly stating, “People may say I couldn’t sing, but no one can say I didn’t sing.” Encore!