Movie review: FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS
By Rosalie Tirella
We first meet Florence Foster Jenkins, Meryl Streep, hanging precariously from a pulley on a stage that she, with all her millions $$$, has paid to commandeer … to entertain, enthrall, bewitch and terrify her legions of fans! Before an adoring audience of hundreds Madame Florence is “Inspiration,” a fat, late-middle-aged angel dressed in a white gown, huge feathered wings attached to her shoulders, ever so slowly lowered by stage hands, five strapping men straining to keep her airborne … She hovers two inches above the shoulders of an actor portraying Stephen Foster. She is there to inspire him. Foster is tinkling the ivories, vainly searching for an American tune. With a tap of Inspiration’s fingers on his shoulder Foster gets the gentle nudging he needs to complete his racist classic …
The master of ceremonies to this musical debacle is Madame Florence’s “husband,” her beloved cheerleader, handler and enabler, St. Clair Bayfield, played by the still gorgeous and dashing Hugh Grant. St. Clair has been kept by the deluded and good-hearted, and let’s be honest – really fun! – Florence for 25 years. That is as long as St. Clair indulges her every catastrophic musical whim, such as keeping her on stage, booking her singing lessons with famous voice teachers who inwardly wince at every flat note, orchestrating his wife’s famous sandwich- and potato-salad laden luncheons for her music club – the Verdi Club – and pretending Florence is MAGNIFICENT – even when she’s awful. Seconding that emotion: Yes! She’s MAGNIFICENT enough to play Carnegie Hall!
Truth? St. Clair’s got a beautiful young mistress waiting for him every night in his downtown apartment – the one that Florence pays the rent on. But the couple are united in their love of the arts – “they have an understanding” as Grant whispers to their young new pianist. And the smooth St. Clair has such a solicitous way about him! He IS sweet, always gentle, loving and tender with Florence. You believe she is his life. Yes, he would be nothing without Florence. He is a worse actor and monologist than his wife is an opera singer, but Florence gets him on stage often enough to recite his Shakespeare with melodramatic flair. He loves the stage lights, too.
It’s hilarious to watch the hammy Grant grimace as his even hammier wife wails away – and Streep’s singing truly sucks – it’s like listening to the clubbing to death of 100 baby harpoon seals – only to give her a standing ovation and a hearty “BRAVO! BRAVO!” at the end of each abysmal “performance.”
This is a true story – it all happened in America during the 1940s, during World War II – maybe a time when Americans needed to laugh uproariously. After all we were taking on the Nazis, the fascists of Italy … Hitler. Most of Florence’s fans knew she sang abominably, but they loved her despite her ear drum-piercing squawks, most likely because of them! They got to indulge the intrepid Florence, too!
Today she would be panned, mocked on Tik Tok. A hundred cruel memes would pollute social media, closing minds to the silly diva’s sweetness, patriotism … and ultimately, her sadness. But back then she was adored … especially if you paid your patrons and bribed your conductors and newspaper men and gave away free tickets to Florence Foster Jenkins concerts. And kept the scoffers away. Shielded Florence from every boo, hiss and guffaw, as St. Clair so nimbly did for 25 years!
This film is hilarious! First, Meryl Streep, trained in opera as a young girl, knowingly sings like a dying walrus – and in her layers of finery she looks like a living one! She hits all the wrong notes all the time. Everyone around Madame Florence is aurally assaulted, but the ever optimistic Florence keeps giving those closest to her their generous paychecks and bonuses and, well, I guess, everyone can be bought. Plus, the potato salad is to die for!
So what if I unabashedly adore Hugh Grant? So what if I’ve seen FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL at least 20 times over the years? So what if I love all his rom coms and his later, more serious movies, too? So what if I’d swoon at the sight of a now 62-year-old Grant walking towards me in the middle of Green Island – to me even sexier in his mature years? Still that most beautiful smile, husky blue eyes. The sexiest British accent. Hunky in that tuxedo! The hair line receding only just a tad and gray flecks throughout … but that mop top still wavy and thick, still worthy of passionate stroking!
But Florence never gets to run her craggy fingers thru her handsome husband’s hair!
That’s because this wealthy Manhattan socialite has syphilis – got it on her wedding night from her first husband, “an alley cat”! So Madame Florence and St. Clair have abstained all these years. I imagine Florence Foster Jenkins, deep down, was a very lonely woman.
Music gave her happiness and hope and the attention she craved! Meryl Streep plays Florence as deluded but not mad. I think the clap half went to Florence’s brain – that’s why she’s booked herself in Carnegie Hall! But Stephen Frears, the film’s director, disagrees, and has focused on St. Clair – and her new young sweet pianist – deluding her, keeping her in the dark about her abilities because they love her so. St. Clair protected his wife from all sharp knives – and all sharp comments. This movie into a love story, sometimes sentimental but mostly heartwarming. People can be foolishly devoted to people! Doesn’t the word “devotion” imply a kind of foolishness? Love is blind! And …People can love their loves without the passionate sex. Maybe. People can find each other despite the clap – and the fake clapping. Most definitely!
Watching Meryl’s singing lessons are a hoot. Her fake, ass kissing voice teacher works with real talent but is leading his latest pupil to lower depths of musical hell because she pays him exorbitantly. Her making of her very own record with her new, naive pianist straight off the bus from Galveston, Texas, is so funny. And the scenes between Grant and Streep are light, ephemeral, sexy – and even heartbreaking.
But the scenes with her virginal pianist – played with perfection by Simon? – are my favorites! The young man, so young, so innocent, so tiny, so scrawny, a true fish out of water, probably not yet even aware of his homosexuality is the biggest diamond in this tiara of a film. True to the life story, he is an excellent pianist and even composes his own music. He plays beautifully… To see his face as he first accompanies his diva at her piano in her fancy New York apartment is WONDERFUL. His face registers disbelief, horror, then utter shock. He can’t believe what he’s hearing! Later, his little horse face contorts with hysterical giggles in the elevator outside Florence’s apartment. St. Clair follows him out and tries to brainwash him: WASN’T MADAME FLORENCE WONDERFUL? WASN’T SHE SIMPLY MARVELOUS? A stunned Simon …knows on which side his bread is buttered…and sheepishly nods yes. He’s now complicit…
But he’s got his limits, too. He tells St. Clair he can not, will not, accompany Florence on the piano during her Carnegie Hall debut. “We’ll die out there!!” he screams to St. Clair. No! No! No! he says. He’s a serious pianist! He has ambitions! It’s Carnegie Hall, for God’s sakes! But the glamorous and pushy St. Clair knows how to work this situation and gets the little man to acquiesce. After all, he adores his Madame Florence, too… doesn’t he? Grant whispers. Won’t you stand by a friend in her hour of need??? The pianist looks down …he wrestles with his conflicting feelings…yes, Florence has been so good to him… appreciates his talent, is soothed by his playing of Chopin… He too is devoted to her!
Such a moving scene between the two: Florence, upset that her husband has gone “golfing” for two days (a weekend getaway with his girlfriend), takes a taxi to Simon’s slummy little flat and offers to wash his dirty dishes for him if he plays his piano for her. The pianist can’t believe she’s located him, is amazed she’ll do his dishes … and is touched by her vulnerability. For even though she hits every wrong musical note every time, Madame Florence never hits a false note emotionally. Eventually, the two of them end up playing Chopin together on his piano. Her left hand’s nerves are damaged from the syphilis so she can’t play with it…she struggles with the piece and is distressed. In a few seconds her sweet little pianist slowly walks up to her and, still standing, plays the other half of the waltz. So Madame Florence is playing the composition with her one hand, Simon with his hand. For the entire film the impoverished little pianist has put Madame Florence on a pedestal – never laughs at her, is always respectful to her, even deferential. So, naturally, he doesn’t, can’t, sit next to Madame Florence on his piano bench. That would be too familiar! Instead, in his work pants and tee and suspenders, he continues to stand, a foot away from her, playing the other half of the piece, looking down on his gentle, generous, artistic benefactor-ess with a little bemused smile. I’ll confess: a few tears were shed in this Spencer flat during the scene!
I won’t spoil the film’s ending for you – I’ll just recommend you get this movie tonight – and watch it! You’ll love the dancing, the music, the glad handing, the sly jokes, the cinematography, the gorgeous Grant, the hilarious Streep and especially the magical little pianist!