14 August 2016

The Florence Foster Jenkins Moment

Queen of Delight? Streep as Foster Jenkins.

At movie theaters, we’re in the middle of a Florence Foster Jenkins moment. Stephen Frears’ film, starring Meryl Streep, has opened in the United States — following Xavier Giannoli’s French film, Marguerite, released just a year ago and based on Foster Jenkins’ life, starring my beloved Catherine Frot in a César-winning performance. In the works is a documentary, The Florence Foster Jenkins Story, in which none other than Joyce DiDonato plays the demented diva.

Why now? Is it merely that, at this historical moment, we happen to have three talented actresses who are willing and able to play the woman widely regarded as the worst singer who ever lived? Is there some vast audience that’s been demanding — for decades, presumably — multiple interpretations of this story? Does Foster Jenkins’ story speak to something current in our society? Is this just a fluke?

Having seen the Frears and Giannoli films, I’m inclined to opt for Answer 1. Streep, who as a child studied with Estelle Liebling, is the right age, more or less, and quite open to the challenge of impersonating well-known women (Margaret Thatcher, Julia Child). Frot has made a career-long specialty of loopy bourgeoises, finding in their stories a measure of comedy and tragedy, and Marguerite offers audiences a taste of both. And Joyce, widely esteemed as one of the greatest singers alive, is also a good sport with remarkable sympathy for those less gifted: I once attended a dinner party at which we played some of Foster Jenkins’ recordings, and while the rest of us writhed in a mixture of agony and delight, dear Joyce refused to say a word against the woman.

The next question, then, is what’s the point? What lessons are we to draw from Foster Jenkins? While I can’t yet address the documentary, I’m prepared to answer for the Giannoli and Frears films. Ultimately, Marguerite is the tragedy of a woman who doesn’t know herself; her delusions are at once her reason for being and her undoing. And Florence Foster Jenkins is a garden-variety biopic, leaving its message to the marketing team (“You don’t have to be good to be great,” runs the slogan).

On wings of song: DiDonato as Foster Jenkins.

Both films present a Foster Jenkins who is entirely unaware of how badly she sings; Frears’ film implies that neurological damage from syphilis accounts for her inability to hear herself as others hear her. Both films disregard the theory that Foster Jenkins was in on the joke, that her over-the-top performances were a sort of performance art avant la lettre — which may or may not be true, but which would make for an interesting movie.

Marguerite comes closer to Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, the story of a man who doesn’t understand that his true talent is friendship — not moviemaking. If Burton’s film doesn’t attain the level of tragedy, it’s because the movie doesn’t permit the title character any recognition of his fatal flaw. He remains blithely oblivious to what he’s been doing wrong, and yet the message is clear and (for this audience) meaningful. At those many, many times when my writing career hasn’t gone as planned, I’ve wondered whether I hadn’t been kidding myself all along. Wood’s friendship with Bela Lugosi resembles in some ways my friendship with Dan Rather — and so on.

Marguerite gives its heroine her Aristotelian moment, and so, to a degree, does Frears’ FFJ. But in general Frears is up to something different, and his film may be interpreted as a 110-minute expression of the popular maxim, “Dance as if no one is watching.” Florence does indeed sing as if no one is listening, much less judging. But should she? Music is her passion, and she follows her bliss. Okay. That’s fine for her. But what about the rest of us? Are we really supposed to follow her example? If so, I’ll book Carnegie Hall myself.

Thus, despite all of Streep’s dazzle, the focus shifts to her common-law husband, St. Clair Bayfield, a ham actor who at least sometimes has the self-awareness not to subject other people to his “talent.” Effectively a kept man, he coddles Florence, pays off her critics, papers the house, indulges her fancies, and defends her dream world. Even in private conversation, he can’t bring himself to admit that Florence sings badly — as we see in a nice scene with her accompanist, Cosmé McMoon (his real name). And only when he lets down his guard — taking a vacation with his mistress — does Florence set in motion the Carnegie Hall concert that will at once fulfill her dream and bring it crashing down on her.

Ah! Je ris! Frot as Marguerite.

We get more insight into Florence’s character in a single scene than in the entire rest of the movie. On a surprise visit to Cosmé’s apartment, Florence talks about her youthful ambition of becoming a concert pianist, and reveals that damage to her hand cut short her career. Thereupon she and Cosmé sit at the piano and, one hand each, they play a Chopin étude. Suddenly, Streep’s performance isn’t about ticks and twirls, and least of all about her voice: it’s about a real woman who does not happen to be Meryl Streep. The Chopin doesn’t merely show us that music is important to Florence; it shows us why music is important to her, and what music does to her.

Does Bayfield understand this? We never see any evidence, one way or another, and yet that explanation could elevate his behavior from self-interest (so long as he humors her, he enjoys a prosperous lifestyle) or benevolent affection (as depicted here, he really does love her). As the film is constructed, however, we get only hints of Bayfield’s attempt to define the point at which he does his lover no favors by telling her lies.

Those hints come not so much in the dialogue but in the weary blue eyes of Hugh Grant, who plays Bayfield. It’s a remarkable performance, particularly coming from someone whose acting is known more for charm than for depth. He’s coasted on piffle in almost every movie he’s made — and he almost always seems to know it. But here he’s working with Meryl Streep, and he rises to the challenge.

Happy, darling? That’s all that matters.
Streep and Grant.

For those who say Grant isn’t a true actor because he doesn’t (or can’t) play Shakespeare, he offers up a self-aware, truly terrible soliloquy. “No, I’m not Ken Bloody Branagh,” he seems to say, “and isn’t that perfectly marvelous?” In what’s almost a throwaway line, Florence tells Cosmé that she hides bad reviews from Bayfield — just as we know he hides them from her. That’s a theme that should have been explored at greater length. The deceptions are mutual, co-dependent, symbiotic.

Yet even as he’s playing what amounts to a drawing-room comedy, Grant suggests, again and again, how much it costs Bayfield to sustain Florence’s fantasies. The script calls for him to retreat to his bachelor pad — and his mistress, and her bohemian friends — to recharge his batteries. But that’s not enough to save either Bayfield or Florence. Perhaps, then, the lesson of Florence Foster Jenkins is that friends don’t let friends dance like there’s no one watching when people actually are watching.

On The Big Bang Theory, Simon Helberg plays Howard, who (at least in episodes I’ve seen) is often presumed to be gay. Here, he plays Cosmé, who really is gay — though the script doesn’t make much of that, and nothing at all of the immortal paradigm of Diva and Gay Disciple. To this day, Florence’s most ardent followers often are gay men, as they were in her lifetime. Perhaps in a nod to political correctness, the script makes only oblique references to Cosmé’s sexuality — too subtle, I think, since a gay man with whom I saw the movie didn’t understand what Cosmé meant when, arriving late and disheveled (but not bloodied or bruised) to an engagement, he explains that he’s been “waylaid by sailors.”

How do you get to Carnegie Hall?
Helberg as McMoon.

Seated at the piano, Helberg has to react more than speak, and some of his mugging seems better attuned to TBBT than to FFJ. But he knows how to bring Cosmé’s gayness just to the point of caricature and no further, and he plays piano quite well. He and Streep didn’t dub-and-mime their music, performing directly on camera instead, and their teamwork is inspired — one of many ways in which Frears pays gratifying attention to details that other filmmakers might neglect. But the character is barely sketched, and ultimately his motivation — like Bayfield’s — is summed up with the too-simple explanation that he, too, in his way has fallen in love with Florence.

But why do these men love her? Is it her money, her joy, her vulnerability, all of the above? Ultimately, Florence Foster Jenkins skims along its frilly surfaces, and doesn’t dig terribly deep. That’s not a sin, and yet it’s a shame. The talent is on hand to make a truly superlative picture, one that we’re still talking about seven decades from now — the way we talk about Foster Jenkins herself.

Florence Foster Jenkins is a charming entertainment, perfectly pitched to Streep’s fans and the diehard PBS viewer — which makes it all the more puzzling that the trailers “approved for this audience” all featured phenomenal amounts of violence. Well, I suppose it’s possible that the people who come to see FFJ will also want to see Ben-Hur and Jack Reacher and that other picture with explosions and noise, whatever it was. But really, the tone-deafness (and I use the word advisedly in this context) of the marketers makes it seem almost miraculous that there’s even one Foster Jenkins movie, to say nothing of three.

In this deleted scene, St. Clair Bayfield confronts Foster Jenkins’ critics.
(No, actually, it’s Tom Cruise in Jack Reacher, a film I’m unlikely to see, and less likely to enjoy.

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