The story of Florence Foster Jenkins is true; it’s strange; it brings up a lot of interesting questions about the intersection of money and the arts; and it is now a movie. In fact, it is the latest star vehicle for that most renowned of contemporary movie actors, the one and only Meryl Streep.
The subject of the film, which debuts in the U.S. today, will be familiar to many readers of this site, as it is also the subject of Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins by Stephen Temperley, a play that ran on Broadway in 2005. Local audiences got to see it at Studio Theatre in 2007, in a production that brought Helen Hayes Awards to its leading lady Nancy Robinette (I once referred to her as Washington’s Meryl Streep) and colleague J. Fred Shiffman. In 2014, Lee Mikeska Gardner played Mrs. Jenkins to acclaim in a production at Northern Virginia’s 1st Stage.
I came to the film version tabula rasa, never having seen Souvenir on stage, and only knowing about its subject what I had gleaned from reading reviews or hearing the play discussed.
In a world without Karaoke bars, Mrs. Jenkins was an heiress and socialite who fancied herself a classical singer, despite what was rather widely regarded as a startling lack of aptitude or talent.
Nevertheless, she performed privately at events that she would bankroll; engaged well-regarded musicians to coach and accompany her; and eventually, in what could be the most impressive example ever of a vanity project, held a recital at Carnegie Hall.
That concert sold-out. Friends and sycophants came to support her; the curious and the unkind came to gawk and to laugh. The reviews were scathing. Very shortly afterwards, she was dead. (Warning: bad reviews can kill!)
It’s a strange, almost unbelievable, story. On the other hand, there have always been examples of things considered so bad they’re good. Or, at least, fun. Remember Plan 9 From Outer Space? Ever seen Sharknado? Or gone to a viewing party of The Room?
Those of my generation will remember the strange, ukulele-playing, falsetto-singing Tiny Tim, who became famous performing on Laugh-In and later got married on The Tonight Show. It seemed as if he must have been in on the joke, but one was never quite sure exactly how seriously he took himself. Today’s TV talent competitions seem to dedicate a set amount of time for joke contestants, who demonstrate varying levels of awareness that they are being laughed at.
What fascinated me about the story, though, is its demonstration of how the arts depend so heavily on patrons, and how the tastes, desires, whims, and even delusions of such patrons can carry inordinate weight in the world of the arts.
In the film, Mrs. Jenkins doesn’t seem at all to be an unkind woman, and her devotion to music feels genuine and heartfelt. But she behaves in a tremendously entitled manner and frequently is oblivious to the hopes and needs of those around her, as well as to what may be lacking as regards to her own artistic capabilities.
And those around her enable that obliviousness by shielding her from the realities with which the less wealthy are faced. Whether it’s the legendary Arturo Toscanini, who comes to her to beg money; whether it’s her accompanist, able to sustain his musical ambitions by, literally and figuratively, playing along with her ambitions; or whether it’s her common-law husband, caretaker of the Potemkin village in which she dwells — Mrs. Jenkins frequently is told just what she wants to hear, be it praise for her tastes or encouragement of her talents.
The film also provokes thought regarding the subjectivity and variability of artistic judgment. Not many people set out to make crap art, after all, and many wonderful artists are unable to sustain successful careers. We’ve all experienced amateur or outsider performances that makes us think, “Wow, you could be in the Big Time!” And even the most lauded and accomplished of artists harbor insecurities and doubts. (Read the Stephen Sondheim anecdote in Robert Brustein’s memoir Making Scenes.)
Sure, there can be objective assessments of things such as pitch and tone. But if someone is moved by a performance that isn’t technically perfect — that’s real. And if someone expresses appreciation for another’s talent, the performer can be forgiven for believing it — that’s human.
The film is written by Nicholas Martin (who has scripted a lot of British TV) and is directed by Stephen Frears (who made the wonderful indie feature My Beautiful Launderette, the Joe Orton biopic Prick Up Your Ears, the brilliant neo-noir The Grifters, the prestige adaptation Dangerous Liaisons, and, more recently, The Queen).
This film will appeal to audiences who respond to Masterpiece Theatre-style literary adaptations and period material, as well as to those who appreciate finely-observed filmmaking. It’s quite entertaining, never lags, and seems to have taken a lot of care to reproduce detail accurately. (The actor playing Cole Porter during the Carnegie Hall sequence, for instance, has a limp.)
That said, I felt it to be more successful as a film than as history. I wasn’t at that notorious concert, and it wasn’t filmed, of course, and so, who knows? The filmmakers may have meticulously recreated the scene from contemporaneous accounts.
But it definitely feels more like its pushing movie-goer buttons in aid of a rousing climax than ringing true to the experience itself. Nina Arianda (Venus in Fur) is terrific and helps to make it all work, but was there really a Billie Dawn figure in the audience that night who stood up, shouted out, and pushed back against the ridicule and laughter, to bring the crowd onto Mrs. Jenkins’ side? Color me skeptical; I’ll file this climax (along with the Iranians shooting at the escape plane in Argo, among many other examples) under the heading “Good Movies Based on True Events That Are Compromised by a Hokey Hollywood Climax.”
Streep is marvelous, as won’t surprise anyone. She nails the period and the class aspects of Mrs. Jenkins. She balances the character’s obliviousness against her sweetness. We laugh at her, sure, but, because she speaks so genuinely about what the music means to her, what it does for her life, we also understand the impulse of her husband to protect her.
But, in the film, Mrs. Jenkins is almost a supporting role. The leads of the film are the two people through whose eyes we see her: her husband and her accompanist.
The accompanist is the only other role in Souvenir, the play version, and here it is taken by Simon Helberg, familiar to TV audiences from the hit sitcom The Big Bang Theory. I’ve never seen more than a minute or two of that, so I didn’t know his work before seeing the film, though I did feel as if I recognized him from something. His character is put in the difficult position of needing the accompanist gig and, eventually, feeling affection for and loyalty toward Mrs. Jenkins, while at the same time being painfully aware that this is a job that could be suicidal to a serious career.
Helberg has sweetness, meekness, and subtlety, all of which function wonderfully in the role — and he plays his own piano, so he earns that special level of admiration one feels for an actor who does his own stunts.
The revelation of the cast, though, is Hugh Grant. I’ve never been a huge Hugh G. fan. His diffidence has always felt very self-conscious and coy to me. Every film of his seems to end with a haltingly-delivered speech that puts me in mind of Bob Newhart by way of Eton and Cambridge.
Frears, though, is having none of that, and the result here is a terrifically compelling performance in what ends up being the central role in the film.
There’s a scene during which his own artistic outlet is quashed. (The character had been a classical actor who would recite a speech before Mrs. Jenkins sang.) With subtlety and precision, we see how quickly Grant processes that, accepts it, and then moves on. He has become so practiced at subjugating his own wants and needs, whether as large as his own artistic ambitions or as small as getting away when he expects to on a given night, his default mode has become absolute obsequiousness.
The “marriage” at the core of the film is also one of its fascinating aspects. Mrs. Jenkins rationalizes that it is the risk of exposure to her syphilis that keeps the relationship platonic. In fact, Grant’s character doesn’t seem to be at all despondent about the sexlessness; after all, he’s getting his somewhere else. But their’s is a partnership that involves romance and affection, if not sex, and it is the defining relationship for them both.
It’s not the sort of relationship that forms the center of many or most films. It’s presented here in a way that feels thoroughly credible (as opposed to that Carnegie Hall scene), and not at all sentimental. And it makes me admire the film and very glad I saw it.
Frears, Grant, and Streep hit that difficult note and sustain it, remaining on key throughout.
Editor’s note: Mrs. Jenkins has a 60’s counterpart, it would seem. Mrs. Miller Does Her Thing opens February 28th at Arlington’s Signature Theatre.