Sunday, August 14, 2016

Florence Foster Jenkins

All singers know that they sound very different to themselves than to the people listening to them. This audio phenomenon is at the heart of Florence Foster Jenkins, the new biopic of the infamous New York patron of the arts. She would have been a forgotten name in the annals of New York society had she not made a number of recordings that forever captured her lack of operatic singing talent. Led on by her British husband and cheered on by her sycophantic circle of friends, Ms. Jenkins rented Carnegie Hall for one evening and filled it friends, servicemen returning from World War II, and celebrities. It turned out to be one of the strangest recitals ever given on any stage.

Cinematically, this is a character that is very close to Susan Alexander in Citizen Kane and Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard: women who were lied to about their artistic abilities or popularity, and who ultimately paid the price for this deception.

Brilliant in the cast is Simon Helberg, best known from the TV show "The Big Bang Theory," as her timid but talented accompanist, who at first finds the whole idea of playing for this matronly lady hilarious. His laughter soon turns into fear that this job will hurt his fledgling career. Ultimately he succumbs to the big con that is largely orchestrated by her husband.

St Clair, her husband, is the closest this film gets to having a villain. Casting Hugh Grant in the role, however, softens the character's edges admirably. For Mr. Grant this is a comeback film of sorts, and he is great in the part. The years have lined his face. Gone is the boyish, bumbling character who won our hearts in Four Weddings and a Funeral. St Clair is a two-timing liar, but his winning smile, even as he reaches into his pocket to bribe a newspaper critic wins us over.

But ultimately director Stephen Frears makes sure that the film is all about Meryl Streep. She embodies the character of Florence in the same manner that she has tackled the great roles of her career, and undoubtedly this is another milestone: a memorable characterization that will win her many accolades come award season. She knows how to play it big without chewing scenery, and that's one of the wonders of this performance. Needless to say, audiences love that. In addition, she has shown that she can belt out a tune when she wants to. In Mamma Mia! she literally stopped the show with her rendition of "The Winner Takes it All." Here she is deliberately singing flat and off key, which is so difficult to do for a talented, trained singer like her.

In many ways the film is a paean to relativism. Here's a lady who has no business singing, but by golly she got up there and did it, and therefore she is a winner for trying, even though the results were awful. She rips through Mozart's Queen of the Night aria from Die Zauberflöte murdering every note and never reaching the high F. "Right you are if you think you are" as Luigi Pirandello would have concluded. Ms. Streep makes it all seem OK somehow, and that's why the film succeeds. Lady Florence herself said it best: "Some may say that I couldn't sing, but no one can say that I didn't sing."

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