It’s a curious fact that male singers with technically lousy voices are easily forgiven by the public, even lionized if they have other talents. Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Willie Nelson all made Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Singers of All Time list. Female singers, with very few exceptions, are held to stricter aesthetic standards. If their vocal cords are as naturally creaky or croaky as the three guys previously cited, the best that they can usually hope for is a career as a novelty act, like Mrs. Miller back on 1960s TV.
But it helps a lot if you’re born into a wealthy family and can make a lot of influential people dependent upon your largesse as a patron of the arts. Heiress and socialite (1868-1944) Florence Foster Jenkins started out as a piano prodigy, performing as “Little Miss Foster” at the White House during the Hayes administration. An arm injury put an end to her piano career, and her husband, Dr. Frank Thornton Jenkins, gave her syphilis soon after she eloped with him at the age of 17. Still, Florence lived for music, and large bequests from her parents made it possible for her to construct a sheltered life based on her own fanciful notions of her own vocal talent. Progressive neurological damage from the syphilis – not to mention the mercury and arsenic with which it was treated in those days – didn’t improve her native sense of pitch any.
So it was that, after decades of casting herself in non-speaking roles in tableaux vivants at fundraising galas for the Verdi Society – among her many arts-related philanthropic projects – she decided to get serious about her singing and ready herself to perform in public. Alas, Florence Foster Jenkins had one of the most horrible voices ever recorded, and by all accounts didn’t know it until it was far too late. Her common-law husband, a failed Shakespearean actor named St. Clair Bayfield (history does not record whether she and Jenkins ever got around to a legal divorce), was her manager, shield and enabler, keeping genuine music critics and other people who owed her no favors away from her recitals. But then, not long before her death, Florence decided to rent Carnegie Hall and sing for soldiers and sailors just back from the war in Europe, and the screeching cat got out of the bag.
A privileged, self-deluded character like this is very easy to ridicule, and Meryl Streep certainly has the comedic chops to do that with scalpel-like precision. But the estimable Stephen Frears’s latest feature film, Florence Foster Jenkins, takes a gentler tack; it’s more of an essay on the nature of love and loyalty than a lacerating send-up of the follies of people with more money than they know what to do with. Streep may very well walk away with another Best Actress Oscar, or at least a nomination, for her funny-but-sympathetic embodiment of this fragile, determined woman who just wants to share her love of the arts with the rest of the world.
The film also affords Hugh Grant one of his best roles ever as Bayfield, and he does it wonderfully nuanced justice. He’s a complicated character, equal parts gold-digging gigolo and tender, devoted, fiercely protective partner. Sexually chaste from the get-go on account of that incurable STD problem, Florence and St. Clair’s relationship is depicted as warm, affectionate and mutually supportive (though nowadays many would term it codependent). He calls her Bunny; she calls him Whitey. She pays the rent on the separate apartment that he shares with a younger woman (Rebecca Ferguson); but when said younger woman’s hipster friends make fun of Florence’s wobbly warblings, there’s no question which side Bayfield is going to take – and it isn’t entirely about money.
The third party to Lady Florence’s ill-fated aspirations to sing at Carnegie Hall is her hired piano accompanist, Cosmé McMoon. Nerdy Big Bang Theory star Simon Helberg, who can produce hilariously rubbery facial expressions, is perfectly cast as the serious aspiring musician who is terrified that being associated with such an awful singer will prematurely end his incipient career (in real life he turned out to be right about that, but went on to modest success in the quasi-showbiz world of bodybuilding). Will Cosmé learn to love poor clueless Florence in spite of his anxieties? Not hard to guess.
The humor in Florence Foster Jenkins’s screenplay occasionally hits an excessively broad note (a scene with a bathtub full of potato salad comes to mind), but overall it’s handled deftly and with a minimum of snark. Indeed, the movie is a sort of plea for more kindness and generosity of spirit in an overly ironic, snark-filled world. As such, it likely won’t go over well with some audiences; but its terrific acting and directing and ever-so-slightly-sentimental message will remind many of the gloriously humanistic screwball comedies of the great Preston Sturges. That’s a pretty high accolade, in my book.