Review by Ken Burke
After practically typing my fingers down to the nubs last week with my extremely-lengthy reviews of Hell or High Water and Ben-Hur (the former one of 2016’s best, the latter ambitious but not that successful compared to the similar 1959 film), I’m going to change things up this week with not only a shorter collection of comments but also 2 separate postings of these not-so-all-encompassing-reviews so keep an eye out for the next one also, set to soon appear on a computer near you.
Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ insightful reviews. Therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when you’re ready to be transported to … wherever we end up. Please protect your eyes from the dazzling brilliance.
Florence Foster Jenkins (Stephen Frears)
Another based-in-fact dramatization, this one’s about a rich socialite/would-be opera singer in 1944 whose husband keeps her in limited editions of the public eye but with nothing of the truth of her horrible voice getting back to her until things start to get complicated as she almost catches him with his mistress, then she decides to have a concert at Carnegie Hall.
What Happens: (Of my 2 posted reviews for this week I’ve decided to start with this biography of the unique Ms. Jenkins in that this movie’s been out for 3 weeks already with screens and income dropping fast [only 19.8 domestic millions made during this time], so early disappearance is likely; therefore, if you’re interested you’d better quickly seek it out). Come with me now back to 1944 NYC for the true story of socialite/arts patron/aspiring-soprano Florence Foster Jenkins (1868-1944; her surname was based on her first marriage, way back in 1885, to Dr. Frank Jenkins, from whom his young bride [age 18] contracted syphilis on her wedding night, leading to their separation a year later; that she lived for so many decades without proper antibiotic treatment is a miracle in itself) and her common-law-husband, St. Clair Bayfield (he’s simply presented as her spouse in this film, but further research shows it’s not clear whether Florence divorced the doctor [even though she says she did in 1902] so the wedding ceremony with Bayfield may have just been more of Jenkins’ innate theatricality), are quite popular in arts-society-circles where St. Claire (Hugh Grant)—a quite
self-confident-but-equally-overwrought-actor (of Shakespearian persuasion) who never found a career of his own but now gets along very handsomely on Jenkins' (Meryl Streep) hefty inheritance—produces tableaux vivants (posed scenes) for groups such as their Verdi Club while she appears in various flamboyant costumes (Valkyrie, angel, etc.) as the grand highlight of the evening or hosts lavish parties in their Hotel Seymour suite with big helpings of her preferred meal of sandwiches and potato salad (the latter filling a bathtub!). Sadly for the eardrums of those aesthetic-devotees, Florence also gives invitation-only-recitals, some at Manhattan’s Ritz-Carlton, where her inability to perceive how her atrocious screeching decimates whatever she’s attempting to sing makes it difficult for her young accompanist, Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg), to keep from laughing while trying to follow her wild aural careenings on his piano, although her semi-devoted audience (including those who print glowing accolades about her) manages to keep control, given that her money is generously used to prop up these “prestigious” societies, just as St. Clair greases the palms of those fawning reviewers while keeping more-integrity-minded journalists, such as Earl Wilson (Christian McKay) of the New York Post, at bay, attempting to keep “Bunny” (her nickname) from reading the truth in the papers.
St. Clair‘s also keeping his “wife” at bay, as he’s convinced her that he needs his (apparently nightly) privacy at a Brooklyn apartment she pays for where he lives the life he prefers with mistress Kathleen Weatherley (Rebecca Ferguson) and his more-jazz-inclined-friends, although he truly loves Florence but in a platonic manner (they’ve never had sex, to protect him from her illness), so he goes to great lengths to keep her atrocious musical reality from her (as well as keeping quiet about Kathleen, who has to quickly hide when Florence suddenly shows up at the cross-town-flat one morning). However, her mistaken-conviction of her “talent” leads her to make some recordings at Melotone Records (although this company is otherwise listed as defunct 1938-2010 [?]), which manage to get on the airwaves, building up a large supportive audience but only because they think she’s got to be doing this as a joke, that no one could really be that horrible a vocalist. With her confidence boosted by this airplay (even as her body continues to deteriorate), she forges ahead against St. Clair‘s resistance (and McMoon‘s initial refusal to join her, in an attempt to protect his own career, until pushed into compliance by Bayfield) to book a pubic concert at Carnegie Hall
(I guess the management there can be bought off for the right price as well), which is eagerly attended, especially by some celebrities (Cole Porter, Tallulah Bankhead), a bunch of drunk Army and Navy men eager to laugh off their war weariness, and the self-proclaimed guardian of the arts, Wilson. Fighting her nerves to finally appear on stage, Florence is thrown off by the laughter at her opening number but sudden encouragement from one of the previous-jokers to appreciate the singer’s efforts leads to a rousing embrace, even if they seem to think she can’t really be serious.
Next day, when she finally sees a copy of Wilson’s damning review (St. Clair bought all the papers but to no avail), she’s devastated, collapses in her hotel lobby, soon dies thereafter (in the midst of a final fantasy where she's back at Carnegie Hall in her angel costume singing angelically, just as the parallel horrible singer in Marguerite [details below in this review] seemed to have a moment of vocal clarity [Or did she also just imagine it?] before her on-stage-collapse), her spirit broken after having pushed on for all those years buoyed by her love of music (she’d also been a bit of a piano prodigy as a girl, but nerve damage in her left hand led instead to singing [in a manner of speaking]) and the mistaken understanding that she was not only talented but also adored by her devotees.
So What? While
watching Florence Foster Jenkins I was struck by 2 things: (1) How her singing lessons with a Metropolitan Opera coach remind me of similar scenes in Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941; sorry this clip isn’t as crisply-sharp as it could be) where equally-limited-singer Susan Alexander Kane (Dorothy Comingore) is having her own rehearsal problems, although in … Jenkins the tutor is always much more enthusiastic than … Kane’s Signor Matiste (Fortunio Bonanova), but it may just have been because Florence’s guy was willing to sully his reputation in a time when money was much tighter than in the 1920s (or he wasn’t being intimidated by headstrong Charles Foster Kane [Welles]*); (2) How versatile Streep is in producing gut-wrenching-sounds (akin to a sick rooster caught in a meat grinder), which she does on her own rather than have some professional singer take the painful-vocal-cords-hit, showing us how talented you have to be (with an Oscar-record 19 nominations for acting [3 wins]) to play a character with a miserable lack of talent (bringing to mind the last scene in Raging Bull [Martin Scorsese, 1980; sorry that the audio's so low on this clip] when boxer-turned-entertainer Jake LaMotta's [Robert De Niro, another superb, wide-dramatic-to-comic-range-thespian] rehearsing how he’ll deliver Terry Malloy’s [Marlon Brando] famous speech from On the Waterfront [Elia Kazan, 1954]; his delivery is terrible compared to the original, a feat that only a great actor could accomplish in reducing himself to the guise of an ineffective one). Other than Streep’s outstanding performance, though (worthy of Oscar consideration), I don’t find this movie to be all that impactful or needed as yet another of Hollywood’s current obsession with bringing historical tidbits to the screen, as this deluded woman is to be pitied more than admired, even as she tries to push on with her non-career, propped up (as was St. Clair) by financial resources that let her live a warped-dream while making others fearful of sleep if this is what dreams produce.
*Interestingly, the actor who's playing celebrity-columnist Earl Wilson in Florence … looks like a young Orson Welles to me, also standing up fiercely for the integrity of the arts, but this may just be pure coincidence (although my insightful-wife, Nina, [jokingly?] says there are no coincidences).
Final Comments: It sometimes becomes difficult to be properly objective about a given work when another one, done well, on the same subject comes out just a few months prior, in this case Marguerite (Xavier Ginnoli, 2015) because it can take all of the air out of the anticipation for the new one unless the more current release proves to be substantially superior, which is not the case in comparing the earlier-released-French-film to Florence Foster Jenkins because the previous film is quite substantial (with a whopping 95% positive reviews surveyed at Rotten Tomatoes, 76% at Metacritic; our about-as-high-as-it-ever-gets-4-stars-review is in our April 7, 2016 posting). Although the French film is fictional—inspired by the life of Jenkins but with the names, dates, events, and location (to Paris and its environs) changed—it becomes even more dramatic with the protagonist’s demise in that she not only was protected by her entourage (both true friends and hypocritical sycophants [although in this case her husband virtually abandons her by finding excuses to miss her performances because he’s tired of constantly having to lie]) but never heard herself played back on a recording until she’s recuperating from her throat-damaging-concert, with the shock of her true vocalizations (which she couldn’t discern when singing live, possibly due to a lifetime of self-deception) pushing her into a death spiral that plays as a bit more tragic than Forster’s melancholy-collapse in that the latter made her own recordings, freely played them, as well as sending them around, including to radio stations where she becomes an ironic hit. Even when Florence’s broken-hearted to read Wilson’s scathing review of her Carnegie Hall event, she seems surprised that anyone’s been laughing at her despite the big concert having to be called to a momentary-halt just because of such audience behavior, with the rest of the fatal-evening punctuated by applause even though still mixed with merriment as her crowd seemed to finally appreciate her as a comic genius, making a mockery of everything that she sincerely held sacred.
So, Streep’s outstanding performance in this movie notwithstanding (along with being well-supported by Grant and Helberg), I’m not as impressed with Florence Foster Jenkins as I am with Marguerite, partially because the earlier account of this story (with its fictional embellishments) feels overall more compelling to me as a cinematic experience as well as being more plausible in its rendition of the main character, even if the actual Ms. Jenkins was not only incapable of hearing her own assault on the musical arts but also blind to the private life of her “husband,” with his far-away-apartment, days away playing golf (where he got his share of “holes in one” with Kathleen, I'm sure), and slipping away from the hotel each night after he’d lulled Bunny to sleep. Assuming this is all historically accurate, some additional commentary about her inability to perceive anything going on around her from those few who truly found admirable traits in Florence (rather than just gobbling up her generosity or secretly using her as a laughing-stock) would have been useful—certainly McMoon shows us, and St. Claire, his astonishment at her lack of talent but he never lets on to her about that, eventually admiring what he says is her courage (although it’s really her absurdity, given that she truly doesn’t seem to know how terrible her voice and stage mannerisms are, nor why she’s getting such attention from beyond the realms of her controlled-
arts-society-recitals). The critical collectives are much more generous with Florence Foster Jenkins than I thought I’d be (RT offers 87% positive reviews, MC’s more restrained with 71%) because I was inclined to go with just 3 of 5 stars for a movie that didn’t seem to be connecting to its intentions as well as it might, but I ultimately decided to go up a notch to 3½ stars trying to be consistent with my response to Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen, 2013; review in our August 16, 2013 posting) because I had some problems with it as well but was so overwhelmed by the brilliant performance of Cate Blanchett (who eventually won a Best Actress Oscar for this role) that I felt she elevated the whole experience up to my 4-stars-level; well, it’s the same here with Streep, her performance is so marvelous (even if the plot she inhabits isn’t always such) that the entire movie benefits a bit from it. However, unless you’re as brave as sincere supporters found Jenkins to be, you may not benefit from my Musical Metaphors chosen to demonstrate what this story’s all about because what I give you is the diva herself from her recordings of “Adele’s Laughing Song” from Die Fledermaus (The Bat, first performed in 1874 in Munich, music by Johann Strauss II, German libretto by Karl Haffner and Richard Genée) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DMu9PKWthLE followed by “Bell Song” (from Lakmé, music by Léo Delibes, French libretto by Edmond Gondinet and Philippe Gille, first performed in Paris in 1883) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w8kiMCeudLg, accompanied by pictures of suffering cats making snarky comments (shown as they’d spell English words, I guess).
Once you’ve recovered from this—assuming you were courageous enough to listen all the way through (if so, you can seek out more from the actual Florence Foster Jenkins on some CD-reissues)—I’ll invite you to watch for our next new posting, my review of Southside With You (Richard Tanne) a much more rewarding story for its protagonists, Barack and Michelle Obama.
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Here’s more information about Florence Foster Jenkins:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UVcatZDdaIY (whenever you’ve got the time, here’s an informative, well-produced [excellent graphic design with photos and text] full-length-documentary [1:29:15] on the actual Florence Foster Jenkins’ life, with a soundtrack that gives you some excruciating samples of her singing—if your ears can stand it)
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P.S. Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.
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