Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Review: "Florence Foster Jenkins"

What’s worse, a passionate hack or an artful fraud?

Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant play two sides of a coin in “Florence Foster Jenkins,” the true-ish story of a wealthy socialite who lived to sing, and was unspeakably awful at it. She lived until nearly the end of her days before anyone bothered to tell her how terrible was her voice.

Florence is one of those creatures of history whose story we would call too farfetched for fiction. Her recitals became the stuff of New York legend, with carefully cultivated lists of hifalutin guests for the invitation-only affairs.

Critics were forbidden, except those who could be relied upon to pen effusive, vaguely-worded reviews. Her common-law husband, British thespian St. Clair Bayfield (Grant), managed her career, which was another way of saying he took great pains – and spread lots of gratuities – to ensure nary a negative word ever reached her ears.

Last year the French made their own version of Jenkins’ life, “Marguerite,” which won actress Catherine Frot their equivalent of the Oscar and took great historical liberties. Now America’s grand dame of cinema makes her own go at the tale, more or less following the known biographical facts but adding a heavy ladling of artistic interpretation, courtesy of director Stephen Frears and screenwriter Nicholas Martin.

It’s another stupendous turn from Streep, playing a woman who led a life of happy delusion. Her Florence brims with a burning passion for music, with carefully hidden reservoirs of self-doubt. She’s domineering in a benevolent sort of way, a woman who’s spent decades expecting everyone around her to bend to her will.

Streep does her own singing, and it’s a testament to her skill that she’s so good at sounding so bad. Florence is off-key, off tempo, off everything. Her pitch is shaky and her diction questionable.

Grant has a nice turn as Bayfield, a cad who lives a double life with another woman (Rebecca Ferguson), but truly is devoted to Florence. Every night he tucks her into bed, puts her to sleep with a recitation of Shakespeare, and then carefully removes the vestiges of vanity she clings to: the wig, the fake eyelashes, and so on.

He’s not so much Florence’s lover as caretaker of her carefully preserved mausoleum-in-waiting.

Simon Helberg plays Cosme McMoon, the meek but talented young pianist hired for $150 a week (that’s about two grand in today’s dollars) to accompany Florence during practices and, later, live performances. Cosme acts as our entrance into this constructed little world, where everyone up to famous conductors and composers go along with the ruse in return for money and patronage.

It’s easy, Bayfield instructs young Cosme, once you agree to “live life free from the tyranny of ambition.”

Eventually, of course, Florence is confronted with a dash of reality after she insists on funding a live performance for soldiers – at Carnegie Hall, no less. Then the proceedings, which have thrived on a fun and frivolous note, take on a tragic tone with a surprising amount of dramatic weight.

“People can say I can’t sing, but nobody can say I didn’t sing,” she says.

Is it really so hard to believe that a person could go so long completely deluded about their own merits? I’m sure Donald Trump is constantly surrounded by hangers-on who tell him his hair looks terrific, and Hillary Clinton’s sycophants give constant assurances her misstatements have an air of authenticity.

Seventy years after her death, Florence’s recordings and playbills are highly sought after, there have been plays about her life, a French movie and now an American one. Was ever a worse artist so lionized?

It’s often said it takes a great deal of bravery to get up in front of an audience and risk making a fool of yourself. “Florence Foster Jenkins” is the story of one of the fools.

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