FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS is a complete delight, more proof, as if needed, that Meryl Streep is the Greatest Actress of All Time. She was Oscar nominated (of course) for this 2016 treat—-her twentieth time on the ballot. Such is the regularity of her excellence and accolades one becomes nonchalant about her prowess and projects: I wasn’t drawn to this, feeling, uncharitably—and wholly inaccurately—that it was going to be some sort of cutesy exercise best suited to an audience composed of Elderly Aunt types. Remembering my sweet and kindly elderly aunt, who would have giggled her glasses off if she’d seen this, I am chastened by my narrowness.*
“People may say I couldn’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.”
Florence Foster Jenkins (1868-1944) was a socialite. Music was her passion; she fancied she could sing— opera, no less. Creating her own extravagant recital attire (another Oscar nomination went to the great Costume Design), she entertained select audiences of the well-connected from the 20s until her death in 1944, shortly after an infamous show at Carnegie Hall. Vouchsafed by her manager and paramour, St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) and sonically-suffering pianist Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg), the sincere, poignantly oblivious woman convulsed audiences with her gawdawful attempts at soul expression.
Beyond her minutely sensitive portrait of Jenkins proper, Streep, with some extra padding to make her appear more matronly, did her own astonishingly terrible vocalizing. It’s one thing to sing, another to sing well— she showed in Postcards From The Edge that she could belt it as if born to the mike— but singing badly perfectly literally pitches talent to another zone. Donald Collup, who made a documentary on FFJ reported “I can also confidently say that Ms. Streep recreates every single nuance of the Jenkins singing voice: glottal stops, an absence of vibrato, hit-and-run register breaks, the sliding up and arrival just short of a climactic high note, transforming the letter “r” into a vowel and the completely unintelligible diction.”
Hugh Grant, at 56 looking more dapper than ever, is wonderfully funny: he and Streep play off each other like a dream. The triumvirate is completed by Simon Helberg’s hilarious physical performance: he combines a fawn’s shyness with the pretzel energy of Jerry Lewis—if Jerry Lewis had possessed anything like discipline or charm: after a decade spent fiddling on The Big Bang Theory, he should have been Academy nominated for Supporting Actor. For that matter, Grant’s superb turn was shut out of the Best Actor running. From a cinema year dominated by depressing dramas and mindless explosions, the continuous warmth and frequent guffaws provided by this group, as directed by Stephen Frears and written by Nichols Martin, makes for not only a welcome respite, but a keeper.
Running 110 minutes, it was produced for $29,000,000 and made back $44,300,000 (deserving better). With Rebecca Ferguson, Nina Arianda (a kick) Stanley Townsend, Christian McKay, Brid Brennan and the lovely Russian opera diva Aida Garifullina as Lily Pons. Beyond the droll humor and enough ironic pathos to make it touch the heart, it’s a rich movie to just look at: the superior production design credits Alan MacDonald, while Consolata Boyle did the costumes. Alexandre Desplat finessed the score.
* This time, the Oscar was won by Emma Stone, for her, well, winning work in La La Land. Stone’s a terrific young actress (in a time blessed to be brimming with them) and we take nothing from her, especially managed against the daunting likes of Natalie Portman’s Jackie, but Meryl’s Florence must really be heard to be believed. Grunting from the cave “Oh, another Meryl Streep movie” is the mirror of hissing across the quiche tray “Not another Sylvester Stallone movie”—-you may come face-to-yoke with an egg. Of course, the quality-odds tend to favor Steep over Stallone by an easy twenty-to-one….