The perils of misplaced confidence animate the story of Florence Foster Jenkins, both in real life and in the various fictions built around her.
In Stephen Temperley's two-character play Souvenir, Florence's story — that of a wealthy 1940s arts patron who became quite famous as a really terrible opera singer — was used principally as a vehicle for ridicule and laughs. She was turned into a '20s French doyenne in Xavier Giannoli's César-winning film Marguerite (2015), which viewed her with sentiment and no small degree of pity.
And now she's played by Meryl Streep in the eponymous film, Florence Foster Jenkins, which roughly splits the difference between those two interpretations.
The real Florence sang dreadfully at public recitals, attired in costumes with angel's wings. She recorded albums. And she managed to perplex all who heard her by never letting on whether the whole thing was a joke. Now, there's a good chance that the least-gifted performer ever to sell out Carnegie Hall is about to start selling out a lot of movie theaters.
The film introduces Florence (Streep) and her actor-husband St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) at a charity pageant where they are hosting (rather than providing) entertainment of a relatively dignified sort. It then follows them home to a grand, lavishly appointed apartment where there always seems to be something musical going on. On this particular morning, there are people inquiring about concert tickets; conductor Arturo Toscanini has dropped by to solicit a symphony donation; and the hallway is filled with auditioning pianists. Florence, it seems, has decided she needs an accompanist for her music lessons.
A timid, diminutive fellow named Cosmé McMoon (The Big Bang Theory's Simon Helberg) erupts in smiles when he's selected. And he's still smiling the next day when her distinguished music instructor begins the lesson. And then his smile fades as he hears his patron's voice for the first time, and the instructor greets her strangled shrieks with a quiet, "There's work to be done, but you've never sounded better."
Now you'll note that "never sounded better" is not quite a compliment. Nor is a later comment that "there is no one quite like you."
But you see how this works: St. Clair Bayfield protects his wife by surrounding her with people he pays to be supportive. And who's hurt, really?
Until, that is, Florence's enthusiasm leads her to propose a public concert. At which point, Cosmé can't understand why St. Clair is so calm. What Cosmé doesn't know is that Florence's husband has been through this before. The guests at the concert will all be prescreened — folks who know her, who have benefited from her generosity, who have, in short, reason to applaud.
Then Florence does something that causes even her husband alarm: She rents Carnegie Hall and offers most of the tickets to returning servicemen as thanks for their war effort. When a recording of Florence is leaked to a radio station, demand goes through the roof, and the problem for St. Clair becomes how to deal with a raucous SRO crowd and, more particularly, the press.
Hugh Grant's stammering has rarely been put to better use. Director Stephen Frears has made Florence Foster Jenkins more affectionate than affecting, taking a frothier approach than the French film Marguerite did, though seldom descending into actual farce. The real Florence Foster Jenkins did rent Carnegie Hall, and she and Cosmé McMoon did perform there to a sold-out crowd, barely a month before she died (some said of distress at the crowd's less than friendly reception).
Frears is blessed with a cast that seems incapable of hitting any wrong dramatic notes: Grant's Bayfield is stoic as he strives to protect his wife from scoffers, as well as from what you might call her own delusions of adequacy; Simon Helberg does his own accomplished piano playing as Cosmé, even as his eyes betray a firm conviction that "we'll be murdered out there."
And the film revolves around (and would be more or less unthinkable without) Meryl Streep, who is not only doing her own excruciating singing on the soundtrack, but is inhabiting the dotty diva of the title as fully as she has such other real-life figures as Margaret Thatcher and Julia Child. She looks at times like a sort of musical Margaret Dumont, upholstered in a dowager's furs and gowns, ignoring a whole world of Marx Brothers distractions.
But she's so much more fragile, and hopeful.
And, though you come to laugh at her, you'll likely reconsider.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
There's nothing more luxurious than time - time to just dig into that stack of books that have been waiting for you. To help build the perfect stack, we're talking to booksellers from all over the country this summer to help you Pack These Pages.
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CORNISH: We found a one-of-a-kind store in Homewood, Ala.
JAKE REISS: Every book in the store is signed. We don't carry paperbacks. We only carry hardback books that are signed by the author. And folks ask us, is there another one of these in Alabama? I don't think there's another one on the planet.
CORNISH: That's Jake Reiss, owner of The Alabama Booksmith. He recommends three nonfiction books that are bigger than life.
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REISS: Well, the first book I'd like to brag about is - the title is "Mattie C.'s Boy: The Shelley Stewart Story" by Don Keith, as told by Shelley Stewart. And he makes Horatio Alger seem like an aristocrat. He watched his daddy kill his mother with an axe. And this is in the 1940s in Alabama. And he went on to become a famous DJ in these parts and then eventually bought the station. It's a book you absolutely cannot read without being inspired.
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REISS: "The Bad-Ass Librarians Of Timbuktu: And Their Race To Save The World's Most Precious Manuscripts." The author is Joshua Hammer, and the book reads like fiction - amazing story of a government librarian in Timbuktu who risked his life to smuggle 350,000 ancient and priceless manuscripts out of the city. And this is under the watchful and murderous eyes of al-Qaida and their ilk.
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REISS: And National Book Award winner James McBride - "Kill 'Em And Leave: Searching For James Brown And The American Soul. This is a - really a spellbinding biography, and it unearths much that we've never been told about the Godfather's private life. I didn't realize James Brown had a huge amount of wealth that he accumulated that rivaled some of the greatest stars ever. And he was a very generous man. He left his fortune to help educate children of the South, black and white.
CORNISH: That was Jake Reiss, owner of The Alabama Booksmith. Once you're done with these three, be sure to check out many more Pack These Pages picks to help keep you cool at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.