Meryl Streep's Singer Has Delusions Of Adequacy In 'Florence Foster Jenkins'

Aug 12, 2016
Originally published on August 15, 2016 12:19 pm

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.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In the 1940s, Florence Foster Jenkins became famous for being a terrible opera singer. She was a wealthy arts patron who gave concerts, recorded albums and is now the subject of a movie starring Meryl Streep. The film "Florence Foster Jenkins" is out now, and critic Bob Mondello predicts that the story of the least-gifted performer to ever sell out Carnegie Hall is about to start selling out a lot of movie theaters.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Florence and her actor husband, St. Clair, always seemed to have something musical going on in their grand apartment - people inquiring about concert tickets, conductor Arturo Toscanini dropping by to solicit a symphony donation and, on this day, auditioning pianists. Florence needs an accompanist for her music lessons. A diminutive fellow named Cosme McMoon erupts in smiles when he's selected, and he's still smiling the next day.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS")

MERYL STREEP: (As Florence Foster Jenkins) Maestro, this is the talented young man I was telling you about.

DAVID HAIG: (As Carlo Edwards) Then let's get started.

MONDELLO: And then his smile fades as he hears his patron's voice for the first time.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS")

STREEP: (As Florence Foster Jenkins, singing).

HAIG: (As Carlo Edwards) Stop there. There's work to be done, but you've never sounded better.

MONDELLO: Now, you'll note that never sounded better is not quite a compliment.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS")

STREEP: (As Florence Foster Jenkins) It is true that a lot of singers my age are on the decline, but I seem to just get better and better.

HAIG: (As Carlo Edwards) There is no one quite like you.

MONDELLO: Also not quite a compliment, but you see how this works. St. Clair Bayfield protects his wife by surrounding her with people he pays to be supportive, like this vocal coach. And who's hurt, really - until Florence's enthusiasm leads her to propose a public concert, at which point Cosme panics.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS")

SIMON HELBERG: (As Cosme McMoon) Could we speak, Mr. Bayfield?

HUGH GRANT: (As St. Clair Bayfield) Yes, of course. What is it?

HELBERG: (As Cosme McMoon) Well, I thought I was being hired to accompany Madame Florence's lessons. But I'll be honest with you, Mr. Bayfield. I think Madame Florence might need a little more preparation before she sings in public.

GRANT: (As St. Clair Bayfield) We've been rehearsing for a month.

HELBERG: (As Cosme McMoon) Mr. Bayfield, we can't be talking about the same singer. I mean, her vocal cords - they don't phonate freely. Her phrasing is haphazard. As for her subglottal pressure - it defies medical science.

MONDELLO: What Bayfield knows that Cosme doesn't is that the guests at the concert will all be prescreened - folks who know her, have benefited from her generosity, have a reason to applaud. Then Florence does something that causes even her husband alarm. She rents Carnegie Hall.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS")

STREEP: (As Florence Foster Jenkins) Well, I'm going to give a thousand tickets away to the soldiers because we must support our boys.

GRANT: (As St. Clair Bayfield) Well, I applaud your courage. And no one would enjoy seeing you triumph here more than I, obviously. But this place is just - it's so big, you know? It's nearly a thousand - 3,000 people.

STREEP: (As Florence Foster Jenkins) Well, Lily Pons' voice filled it. She's just a little bird.

GRANT: (As St. Clair Bayfield) Well, yes, but she's a young woman with a young woman's strength and perfect technique.

MONDELLO: Whoops.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS")

STREEP: (As Florence Foster Jenkins) My technique isn't perfect?

GRANT: (As St. Clair Bayfield) No, it is. It is. It is.

MONDELLO: 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 earlier this year when tackling a similar story. But Frears is blessed with a cast that seems incapable, ironically, of hitting any wrong dramatic notes, Hugh Grant's Bayfield stoic as he strives to protect his wife from what you might call her delusions of adequacy...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS")

GRANT: (As St. Clair Bayfield) For 25 years I have kept the mockers and scoffers at bay.

MONDELLO: ...Simon Helberg doing his own accomplished piano playing as Cosme even as his eyes betray his gathering panic...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS")

HELBERG: (As Cosme McMoon) You'll be murdered out there.

MONDELLO: ...And Meryl Streep not only doing her own excruciating singing but 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS")

STREEP: (As Florence Foster Jenkins) Too many feathers, you think?

GRANT: (As St. Clair Bayfield) The perfect number of feathers, restrained and elegant.

STREEP: (As Florence Foster Jenkins) I'm so nervous, Whitey.

GRANT: (As St. Clair Bayfield) Oh, don't be.

STREEP: (As Florence Foster Jenkins) Are you nervous, Mr. McMoon?

HELBERG: (As Cosme McMoon) Somewhat.

GRANT: (As St. Clair Bayfield) You have a full and very warm house, and you are both going to be sensational.

MONDELLO: The real Florence Foster Jenkins did rent Carnegie Hall, and she and Cosme McMoon did perform there to a sold-out crowd. And well, you'll see...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) House lights, please.

MONDELLO: ...How it all turns out. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS")

STREEP: (As Florence Foster Jenkins) This is what we live for - isn't it - this moment.

(APPLAUSE)

CORNISH: And a round of applause today to the man responsible for our sound, our technical director Kurt Stonnecker (ph). With a wry smile or a chuckle under his breath, Kurt lets us know when we're doing something right or something wrong. And after nearly a decade here at NPR, he's moving on to exciting things in Vancouver, Canada. Kurt, you made us better. Thank you, and we'll miss you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE'LL MEET AGAIN")

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) We'll meet again. Don't know where, don't know when, but oh, we'll meet again some sunny day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.