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The Oscar Nominees: Florence Foster Jenkins

08 Feb

florence-foster-jenkins

From now until February 26th, I will be taking to be taking a brief look at the nominees for The 89th Annual Academy Awards, one film at a time in several categories.

Nominated for: Best Actress – Meryl Streep | Best Costume Design

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You’re supposed to be singing about the voices of spring,
not the eruption of a volcano.
– Shemp Howard

It is clear early on that Florence Foster Jenkins really doesn’t know the difference.  She was a terrible singer whose unenviable singing voice emitted squawks comparable to a goose passing bricks instead of eggs.  During World War II, she was something of a legend and her talentless voice was part and parcels the reason why.  Her pipes are flat, her pitch is so off that it must reside somewhere in Cleveland.  As she puffs and puff on stage, the audience sits politely, grins and bears it.  The reason they don’t barge the exit doors is only because they’ve been hand-picked by her devoted husband St. Clair.

Audiences by the hundreds show up for Jenkins’ off-key caterwauling due to her husband’s deception but mostly due to the fact that she is the bearer of the one instrument that could drown out her squeaky pipes: Money, lots of it.  Her father left her a fortune and she used it to court and to promote the musical community of New York at the time.  With that, few in the audience were willing to scoff.

Jenkins schmoozed with investors and socialites and laid out grand lunches with mountains of sandwiches and so much potato salad that it was served out of a bathtub.  Her onstage performances were not enviable, and that was in the years before she decided to become a singer.  As the movie opens we see her in a curious on-stage performance descending from the ceiling via pulleys to play an angel who gives a wayward musician a breath of inspiration.  Yet, the real breath should belong to the volley of men backstage pulling the ropes, waging a massive struggle to keep their full-figured meal ticket from crashing to the floor.

Jenkins is embodied with great delicacy by Meryl Streep who, after 40 years, remains the best actress of her generation (and maybe even this one).  In her four decades, Streep embodies a quality that is rare in most mainstream actresses, she never stops surprising us.  Here the challenge is to deliver Jenkins’ off-key blabbering and make it genuine.  She believes that she is a coloratura soprano with perfect pitch.  It is crucial to the performance that she never makes us think that Jenkins’ knows that she can’t sing, but also to imbue the heir of a 76 year-old woman so passionate about music that she is willing to risk her own health to become a singer.  The terrible singing is what you notice first, then the character sneaks up on you.  She never kids this woman, but when it comes to the singing, she’s genuinely awful.  Streep is fully committed to this role.  It takes talent to sing this bad.

And yet, the movie isn’t a joke.  This is not the case of poking fun at a bad singer.  Yes, there is a great amount of comic whimsy over the fact that no one will tell this woman that she’s terrible, but if that’s all there was, the movie would come off as a mean-spirited half-joke.  What resides at the center of the film is one of the most touching love stories that I can recall.  Jenkins is married to her common-law husband St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), a failed Shakespearian actor whose great passion is for his wife lives in the depths of his eternal soul, so much so that he’s willing to put on an elaborate, carefully orchestrated ruse, handpicking the guests and keeping less-appreciative members of the press away from the proceedings.  The lengths to which this man will go to in order to make his wife happy is enormously touching.  When they are together, you can see that he genuinely love her.

Director Stephen Frears, whose best recent works like Philomena and The Queen are touching portraits of woman of a certain age, certainly has a gem in Streep, but I think its Hugh Grant who is the real find here.  Grant hasn’t made many movies in the past few years but in returning from semi-retirement he gives maybe the best performance of his career.  Again, here is a performance that might have been a one-note run-through playing a man so devoted to his wife that he plays to the elaborate orchestration of twisting and turning every concert so that his wife never has a naysayer nor never has to read a bad review.  We aren’t sure about him at first, we suspect that he might just be a well-dressed cad trying to get his meathooks on her fortune when she passes (she’s not a well woman).  But something emerges in their time together.  He calls her his Bunny, and she springs with life.  He’s a deeply sincere man, one who is willing to spend all his money to buy up every copy of the New York Post in order to spare his wife’s feelings.

It’s nice to have a movie that doesn’t play all the notes that we expect and then drive them as a straight-line to the end.  There are small touches here, unexpectedly brilliant.  One that should not be overlooked is a small but not insignificant performance by Simon Helberg of “The Big Bang Theory.”  Playing Cosme McMoon, Jenkins’ newly hired musical accompanist he is at first shocked that St. Clair and the others are so willing to court this woman of croaks and squeaks, but he comes to have some respect for the old girl particularly in a touching scene in which he comes to understand a little of her past.  Helberg’s comic persona here is a revelation.  His performance is mostly physical as a man with the countenance of a field mouse, who is nervous to the point of breaking into pieces but always amused and befuddled by his employer at the same time.

Florence Foster Jenkins isn’t a great film.  It heirs far too much in the direction of sentimentality and the third act is somewhat predictable, but what lies at the center of the film is that great love story.  Here is a touching portrait of what married people do for one another, the protective cocoon they are willing to build just to protect the other person.  Grant and Streep create and odd coupling but one that has a great heart and passion at the same time.

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