Today I received an indirect request to review the new Stephen Frears directed film, Florence Foster Jenkins, a bio-film (sort of) starring Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, and Simon Helberg (of The Big Bang Theory fame).
The request came in a post called Writer’s Block Ruminations. Marty is the author of the post and his blog is called Snakes in the Grass. He’s not talking about folks you can’t trust, rather his blog title is an all too true reference to the fact that in Florida you literally have to watch where you walk, because, for certain, you are going to run into actual snakes, who as we all know appreciate the hot weather in Florida and they don’t mind slithering along, or crossing the sidewalks that we humans use on their way somewhere.
Anyway – ask ye shall receive. I fired up my car and hit the highway which would be I-95 (Exit 109 – Port Wentworth, GA). I was headed to Hilton Head Island where I would see Streep and friends in an 11:30 AM screening at the Park Plaza Cinema, a small movie house but one that is equipped with the latest in equipment to play the new digital age movies and with deluxe leather reclining chairs. It was an uneventful 50 minute drive, and there was no line for tickets.
I had seen the trailer for Florence Foster Jenkins and so I knew the bare bones of the story. A well-off society woman was a New York heiress who dreamed of becoming an opera singer, despite having a terrible singing voice. And that blurb was even kinder than the one we got on the actual movie poster – The Inspiring Story of the World’s Worst Singer.
I’m not sure why, but my expectations were that FFJ would fall somewhere between the classic anarchism of The Marx Brothers (A Night at the Opera) and the social relevance of one or more of Preston Sturges‘s snappy and smart films like Meet John Doe or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
But Frears and his screenwriter Nicholas Martin took the high ground and the safe ground. The laughs did not come often because Grant and Streep played their characters realistically rather than in a stylized manner. The laughter would come from just two sources.
Helberg played Cosmé McMoon, an up and coming pianist who, for the stately sum of $150 dollars a week – almost a princely sum in 1944 – was hired on as Jenkins’ piano accompanist.
When he first sat down and worked the black and white piano keys, as Florence sang – a look of horror crossed his face which was then overtaken by a look of disbelief. Thinking he had signed on with a professional and accomplished singer, the thought that occurred to him right then was this – am I sabotaging my future as a musician by working with FFJ? This would persist throughout the film.
The other was FFJ’s voice coach – one Carlo Edwards played by a terrific David Haig. He would be so effusive and positive when commenting on Florence’s vocalizations. That was the best yet, or you’ve never been better were decidedly non-complimentary compliments. But he was lying through his teeth. Which everyone in the room could see, and ditto for those of us seated in theater. Only Florence took his words as being sincere.
As a vocal coach for the Metropolitan Opera, Edwards definitely knew his business. But as he too had been hired by Jenkins’s husband, St. Clair Bayfield played by Hugh Grant, all Edwards could do was to follow Bayfield’s lead. Bayfield never ever was anything but loving and supportive of his wife’s dreams and desires.
As she said, Music was and is my life. And after her gala one-night-only performance at Carnegie Hall, FFJ would say – People may say I couldn’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.