Directed by Stephen Frears who also directed The Queen and Philomena, Florence Foster Jenkins is a delightful film about a New York socialite who happened to be a terrible singer. Surrounded by enablers who simply wanted to profit from her wealth, Jenkins played by the always marvelous Meryl Streep tries to fulfill her dream of becoming a classical singer. Hugh Grant portrays her husband and British Shakespearean actor St. Clair Bayfield who encourages her passions while shielding her from critics knowing that she is not a great singer. His intentions are somewhat ambiguous: it is not readily apparent whether he is with her for her money or true love. The movie has charmingly funny interactions with bemused yet complicit professional vocal coaches and musicians, including her well-compensated pianist Cosmé McMoon played by Simon Helberg of The Big Bang Theory fame. Bayfield’s and others’ ruse runs amok when she books a public performance at Carnegie Hall with the naïve belief that she has the talent to sing at such a prestigious venue. Despite predominantly being a comedy, the film has a heartfelt undertone that supports one’s pursuit of a lifelong dream against all odds. The movie is particularly effective in conveying its high society 1940s New York setting with sumptuous costumes and elaborate sets. It feels especially nostalgic with its traditional film technique of a vertical line wipe transitioning from one scene to the next. Overall, I found the film to be an amusing and entertaining glimpse into a largely unheard of and rather unusual story of a woman with larger-than-life ambitions.
As part of a new addition to the blog, “Backdrop” will provide pertinent historical context and tidbits about the film reviewed.
Born in 1868 to a wealthy Pennsylvania family, Florence Foster Jenkins was a talented pianist who at a young age performed for President Rutherford B. Hayes at the White House. After her father refused to pay for her musical education, she left home and married Dr. Frank Jenkins in 1885. However, the relationship did not last long when she learned she had contracted syphilis from her husband. Syphilis may have been a contributing factor to her hand injury that prevented her from continuing to play the piano. In New York in 1909, she met St. Clair Bayfield, with whom she began a lifelong romance even though they never actually married. That same year, she received a large inheritance after her father passed away. She then pursued her singing ambitions in New York social clubs and eventually Carnegie Hall as portrayed in the film. The renowned composer and songwriter Cole Porter was a devoted follower of Jenkins and reportedly had to jab his cane into his foot so as not to laugh out loud during her performances. Several recordings of her singing were widely released by RCA Victor beginning in the 1950s, and several CD reprints have been produced since then. Only weeks after her famous Carnegie Hall debut in 1944, Jenkins died at the age of 76. She was survived by her beloved Bayfield who died in 1967.
For an actual audio recording of her singing, check out the following link: https://youtu.be/qtf2Q4yyuJ0