We all might as well admit it, right now, even though it’s only August, Meryl Streep will win her 20th(!) Oscar nomination for her genre-busting, and gut-busting, and ear-busting musical phenom “Florence Foster Jenkins.” They(Streep & director Stephen Frears) have decided to hit the base pedal for this outrageous, camp, true life story of a woman who may have inadvertently founded camp. And in the beginning, I questioned why it wasn’t as funny as it could have been, but in the end, I think they hit the right wrong notes just right.
You can’t have a two hour+ plus film with just a lot of horrendously bad singing. Labeled “The World’s Worst Singer” by columnist Earl Wilson(and nearly everyone who ever heard her croak, er, sing), Jenkins was a massively illusioned rich woman, who thought she had a beautiful voice and could sing opera, coloratura yet, like any of the world’s great sopranos. But she couldn’t. It was so wildly off-pitch that even when you’re hearing Streep do it so well, you can’t believe it. And singing so badly is not an easy thing to do. And for all those arias! She sings both sharp AND flat at the same time.
But what Streep, Frears and screenwriter Nicholas Martin did just right is emphasize Jenkins generosity and heart, as well as her physical frailty. And her courage. At 76, she attempts her debut at Carnegie Hall!
At the beginning of the film, we see Streep has shaved her head completely bald, to mirror the ravages of syphilis, that she contracted on the night of her marriage to her first husband(whom we never see).Streep breaks our hearts as she busts our eardrums.Her cacophony is not phony.
Hugh Grant, in one of the best roles of his long career, is her devoted, but not married to her, (or having sex with her)partner in life St. Clair Bayfield, a failed aspiring middle-aged actor as she was an aspiring dowager singer. The two had a bond that carries the weight-i-er parts of the film along to its’ truly moving climax, when on her death-bed( yes, all this extreme concertizing kills her) Streep says to Grant, “You can say I didn’t sing well, but you can’t say I didn’t sing.”
The end credits roll over the sound of the REAL FFG caterwauling on her Melotone recording and sounding much, much worse, more jarring and flatter than Streep, who sounds almost sweet in comparison.
So Streep, Frears, and screenwriter Martin miraculouslly transform this most outrageously untalented, bejeweled and pretentious frog into a symbol of artistic purity and triumph. The film is genuinely touching, and is right in the Academy’s wheel-house. She WILL be nominated for Best Actress again.And she wears a fat suit. And she’s fighting an illness(syphilis) And dies. All Oscar bait check boxes. And she’s playing a real person.
Also nominated may be screenwriter Martin and the sumptuous/ridiculous costumes of the great Consolata Boyle. Also turning up as someone who deserves, and may get serious awards consideration is “Big Band Theory” co-star, Simon Helberg as Cosme McMoon, Jenkins’ at first reluctant, then finally triumphant accompanist. McMoon (these are the real people’s real names!) facial expressions as the astounding awful-ness of the voice he is being paid to accompany dawn on him are beyond priceless. He COULD get a Best Supporting Actor nod.
Helberg/McMoon also is the audiences’ stand-in. He realizes just how terrible Madame Florence’s singing is and is trapped there (as we the audience are) trying to figure out what to do best without getting fired. The thing that makes Helberg’s performance even more astounding is that he is a gifted piano player himself and has the Herculean job of playing all of these great opera arias correctly while Streep sings them like a small dog barking while being stepped on.
There was a recent French film “Marguerite” dealing with this same topic, a rich woman who is cossested from the awfulness of her singing by a devoted husband. In the French version however Marguerite coughs up blood at her final concert and then is committed to an insane asylum and dies there, in the second half of the film. Lugubrious.
Whereas Streep, Freers, Hugh Grant and Simon Helberg do it right. You end up loving Jenkins as a free spirit and an example of indomitably and generosity. It’s the nicest character Meryl Streep has played in ages and yes, Meryl, you’re going to the Oscars again this year and for the 20th time! Brava! Diva!