Florence Foster Jenkins Does Exactly What Great Movies Are Supposed to Do

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In the title role of director Stephen Frears’s new film, Florence Foster Jenkins, Meryl Streep is more a wonder than ever. Playing a high-society music patron who longs for the operatic limelight but who cannot sing a true note, Streep will split your sides and eardrums even as she rends you in two. Tragedy is wriggling just inside the comic cocoon of this story of a real-life New York City doyenne who, in 1944, at age 76, achieved her lifelong dream of singing at Carnegie Hall—and who brought down the house, though not quite the way she wanted to.

Florence Foster Jenkins may be the only movie I’ve ever seen that gives voice, as it were, to a particularly wicked kind of artistic anxiety. Of course, every serious artist, working in whatever medium, feels at least occasionally like a fraud. But suppose all the people around you were forever telling you just how great you are—but none of them meant a word of it? If you ever found out, wouldn’t it destroy you?

Florence Jenkins had plenty of money to support a retinue of flatterers, chief among them her kept man, St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), a semi-successful British Shakespearean actor who for 30-odd years was Florence’s companion and manager, a job that mostly entailed protecting Florence from the truth about herself—and from a world that would gleefully have let her know just how awful she was. Playing St. Clair, Grant delivers a careful, nuanced performance: He’s financially dependent on Florence, yes, but he’s also genuinely devoted to her—as she is dependent on his devotion—and it’s impossible to write him off as just a gigolo. So FFJ isn’t only a tale of failed artistry and self-serving deceit; it’s also a love story.

Actually, it’s a love-triangle story, for there’s another devotee-deceiver helping to keep Florence from the unaesthetic truth: Her accompanist, Cosmé McMoon. A struggling young pianist seduced by Florence’s provision of a regular salary, Cosmé relinquishes his own artistic ambitions in the service of a fool whom he, too, comes to cherish. His circumstance—hilarious, excruciating, touching—is impeccably communicated by actor Simon Helberg (of Big Bang Theory fame), whose comedic skill is matched by his talent at the keys. (Helberg does all his own piano playing in the role—a remarkable feat, given that he must prompt and follow Streep’s expert caterwauling while acting at the same time!)

Of the three main characters, it was Cosmé who affected me most. That’s in part because he’s gay—something the film more than hints at while never stating it explicitly. I identified. As a young, impecunious, “artistic” gay man in New York, I more than once hired myself out to wealthy, imperious women who weren’t nearly as gifted as they fancied themselves. One was an Italian countess who was making a movie about—of course—herself; the other was a silk stocking district matron who strove, rather pathetically, to become a TV fashion guru. Both were nuts—though in a lower key of crazy than Florence Jenkins. Both were generous. I took their money, flattered them, and found them laughable—and I admired them for their resolute idiocy. It’s a compromising situation that, I hear tell, is not unfamiliar to many young gay men in the big city, and Helberg’s performance hits that bent nail right on the head.

There are some wrong notes (forgive another unavoidable pun) in the film. A scene in which Florence visits Cosmé at his apartment—the scene, in fact, that establishes their emotional bond—is a screenwriter’s clumsy, unconvincing device. (Are we really expected to believe that the fastidious Cosmé inhabits an untidy hovel, or that the regal Florence would deign to wash his dishes?) The script also condenses events that happened over years into a very short period of time, and this chronological trickery isn’t always credible, as when Florence’s recording career (ridiculously, she made several records) is squeezed, impossibly, into a couple of days.

But I can easily set those and a few other quibbles aside. The film’s final sequence, in which Florence achieves a near-death apotheosis and you suddenly, shockingly are permitted to hear her as she hears herself, does just what great movies are supposed to do: Lift you up. Stir your soul. Break your heart.

Feature photo: Everett Collection