For 'Florence Foster Jenkins, ' There's No Success Like Failure

What makes Florence Foster Jenkins such a memorable figure, one who has challenged the imagination of various creative artists?

The New York socialite Florence Foster Jenkins, protagonist of the eponymous new movie by the British director Stephen Frears, has already been the heroine of a play, a musical and, last year, of a French film, “Marguerite,” directed by Xavier Giannoli. (Though based on Jenkins’ story, that movie was set in France and the names of the characters were changed.) What makes Florence Foster Jenkins such a memorable figure, one who has challenged the imagination of various creative artists? It is that her character and her singular story lend themselves to a discussion of themes such as truth and lie, social hypocrisy and integrity, self-awareness and illusion, the power of obsession, the essence of art versus amateurishness, and the way in which even the grotesque can become a social and cultural phenomenon.

Foster Jenkins loved opera and, even more, loved to sing opera. That would have been fine, if her voice had not been screechy and if she had been able to hit any note without bouncing off it into ear-splitting, harrowing stridency. But she didn’t realize that. She was confident of her talent and believed that she sang wonderfully. Those in her milieu played along with the illusion and with the lie she lived. Her married life was unusual, too. Her husband, a British Shakespearean actor named St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), who also lacked talent, served as her impresario and was her companion at social events, but lived in a different apartment with a different woman.

Foster Jenkins was a society woman who possessed a somewhat magnetic personality, and the small, select groups of people she invited to her home for her recitals would not have dreamed of failing to attend. Any embarrassment they may have felt at the musical affront to Mozart, Verdi and other great composers, along with inner ridicule of the performer and even perhaps physical pain caused by her grating voice, they hid in the name of their vaunted social code. Though Foster Jenkins enjoyed giving domestic performances, she aspired to broader recognition. In 1944, the year in which most of the film is set, she organized a concert for herself in Carnegie Hall, which was sold out. For her accompanist she hired a young pianist named Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg), a genuine musician who didn’t know what he was getting into. The hall was packed with soldiers back from the war, and their enjoyment of the performance was laced with derision.

The reviews of the event were of course withering. The attitude of Frears’ movie (based on a script by Nicholas Martin) toward the protagonist is such that the most antipathetic character we encounter is Earl Wilson (Christian McKay), the highly influential critic for the New York Post. Martin and Frears’ film heaps affection on Foster Jenkins, and Meryl Streep’s performance adds to that, even if it is more exterior than interior. Indeed, when did we last see Streep in a role that doesn’t require her to dress up and do an impersonation? Probably in the 2009 comedy “It’s Complicated” – and I miss that Meryl Streep. Her technical proficiency is somewhat hollow this time, because the character she portrays is insufficiently developed. It is in constant danger of becoming a caricature, and we feel the effort – which is not always successful – that Streep makes to avoid falling into that trap.

Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant in 'Florence foster Jenkins.'
Nick Wal

An element of caricature

As the movie progresses, and particularly after the Carnegie Hall concert, the story takes a darker turn, in the wake of a secret that is revealed about Foster Jenkins that has implications for her married life. Streep’s performance becomes concomitantly deeper, though for the most part it is created in the image of the movie, which does not run very deep.

By comparison, the performance of the first-rate actress Catherine Frot in the 2015 French version was far more tempered and delicate, and thus also heartrending in a more complex manner than the character Streep gives us. In fact, her attempt to touch our hearts sometimes seems to be part of the grandstanding that informs her performance. The element of caricature in Streep’s performance is heightened by our knowledge, gleaned from several of her films, that she herself is a capable singer. Consequently, her screeching here appears condescending to the character she’s playing, and this is compounded by the condescension, laced with cruelty, with which listeners respond to the harrowing noises she makes in lieu of singing.

The movie has the heft of an anecdote about a curiosity, not much more. Which is a pity, because Foster Jenkins’ character and life story offer a veritable treasure of intriguing themes, and the fact that the movie does not touch on them is thus a serious disappointment. Frears’ film flutters above these themes without probing them, since its chief purpose is to create popular entertainment whose main attraction is meant to be the story’s unusual aspects. Another reason for disappointment is that Stephen Frears’ body of work, at least in its early stage, includes a number of bold films such as “My Beautiful Laundrette,” “Prick Up Your Ears” and, later, “Dangerous Liaisons,” “The Grifters” and “High Fidelity.” The quality of Frears’ work has fallen off in this century, even if some of them, such as “The Queen” and “Philomena,” drew acclaim and won prizes. Nowadays, Frears seems to be playing it safe far more than he did in the past; and a good example of this approach is this movie, which is fun of a type that passes quickly without leaving any genuine memory.

Hugh Grant, whose appearances on the big screen are less frequent than they used to be, plays his part with the right measure of British restraint. Simon Helberg (whom we know from the hit television series “The Big Bang Theory”) stands out for his fine comic turn as the unfortunate pianist who accompanied Foster Jenkins in her Carnegie Hall recital. Frears’ misfire is also not unrelated to the fact that the case of Florence Foster Jenkins was not unique, and therefore the issues the film raises go beyond the Foster Jenkins phenomenon. Older readers will perhaps remember the 1960s singer Mrs. Miller, a large woman of 50-plus who belted out hits such as “Moon River,” “Monday, Monday” and “Downtown” in a grating, off-tune voice. She appeared on many television shows, where she demonstrated her cordial personality and her lack of talent, sang for American troops in Vietnam and gave a concert in the Hollywood Bowl, Los Angeles’ equivalent of Carnegie Hall. Her success was short-lived, and to the best of my knowledge she has not yet been made into the protagonist of a play, a musical or a movie.