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Issue #1734      June 8, 2016

Film review by Peter Mac

Florence Foster Jenkins

It’s easy to dismiss Florence Foster Jenkins as a rich and foolish woman with a well-deserved reputation as the worst singer in the world, whose vanity is demonstrated in the infamous recordings of her operatic “performances”. But her story deserves closer and more sympathetic examination.

Meryl Streep as Florence Foster Jenkins.

The recently-released film that bears her name is set in 1944, the last year of her life, and she is portrayed as in late middle age, although by then she was 76. It’s entirely possible that in her youth she really could sing well. The failings of her voice may have been attributable to her age and also to syphilis, a shocking wedding night “gift” to the 18-year old Florence from her husband, Dr Frank Jenkins a notorious philanderer.

The disease affected her central nervous system. In combination with the medicinal compounds of arsenic and mercury she consumed for the rest of her life, the disease may have affected her mental health in her later years.

After the marriage ended Florence found herself ill and broke. A talented pianist, she had once performed as a child before the US President, but a concert career was now impossible because the disease had limited the dexterity of her left hand. She was alienated from her family and rather than relying on the support of others she became a music teacher.

When her father died many years later she inherited his fortune and moved to New York, founded her own group, the Verdi Club. There she met St Clair Bayfield, a mediocre Shakespearean actor of very modest means who became her business manager. Florence referred to St Clair as her husband, but there’s no evidence she had ever divorced Jenkins or married St Clair. They also refrained from sex because of the danger of her infecting St. Clair, and they each had separate apartments.

Florence was renowned for her generosity as much as for her eccentricity. On one occasion the cab she had hired hit another car. Florence screams, then realises that she had hit a far higher note than she had previously managed. Delighted, she sends the cab driver a box of cigars.

The film opens with Florence and St Clair entertaining a group of Florence’s carefully selected elderly friends and admirers. They adore her, appreciate her kindness and are blind (or rather, deaf) to her failings. They don’t give a damn that she has to screech in her unsuccessful attempts to hit the high notes.

St Clair, who has ready access to the purse strings, has installed in his apartment his young lover whom he sees each night after he has lulled Florence to sleep with poetry readings. He carefully maintains Florence’s illusion that she can sing well. So does her well-paid singing coach, Carlo Edwards and the conductor Arturo Toscanini, who frequently receives financial assistance.

St Clair makes sure no musical critic is ever invited to Florence’s intimate gatherings. Her impoverished newly-hired accompanist, Cosme MacMoon, is virtually frog-marched into collaboration despite deep ethical misgivings.

But things go wrong when Florence makes a recording of her favourite numbers and gives copies to her friends. One of them lends his copy to a radio station, which broadcasts it and is bombarded with enquiries about recordings. Astonished, Florence decides to hire Carnegie Hall for a concert, reserving a thousand seats for servicemen.

The concert, attended by popular composer Cole Porter, soprano Lily Pons and other musical luminaries, quickly descends into pandemonium. Order is restored, however, by the loud-mouthed but kind-hearted wife of one of Florence’s friends, who commands the audience to “give the lady a break!”

Florence is hurt and puzzled by the audience reaction. The next day catastrophe strikes as she reads a review written by the only music critic whom St Clair has failed to bribe into silence or words of comforting ambiguity like “She’s never sounded better”.

The film depicts the privileged life that wealthy New Yorkers continue to enjoy in their luxurious apartments, while the city’s poverty-stricken citizens struggle and the most terrible war in human history rages on in Europe and the Pacific.

In one scene Florence pays an unannounced visit to MacMoon’s squalid apartment. Jolted by the sudden reminder of the harsh life of the working poor, she plays the right-hand part of a composition with her good hand on his piano while he provides the left hand accompaniment. It’s a moment of deep affection, and one of the best scenes in the film.

Meryl Streep, surely one of the greatest actors of our time, gives a terrific performance as Florence, as does Hugh Grant playing the charming, devious and manipulative St Clair, finally escaping from his typecast straightjacket.

In the best traditions of showbiz capitalism the company Florence hired to make her recording derived a stupendous profit by releasing it for sale. The young servicemen who laughed and catcalled in Carnegie Hall, many of whom were to die in the final brutal battles of the war against fascism, at first saw her as a talented comedienne. When it became known that she saw herself as a serious artist she became a figure of fun, and that’s how she’s still being treated.

Billed as a comedy, the film certainly has hilarious moments, but to a great extent it’s a study in exploitation. Abuse takes many forms, and behind the humour lurks the tragedy of her callous infection by Jenkins and later her deception by those who exploited her generosity and naivety.

But the dominant theme in the film is human enjoyment of music and the enormous role it plays in our lives. Florence Foster Jenkins may or may not have been motivated by an overwhelming desire to be hailed as a great musical artist, but what’s undeniable is that she enjoyed singing immensely and wanted to convey that enjoyment to others. In this joint Pathe/BBC Films production she has the last word when she declares on her deathbed: “They might say I couldn’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing!”

Next article – Stop Western Sydney Airport!

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