Cher Public

Amateur hour

Florence Foster JenkinsFlorence Foster Jenkins, a new film directed by Stephen Frears, celebrates a true amateur. The complex (and, at times, humiliating) narrative is based upon a real historical figure, notorious among lovers of music and camp. Starring the ubiquitous, albeit justifiably, Meryl Streep as the eponymous heroine, the movie explores the figure in all her intricacy. And under the direction of Frears (who probed similar themes of radical self-ignorance in his movie The Queen), the film is beautifully crafted, dexterously riding the thin line between broad comedy and touching drama.  

Florence Foster Jenkins—an heiress, socialite, music patron, and amateur musician—was famous for her lack of talent; and the film begins with Jenkins’ launch of her own musical career, late in life. It is a venture that culminates in an infamous, self-produced performance at Carnegie Hall in 1944. As the narrative unfolds, we watch Madame Florence, as her “fans” call her, rub elbows with Arturo Toscanini, coach with Carlo Edwards, and produce a recording at the Melotone Recording Studio.

Woven into these professional efforts is Jenkins’ complicated relationship with the actor St. Clair Bayfied, played by Hugh Grant. Bayfield and Jenkins have an unconventional marriage, the boundaries of which remain unclear. Bayfield lives in a separate apartment with another woman named Kathleen (the elegant Rebecca Ferguson); and yet he tends to Jenkins’ needs with intense devotion, doting and fatherly. We observe him putting Florence to bed, reciting poetry to her as she drifts off to sleep, managing her expectations, and shielding her from disappointment.

Jenkins’ infantile demeanor, the film suggests, results from a longstanding syphilis infection, which she acquired on her wedding night to her first husband, Dr. Frank Jenkins. As such, her relationship with Bayfield remains chaste, though their love for one another is movingly authentic. This complex personal relationship is offset by another, equally complex professional one. As Jenkins’ fey, eccentric accompanist, Cosmé McMoon initially resists playing for Jenkins, unnerved by her terrible singing. However, McMoon is eventually persuaded to perform—first by Jenkins’ money, and then by her vulnerability and kindness.

The devotion that both Bayfield and McMoon develop for Jenkins is an astonishing discovery, yielded by a flawed, though heartfelt, musical practice. This seems to be the film’s essential thesis: that the experience of singing results in something larger than a beautiful performance—the process is more important than the product—and the practice, the love, of the art creates something larger than the sum of its parts. This aspect of music making may be difficult to quantify, but, whatever it is, it is certainly worthwhile.

Hugh Grant excels in this tender scenario, working against his urbane caddishness to portray a man devoted to a difficult, yet charismatic, woman. While it is hinted in the film that Florence’s money may be a factor binding the two together, Grant’s thoughtful performance suggest something much more profound and layered. As the oddball McMoon, Simon Helberg (familiar from TV’s The Big Bang Theory) provides a self-assured, idiosyncratic complement to Streep’s whimsicality.

A lesser actress might struggle with capturing the loopy self-seriousness of an historical figure like Jenkins, without overindulging her more cartoonish features. But then, nobody can finesse tragicomedy quite like Meryl Streep. Her large owl eyes and high cheekbones suggest an opera singer’s resonant anatomy. And Streep never loses the charisma that proved such a key feature of Jenkins’ appeal. Unaware of the strenuous efforts to protect her fragile ego, Streep’s Jenkins moves through the film lithely, wonderfully strange. And while the role could easily be reduced from complexity to campy drag, Streep’s incessant authenticity undercuts cliché in striking ways. Her unabashed confidence in the midst of such terrible singing never falters—the actress’ imaginative capacities for the character are remarkable.

As anyone who has heard Jenkins’ recordings will attest, she was a terrible singer, despite her love of music. I remember hearing her voice while at music school. And though it made me laugh, it also made me sad. I could hear the ambition in her voice, the attempt at greatness. But, I also heard the blatant failure of her determination, foiled by the body’s limits. As painful as it may be to acknowledge, sometimes it’s better to restrain oneself from leaping out of one’s seat and crossing the fourth wall to the stage, no matter how much one wants to be where the magic happens, to feel the music coursing through one’s own body.

This is the painful point that the film reckons with. For Jenkins, the inability to self-censor, and the luxury of delusion afforded by her great wealth, resulted in a deeply painful humiliation, one that probably soured her love of performance: she died about a month after her Carnegie Hall debut.

While the term “amateur” certainly carries pejorative meaning, creativity guru Julia Cameron reminds us that at its root is the Latin amare, which means to love. Florence Foster Jenkins presents us with an amateur in the best possible sense—the disciple who pursues a practice from a pure love of process, and not for financial gain. In this manner, perhaps the true triumph lies in Jenkins’ ability to sing, despite all efforts to shame her into silence. As she supposedly stated: “They might say I can’t sing, but they can’t say I didn’t sing!” She was delusional and egotistical, perhaps, but she was also deeply in love with the act of making music. Amateur, indeed.