Meryl Streep as the World’s Worst Singer
By Skip Sheffield
There are those who think Meryl Streep can do no wrong. In “Florence Foster Jenkins” she does wrong deliberately. She is both hilarious and touching as a New York Socialite with delusions she could be a great opera singer.
Florence Foster Jenkins was a real person, born in 1868 and died in 1944, when this movie is set. She got her last name from an ill-fated first marriage to a man with syphilis. After his death she took up with a handsome but not very talented British actor named St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant). St. Clair was dedicated to Florence in his fashion, but he had a babe, Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson) on the side.
Florence Foster was born into a Pennsylvania family with a certain amount of wealth. She took piano lessons as a child and became quite a little virtuoso. When she asked her father for the money to study music seriously in Paris, he refused. She rebelled by marrying the older Dr. Jenkins, which proved a tragic choice.
The whole of “Florence Foster Jenkins,” written by Nicholas Martin and directed by Stephen Frears (“The Queen”), is devoted to the advance preparations for Florence to perform her first public concert, at Carnegie Hall no less.
Florence auditioned pianists, and so we meet Cosme McMoon, played by Big Bang Theory’s Simon Helberg, who threatens to steal the whole movie from the great actress.
Florence Foster Jenkins was simply terrible as a singer. She was consistently flat, her tempo was off and she mangled pronunciation of foreign words. She had founded the Verdi Club expressly as a showcase for her own recitals. She stacked the deck with wealthy friends who all assured her she was wonderful.
Through the expressive face of Simon Helberg we see the horror of Cosme McMoon; a serious young musician who is tortured by Florence’s mangling of arias.
Meryl Streep is actually a very good singer. It is a measure of her vocal skill that she could sing so horribly, and keep a straight face.
“Florence Foster Jenkins” is a very funny film that is ultimately a tragedy. Meryl Streep is one of the few actresses in the world who can be-laugh-out-loud funny and heartbreaking at the same time. This movie is best appreciated for those who have dipped their toes into the perilous seas of musical performance. I am one of those poor wretches, and I loved this movie.