Florence Foster Jenkins Hits All the Wrong Notes

Directed by Stephen Frears
20th Century Fox, 110 minutes, PG-13
* *

Florence Foster Jenkins (1868-1947) has been called the worst singer in history and whether or not she was is probably not worth the argument. How did a woman with no tone discrimination, pitch, sense of timing, range, or much of anything that passed for basic ability have a stage career that lasted for decades and end up singing at Carnegie Hall? What made her think she could tackle Mozart, Verdi, Straus, Brahms, light opera, and popular song? How did she get to count among her friends—or were they just patronage-seekers?—such luminaries as Arturo Toscanini, Kitty Carlisle, and Cole Porter? How did she buffalo tough critics such as Earl Wilson, or get to hang out with Vanderbilts?

Good questions. I wish the film Florence Foster Jenkins had given us more than crumbs upon which to chew while cogitating them. Alas, this Meryl Streep vehicle—she plays Jenkins—is as flat as Jenkins' voice. Part of the problem lies with Streep, who has fallen into the habit of resting upon her laurels and simply sashaying around the screen flashing her dimples, but mostly the problems are with a very weak script (Nicholas Martin), and director Stephen Frears' decision to dress his film in intriguing external detail whilst leaving central questions unexamined.

Was Jenkins deluded in thinking she could sing? Here are a few details the film only touches upon and ought to be spotlighted. Jenkins was raised in wealth in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and was a child prodigy on piano. She probably would have made a name for herself as a pianist had not that career been cut short by an unspecified arm injury. She eloped with Dr. Frank Johnson in 1885, who infected her with syphilis on their wedding night, and they split soon thereafter. It is unclear if they ever formally divorced but, in 1909, she met talented British actor/singer/orator/ producer Bayfield St. Clair, with whom she had a common-law relationship. Their relationship was probably chaste as there was no effective cure for the clap in those days. A 17-year-old such as Jenkins might be reasonably be expected to live another 20 years before being laid waste by the disease, but Jenkins made it to 76 through the prescribed treatments of the day: compounds of lead, arsenic, and mercury—all of which, of course, are toxic in their own right. Penicillin saved/saves millions, but it wasn't discovered until 1943, by which time Jenkins was in the tertiary phase of the disease and could not be helped.

Know this, as the film won't tell you. The effects of advanced syphilis in conjunction with its pre-penicillin "treatment" included chancre sores, hair loss, and fatigue. More importantly for this film, syphilis also brought dementia, heart problems, hallucinations, and hearing problems. There is a scene late in the film where we see Jenkins imagining how she sounded to others. That was a nice touch, but it was played as if Jenkins was fantasizing; it's possible it's how she actually "heard" herself. Therein lies a tale, but not one Frears told.

Instead, the film emphasizes the triad relationship between Jenkins, St. Clair (Hugh Grant), and Ms. Jenkins' accompanists, Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg). We get early clips of Jenkins performing non-singing roles in St. Clair tableaux vivants (an early 20th century entertainment with a narrator paving the way for a staged historical scene), and we learn she was the founder (and, via inheritance, Sugar Mama) of New York City's Verdi Club. It is important to know that the Verdi Club was a social and supper club, not a public concert hall. Jenkins performed regularly and badly there. Did St. Clair and the club clientele patronize her, or simply indulge her the way my friends indulge me when I sing? Unclear.

Frears suggests that St. Clair might have been a gold digger and McMoon just a Depression-era ivory tickler who needed the money, but he also suggests St. Clair and Jenkins had an out-of-sight/mind open relationship, that he was absolutely devoted to her, and that McMoon came to view Jenkins with great affection. About that affection—there is nothing in the film other than the whiff of money that explains how St. Clair or Jenkins moved in such high-highfalutin circles. (It would have been helpful to know that St. Clair acted in, directed, or produced 40 Broadway shows; or that he was considered a talented vocalist.) Jenkins had money, but it wasn't a king's ransom. In other words, where's the charm? If everyone knew she was so awful, why did they encourage and protect her? We need to know this, or she's everyone's personal freak show—an unspeakable level of cruelty.

Yet this is how Frears plays it. I found this film to be a major disappointment. What could have been a fascinating musing on the character and career of an unorthodox character is instead long segments of Streep—who is a trained and skilled vocalist in real life—assaulting our ears, punctuated by Grant comforting her, and Helberg sacrificing his dignity in the name of money, then friendship. In its own way, the movie is as off-key as a Florence Jenkins aria.

Rob Weir   

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