To Begin, I Was Brought Low
I was visiting my sister a while back and during the stay, I found myself talking at her about my love of opera. “It would be great someday to take lessons!” I gushed, after caroling a few bars of O Mio Babino Caro, self-indulgently.
Seemingly out of nowhere, she whipped to me and said, “Oh my God, have you ever heard of Florence Foster Jenkins?” she said.
“She was this old socialite who thought she could sing opera. There are recordings. Here, let me show you.” She picked up her Roku remote and started pressing buttons.
“No, you have to hear this.”
She started up a YouTube video on the TV. My whole body clenched at the sound of wretched human caterwauling.
My sister grinned with feline delight. “Hilarious, right? It’s amazing how some people can be so deluded.”
“Yes,” I whispered, put in my place like no one else on earth but my big sister can put me in my place.
About a year later, my mom and I were out to a movie when a preview came on… for an upcoming attraction called Florence Foster Jenkins. Cracking up at the preview of Meryl Streep doing her best vocal impersonation of mating cats, my mother clutched my arm.
“Oh, Ellen, we must see this one!” Then, catching sight of my expression, she recoiled.
“I don’t like Meryl Streep,” I said, my entire face curled up like a put-out goblin.
My parents saw the film immediately when it came out. Without me. When I asked them, later, how they liked it, they both gushed. “Such a good movie!”
Yesterday, I watched Florence Foster Jenkins on Hulu. And you know what? It is a good movie.
Who Was Florence?
Florence Foster Jenkins was an heiress, nearing the end of her life in New York City around the culmination of World War II. She was a lifelong lover of music, and had performed under the moniker, “Little Miss Foster,” at society functions and even for President Rutherford B. Hayes, as a child.
There is no real evidence that Florence had substantial talent as a girl, but there is ample proof that she was a musical disaster as an older woman. We have tapes. However, there is strong speculation that syphilis, contracted from her first husband, was behind her shockingly abominable vocals and perhaps, too, her seeming delusion in her older years.
In New York, Florence founded the Verdi Club — basically an assemblage of wealthy music lovers. For them, Florence started up her now infamous vocal performances. For Christmas one year, she even gave each member a record of her deplorable singing. It is probable that the Verdi Club refrained from criticizing Florence, for she became emboldened, and eventually the news of her craziness spread throughout the city.
In a pitiful swan song, Florence rented out Carnegie Hall and gave away the tickets to soldiers and to the public. Even then, over 2,000 people had to be turned away at the door.
It was a shit show. Florence, 76 years old, made herself a laughingstock, wearing absurd costumes and undulating like a belly-dancer on stage. Records of the event describe people having to be escorted out, due to their hysterics. The following morning, newspaper critics eviscerated Florence. Not five days later, the grande dame died. Embarrassment probably had a part to play.
The Complexity Of It All
The movie Florence Foster Jenkins dramatizes the last year of Florence’s life, showing the beginnings and the culmination of her public exposure. It’s a humorous movie, but I hesitate to call it light-hearted or inspirational. Mixed in with the slapstick, there is a comedy, not black, but almost. It’s twilight humor.
Most of the straight-forward laughs come from the actors Simon Helberg, playing Florence’s cringing piano accompanist, and Nina Arianda, portraying a daffy socialite. In fact, some of the best moments of the movie are Helberg’s spasmodic facial ticks, not unlike a pot lid betraying its boiling contents within, and Arianda’s bombastic physical comedy.
But the most chewable scenes come from Hugh Grant, who plays, with fantastic restraint and inscrutability, Florence’s complicated husband, Whitey. A failed Shakespearean actor, he spends his daylight hours with Florence, as a kind of sycophantic assistant and manager, and his nights with his pretty girlfriend at their own residence. Whitey benefits from Florence’s wealth, but he devotes the greater portion of his life to his careful attendance to Florence and her delusions.
Their mutualism makes sense in some scenes, when their genuine fondness for each other shows, but other moments reveal a nastiness. For all that Whitey feeds Florence’s ego, she drop-kicks his own at her leisure with no recriminations. She can be a gross hypocrite. An insane queen.
The Question At Hand
One of the mysteries of Florence Foster Jenkins is… does Whitey really love Florence? If so, in what way?
But the main question of the film is this…
Is Florence just a crazy, old lady that we should humor, for the sake of manners… or is her thirsty vainglory actually bad? Is the somewhat villainous newspaper critic who exposes Florence correct? Should Florence’s behavior be rebuked?
The movie presents us no definitive answers, so it’s up to the viewers to scratch their chins after the credits roll and draw their own conclusions.