Movie Time: Florence Foster Jenkins (2016)

I seem to getting known as an “influencer” about movies. Well, me and a couple million other people. So, rather than wait for another screener to come around, or to be added to the Rotten Tomatoes reviewer panel, maybe I can discuss an older movie I picked out to watch.

There is among us popular culture mavens a desire to hold up some of worst performers to practice in the entertainment field. Perhaps we do this not so much to ridicule inadequate actors who are long dead and not able to defend themselves. Perhaps we want to celebrate the fact that against all odds, these people made “art” that has survived, that has flown in the face of homogenized corporate entertainment behemoths. Okay, perhaps we like to experience people who are less talented than ourselves.

Some of these performers have become so famous for their lack of talent, that at some point, their lives are explored in documentary or in feature film form. Or their original incompetent works are revived for new generations.

If they’re well done, these stories of our culture’s “bad actors” can allow us to get to know these people, and maybe to understand what drove them to subject themselves to possible ridicule. I’m thinking of Ed Wood, which boiled the director of Plan 9 From Outer Space down to being simply simply someone who wanted to tell stories. And, incidentally, a seek acceptance for transvestites like himself.

One aspect of watching a movie on DVD at home is that as my wife and I brought up questions about the film’s events, we could check them against the internet. Or we could consult the DVD’s bonus features.

So we are able to learn that most of the main characters in the movie were indeed based on real people. The main concern, of course, is Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep), who, is turns out, was an ardent patrons of the arts living in a New York City hotel suite during the war. Much of her patronage comes from fundraisers put on by her musical appreciation group, The Verdi Club, through recitals and live presentations of “tableaux vivant.” These “still life” enactments of famous paintings or scenes from Wagner were produced and emceed by Jenkins’ manager and/or common-law husband, St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant). Mrs. Jenkins turns out to be a rather successful patron, with the movie showing Arturo Toscanini as a frequent guest.

The late Mr. Jenkins, as both the movie and history tell us, gave his wife syphilis, quite possibly on their wedding night. Remarkably, Florence went on to live another 50 years with the disease. The treatment then was compounded preparations of arsenic and mercury. The medicine was heralded in a movie as “Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet,” put caused her to lose her hair. Thus we see her with a wardrobe of wigs, sometimes ill-fitting.

Another of Florence’s fundraising ventures was a number of private concerts featuring her singing. In preparation, she took voice lessons from teachers who humored her total lack of musical talent. For this, the teachers were rewarded handsomely by Jenkins’ current partner,  St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant). Bayfield, whose relationship with Jenkins remains platonic, lives in his own apartment with his own mistress. He also carefully cultivates the audience for her recitals, inviting only close friends, and those music critics who will accept a bribe to write a glowing review.

There is even more to Bayfield than the movie offers us: he was a Shakespearean actor who, it is documented, was part of a troupe that was left stranded by an impresario in a remote part of America. This led his to become a co-founding member of Actor’s Equity, which bestows a St. Clair Bayfield Award for the best performance by a supporting actor in a Shakespeare play staged in New York City. Bayfield is not a mere gigolo, but seems dedicated to maintaining Florence’s “happy little world.”

The third main character is Jenkins’ accompanist, Cosmé McMoon, wonderfully played by Simon Helberg of “The Big Bang Theory.” Again, the film takes a liberty with the reality that McMoon had written pieces for Jenkins as far back as the 1920’s, and accompanied her later on. But having him encounter this little world for the first time, gives Helberg a chance to stretch his comedic chops, and get in some comic reactions to Streep’s singing.

The DVD’s extras let us know that Streep, who has sung for movies before, demonstrated that it takes a good singer to perform badly. Here she successfully recreates Jenkins’ total inability to stay on key or in time. Helberg himself plays piano. What we saw on screen was the two of them performing live, whether in a music studio or a concert hall. Only Helberg’s piano was electronic, and fed into the soundtrack separately so the filmmakers could have a music track separate from the vocal. Only Helberg and Streep, who wore concealed earbuds, heard the piano.

During the course of the movie, Jenkins offers recitals of her singing, demonstrating no knowledge of musical key or tempo. Bayfield tightly controls which critics get to see the performances, allowing only those who give favorable, if tongue-in-cheek reviews.

Jenkins decided, before Bayfield could stop her, to press a few records of her favorite songs, as a gift for members of the Verdi Club. Some of the records escape into “the wild,” and her tone-deaf performances become popular with U.S. soldiers in the New York City area. She quickly rents out Carnegie Hall for a benefit recital. This time, Bayfield can’t keep the critics out, and Jenkins is stung by a pan from the New York Post’s Earl Wilson. Yes, there was a time when the New York Post had integrity.

Streep does her usual utmost as Jenkins. Sometimes she seems blissfully unconnected with reality, other times she seems to genuinely want to bring joy to others. The movie, though, needs to provide some composite characters to represent our viewpoint of the characters. I wish there really was an Agnes Stark (Nina Arianda), the trophy wife of a meat-packing executive, who collapses in hysterics at a recital early in the movie, but stands up for Jenkins when the Carnegie Hall audience heckles her. But that’s just one of many extra added details that demonstrate why movies set in the past are unreliable references on their subject.

There are a number of other “bad” performers who might be worthy of a sympathetic biopic. I’m thinking of the Shaggs, Tiny Tim, the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, and the entire genre of “Song Poems.” Many of these performers have already been found in documentaries about themselves. But perhaps we could benefit from seeing a mind at work that’s not a part of our own.

Rather than pick apart the other liberties the film took with the characters’ lives, I’ll drop the link below to “History vs. Hollywood.” I actually found it interesting how alterations were made to the story to let it run a little more smoothly. And, it’s hoped, to still make the intended point.
http://www.historyvshollywood.com/reelfaces/florence-foster-jenkins/
https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4136084/reference

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