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There’s a scene in the movie Florence Foster Jenkins in which the title character (Meryl Streep) appears onstage to give a recital at Carnegie Hall. The problem is, Jenkins cannot sing.
Worse, she doesn’t know she can’t sing. But the concertgoers, including a large contingent of troops who were given free tickets, soon find out. As Jenkins’s excruciatingly off-key yips and yowls drift out over the audience, they react first with incredulous expressions, then with uncontrollable laughter.As much as they loved her, as desperately as they wanted to help her avoid heartbreak, it’s hard to believe that the people around Jenkins did her any real favors. In fact, their kindness may have been the ultimate cruelty.
In the front row, Agnes Stark (Nina Arianda) bounces to her feet. A young and glamorous showgirl turned trophy wife, Agnes herself went into convulsions of mirth the first time she heard Jenkins sing. But now she turns on the guffawing crowd, ordering them to shut up and show some respect. Slowly, they do. Giggles are stifled in hands, and shoulders shake with silent merriment, but none of it is evident from the stage, and Florence Foster Jenkins warbles away in happy ignorance.
In reality, Florence Foster Jenkins spent much of her life inadvertently making people laugh. Possessed of wealth, a love for music, a warm heart, and a tin ear, she used her resources to launch a career doing what she loved. Apparently, she had no idea that she was no good at it.
The new movie about her life, directed by Stephen Frears and written by Nicholas Martin, accurately conveys the dynamic at work in Jenkins’s circle. Her family and friends—most notably her second husband, St. Clair Bayfield (played by Hugh Grant)—coddled her, reassured her, and somehow managed to promote her while at the same time shielding her from criticism. This allowed the rest of the world to see her as a joke.
The movie suggests, probably truthfully, that both love and money played a role in driving Florence’s loved ones to act as they did. Jenkins’s husband, her accompanist, her voice teacher, and others enjoy the lavish lifestyle she provides, but they’re also genuinely fond of her and eager to make her happy. So if it makes her happy to dress up in outlandish costumes and assault the ears of the public, they’re there to see that she does it—even if it requires bribing critics, hiding reviews, and constantly feeding her comforting lies.
The film strongly tempts us to accept all those lies. After all, Florence is a genuinely sweet, generous, brave woman facing an unjust fate. Having contracted syphilis from her first husband, she battles ill health and takes “medicine”—mercury and arsenic—that may explain her lack of ability to hear herself clearly. She was a good pianist as a child and might have made it a career, but for an injury to her left hand (the film elides the injury and illness, making it seem that the syphilis was responsible for this as well). She’s already lived long past her life expectancy; Bayfield explains to her new doctor that it’s her great love of music that has kept her alive. “Music has been, and is, my life,” Florence herself declares in a speech to a musical society she founded. “Music matters.”
So were Bayfield and the others right in doing what they did? Bayfield himself claims again and again that they are, usually while trying to persuade Jenkins’s reluctant accompanist, Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg), to swallow his objections and keep playing ball. (Helberg’s facial expressions when he first hears Jenkins sing, reaching ever-greater heights of shock and disbelief, are among the film’s comic highlights.)
But the irony is that in the safe world they all construct for her, music does not matter. In fact, music takes a terrible beating. Here and there we hear some truly great music, as when opera star Lily Pons (portrayed by young Russian soprano Aida Garifullina) beautifully sings Leo Delibes’s aria “The Bell Song,” bringing Florence to tears. But this serves only to show how far short Florence herself falls. In the movie and in real life, Florence Foster Jenkins is known not for loving music, but for butchering it. Her records still sell well and her name is still known, but only because she’s so unintentionally funny.
As much as they loved her, as desperately as they wanted to help her avoid heartbreak, it’s hard to believe that the people around Jenkins did her any real favors. In fact, their kindness may have been the ultimate cruelty.
Is ours not a happy world?” Bayfield asks McMoon enticingly. And it is, on the surface. But it’s a world built on deceit—more than one kind of deceit. Bayfield, dearly as he loves Florence, sleeps at a separate apartment every night with his mistress, Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson). Because of Florence’s disease, their marriage has never been consummated, and Bayfield tells McMoon that they have “an understanding.” But it can’t be much of an understanding; when Florence shows up unexpectedly at the apartment one day, he rushes to hide Kathleen in the closet.
It’s not only music that suffers in Florence’s world. Ethics do, too. Everyone around her is to some extent leading a double life, from the assistant conductor at the Metropolitan Opera who takes envelopes full of cash to pretend that his terrible student has talent, to the critics who do the same, to St. Clair Bayfield, the husband who keeps the cash flow going.
Bayfield himself is a failed actor who, he tells McMoon, is much happier now that he’s given up “the tyranny of ambition.” Ironically, Florence herself recognizes his mediocrity and tells McMoon that she had to hide a few of his reviews at one point. Talking privately with her accompanist in this scene, Streep offers a glimpse of a very different Florence Foster Jenkins: a woman who quietly, matter-of-factly accepts her own suffering and shows flashes of wit, common sense, and even practicality. This is when we truly start to understand the price paid for keeping Jenkins in the dark—the stunting of the emotional and spiritual growth of what might have become a wise and mature woman, instead of a figure of fun.
Agnes Stark, at least, has no ulterior motives when she defends Florence in the scene I described earlier. (It was a fictional scene; Agnes was not a real person, and we know of no such incident at Jenkins’s Carnegie Hall concert.) She acts purely out of kindness. But for those who knew Florence Foster Jenkins best, the motives, and the results, were decidedly more mixed.
The same, I feel, might be said of the filmmakers here. Florence Foster Jenkins is a charming, well-made movie, by turns hilarious and touching, with brilliant performances and stunning period detail. But it ultimately sides a little too much with those who deceived Florence, and thus doesn’t quite fully grasp the nature of her tragedy. Frears and Martin keep raising the stakes to make the deception look absolutely essential to Florence’s peace of mind; I’m not so sure that it was. At least, it might not have been if she had been disillusioned much earlier.
No one is exactly arguing that Florence Foster Jenkins needed a Simon Cowell in her life. But I’m driven to believe she did need someone who would gently and lovingly tell her the truth, and remind her that she could still be part of the musical world through her philanthropy and other means of support, even if not through direct participation. Not that it would have been easy. We Christians tend to speak very glibly of “speaking the truth in love,” when in fact it can be the most difficult thing in the world. Few of us have perfected the skills needed to do it graciously and effectively. But Florence Foster Jenkins ultimately reminds us that, if things like art and truth and respect truly do matter, we at least have to try.
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