Tuesday, August 16, 2016

"Murder on the High C's" - Florence Foster Jenkins

The title of this post is also the title of Naxos Records' recording of nine of Florence Foster Jenkins' songs. (In other words, we ripped it off, but we HAD to.  It was too good not to share.)

On the hottest, muggiest day of the summer, with severe heat warnings, Jean had to cajole Valerie into accompanying her to see Stephen Frears' film about Florence.  She even bought tickets ahead of time online and sent Valerie the link, so all she'd have to do was show up at the theater and tap her phone to show the bar code. Sheesh.

Valerie was a catalogue of NOs.  She would first have to come up with an outfit she wouldn't schvitz too much in, walk through oppressive, soupy, motionless air while standing up to relentless sun to join Jean in the air-conditioned movie theater.   Then (she thought, remembering some previous experiences) there would be waiting on lines, paying $5 for watered down sodas, arriving on time only to face half an hour of commercials, finding no seats in her comfort zone, sitting next to (take your pick) screaming children, stage-whispering adults or people on their cell phones in the dark.  And paying the price of a darned good cocktail for the privilege.  Cajole may not be the appropriate word here.  Perhaps twist Valerie's arm is closer to the mark.

But Valerie relented, partly because the prospect of wearing very big hats in the theater was just too tempting.  (For those of you cocking an eyebrow now, yes, we always take them off before the show begins.  Except this time, when we sat in the last row where they wouldn't bother anyone.  Except Valerie had to take hers off anyway because the hat brim kept hitting the very high back of the very comfortable seat.)

When is the last time you laughed out loud at a movie? Needless to say, it was only a few moments before we, and everyone around us, were merrily chuckling and laughing and whooping up a storm. Another revelation is Simon Helberg (in the photo above) as Cosme McMoon, Florence's soft-spoken accompanist and partner in crime. Best known as Howard Wolowitz on "The Big Bang Theory", Helberg speaks volumes by just raising an eyebrow, swallowing hard, opening his eyes wide and flashing an ever so fleeting smile.  And, for the record, Simon Helberg plays the piano himself in the flick.

"Lady Florence", as she liked to be called (or "Madame Florence", as she was called throughout the movie), was an American socialite described in Wikipedia as an amateur soprano known and mocked (albeit generally out of her earshot) for her flamboyant performance costumes and notably poor singing ability. What that description doesn't convey is how endearingly funny and heartwarming the movie is and how amazingly Meryl Streep portrays the wildly impulsive music lover. Kudos to Streep for having the guts to portray Jenkins, an heiress infamous for her joyously ornate performances and energetic but off-key singing.

Streep brings to life a woman who had (until the movie) been mostly forgotten, but was at one time mentioned regularly in the New York newspapers.  Watch her face, and watch her timing.  Because Jenkins was a generous benefactor, no one wanted to risk her good favor, so in this movie a lot must be conveyed not by words but by subtle facial expressions and body language.  In fact, for this movie, watch everyone's face, body language, and timing.  If you check your email while watching this movie, you will miss half of it.

Above is the widely published photo of Florence in costume, compete with angelic wings inspired by "Stephen Foster and the Angel of Inspiration", hilariously recreated by Streep in the film. Don't take our word for it. Check out Florence's singing for yourself:
Florence Foster Jenkins - Queen of the Night by Mozart. - YouTube

Who was FFJ, really? After a false start with a ne'er-do-well first husband which caused her family to disinherit her, Florence separated from him but kept his last name. It is unclear whether they ever actually divorced. She eventually worked her way back into the good graces of her family, inheriting a sizable trust when her father died, and additional money upon the later death of her mother.
photograph www.telegraph.co.uk/Getty

In 1909, she met British Shakespearean actor St. Clair Bayfield (pictured above), who is variously referred to as her second "husband" or "partner".  They were a couple for nearly forty years.   A documentary was made about Florence in 2014.  Click here for a link to it.

St. Clair, played by Hugh Grant, is a complex character whose true relationship with Florence is revealed as the movie progresses.   For those of us accustomed to seeing Grant in the role of shy, young, bumbling suitor or the cad-about-town in his prime, it was a really interesting change to see him in a mature role.  The film teases the viewer to expect that St. Clair is only in it for the money, and is laughing at Florence behind her back, but St. Clair shows nothing but tenderness, admiration and fierce loyalty to his partner, even as everyone else in the film is endeavoring mightily to stifle their laughter.  Fortunately, we in the audience were under no such obligation, and just about rolled in the aisles.  There is a short scene in which Grant does some truly marvelous swing dancing.  Turns out he took lessons for two months.  Great return on investment.  Still, we can't see go see this movie for this scene alone.  Absolutely every scene is a carefully crafted jewel.

Wanna see the trailer?  (Remember to hit the little square at the bottom right corner for a larger view.)

Once she came into her inheritance, Florence became a big supporter of New York musical theater, producing lavish tableaux vivants, invariably casting herself as the main character in the final tableau in an elaborate costume of her own design.

If Hugh Grant did his own swing dancing, we hear you asking, did Meryl Streep do her own singing? Well, remember we're talking about the woman who spoke in a Danish accent for Out of Africa, a Polish/American accent for Sophie's Choice, an Irish accent for Dancing at Lughnasa, a plummy British accent for Iron Lady, and belted out the hits in Ricki and the Flash.  So yes, she did her own singing.  Deliberately singing off key has to be just as challenging as singing on key.

Kudos also must go to Frears' hair dressers, make up artists and costumers.  Everyone looked exactly as though they'd stepped out of the magazines of the day.  In particular, keep an eye out for the Women of a Certain Age in the movie.  They are exquisite.

Take our advice and go see Florence Foster Jenkins. And do report back to us.


  1. I'm glad that Jean twisted your arm into seeing the film, otherwise, we wouldn't have this review. Now I want to see it!

  2. Hahaha, what a delightful-sounding movie. I am GOING, probably on Thursday, in large part to this wonderful review. To turn an arm-twisting into cheering is some feat. Maybe I too can have a career as an off-key singer. I can dream, can't I?