Florence Foster Jenkins shows how those without talent can still succeed
There’s nothing more terrifying as an artist than the idea that everyone is just being nice. Most artists are hoping to entertain the audience with their genuine talent to justify what they see as a significant investment in their art. Without honest feedback, delusion can set in. In some cases, this can lead to large scale embarrassment. But then, large scale embarrassment can make for very popular entertainment.
American Idol was almost never about real talent—the most important parts of the show revolved around guffawing at the absurd and sad fantasies of the tone deaf. For every Kelly Clarkson, there were hundreds of William Hungs, shuffling away from fame with their heads down and their dreams crushed.
The American populace has a long history of enjoying artistic train wrecks, but often, after the laughter has subsided, the earnest effort is praised. Such is the story of Florence Foster Jenkins, a true story about one of America’s favorite bad performers. The film, and its subject, are overwhelmingly endearing.
It’s an excellent film after a summer of disappointing blockbusters, one that has limited appeal for wide audiences but entertaining in all the ways wide audiences never appreciate. Anyone that has even the slightest interest in the story should see it.
It’s no secret that money is insulating. A wall of wealth can obfuscate even the largest of character flaws. Take the current presidential race, for example. It’s very possible, even this far into the race, that no one has told Donald Trump that a border wall is an absurdly expensive and unrealistic solution to a nuanced, complex problem or that specially made gloves for tiny hands aren’t a sign of robust masculinity.
The rich spend a lot of money to hear what they want to hear when they want to hear it. Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep) was a wealthy music patron who performed often for the elite in New York City despite having very little talent. She did this, of course, because she had the money to do so and spread her wealth around enough that criticism was almost unheard of.
She is at once an eccentric—she prefers sandwiches and potato salad, fears pointed objects, distains alcohol, and has no self-awareness when it comes to her “talent.” She is a terrible singer. But she is also a tragic figure. Although she was a talented pianist who performed for the president, her father forbid her from pursuing her passion. She eloped with a doctor in protest and was married but then contracted syphilis at 18 on her wedding night from her new husband.
Later, she suffered an accident that caused nerve damage in her hands which ended her piano playing career. After understandably ending her first marriage, she married St.Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), an actor, who supported her pursuits and appeared to have loved her dearly, despite the occasional dalliance with younger women.
The film is a wonderful comedy and it’s hard not to laugh at the poor technique and flat notes from Jenkins, as well as the reactions from her accompanist Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg) as he tries to adjust for her amorphous grasp on tone and intonation. But there is a sweetness to Jenkins in that she isn’t performing for her ego, but in what appears to be a genuine desire to share her spirit with the audience.
She speaks many times about the importance of music, especially during times of war (the film is set during World War II). Her Carnegie Hall performance was booked to give returning soldiers an opportunity to forget their struggles and it can be argued that she succeeded in spades.
Whether the music community at the time found Jenkins as endearing as film maker Stephen Frears is anybody’s guess. But the film sees her strengths, especially as a patron for the arts, and forgives her many missed notes.
Of course, Jenkins was savaged by the critics of her day and it seems she took each poor review to heart. But with a little help from her friends, her love of music shined through. Florence Foster Jenkins is a great little film, one that very few people would stand up and walk out on. It’s certainly worth lending your ears for.