From Miranda Priestly to Karen von Blixen to Margaret Thatcher, Meryl Streep has played her fair share of memorable roles, and though her titular performance in Florence Foster Jenkins may not be her best work (Sophie’s Choice will never be topped), it’s certainly right up there in the “memorable” department.
It’s only surprising that Jenkins herself isn’t more memorable.
Regarded as the worst professional singer in history, Jenkins made her mark (and she did make her mark) in the 40s, during the height of World War II. She was, first and foremost, a benefactor of the arts, but she always fancied herself a singer, and she had plenty of encouragers/enablers around her to make her dream happen–despite the fact that she sounded like Julia Child imitating a strangled cat…underwater…if Julia Child was tone-deaf…and drunk.
Of course, Jenkins thought she was in the same realm as the era’s finest sopranos; if ignorance truly is bliss, Jenkins must have been the happiest woman in the world.
Chief among Jenkins’ supporters in the film is her common-law husband St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), a former actor who dropped his dreams to do everything possible to make sure hers come true; often this requires not only stacking the audience with Jenkins’ accommodating friends but also bribing critics or even writing their reviews himself.
Before Jenkins’ first performance, however, Bayfield is required to hire a pianist to accompany his wife. Enter Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg). In what may be the film’s most memorable (and hilarious) scene, McMoon gets his introduction to Jenkins as she warbles and screeches her way through an aria. Fully expecting a virtuoso performance (Jenkins is being tutored–and endured–by Met conductor Carlo Edwards at the time), McMoon is dumbfounded by what he hears. Helberg steals the scene with a barrage of nuanced facial expressions ranging from shock to puzzlement to laugh-stifling incredulity. It’s a brilliant moment and one that fairly sums up the entire movie from the audience’s perspective. We are McMoon, and by the end of the film we have also come to not only endure Jenkins ourselves but fully love and support her…despite her egregious lack of talent.
Director Stephen Frears (Philomena) has put together a surprising, charming film. Not only does is successfully bring mid-40s New York City to life, it somehow allows the audience to simultaneously laugh at and sympathize with Jenkins. And Streep’s performance is truly magical. What she did for Polish accents in Sophie’s Choiceshe does for Jenkins’ hopelessly awful singing here. But it’s not a case of mimicry, it’s an all-in, heartfelt portrayal of a complex woman (who was also suffering the late stages of a decades-old case of syphilis as all this was going on), and it’s worth more than one “Bravo!”
Streep has given plenty of awfully talented performances in her 40-year career, but she’s never been called upon to portray someone with such an awful lack of talent. With Florence Foster Jenkins she proves once again why she is America’s greatest living actress–she’s the only one who can do bad so well.