Saturday, August 13, 2016

Florence Foster Jenkins (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Florence Foster Jenkins

The iconic Meryl Streep stars in Stephen Frears affectionate biopic "Florence Foster  Jenkins." While Jenkins herself as an amateur opera singer from 1917 onwards was gratingly off key and easy to ridicule, the actual person was irrepressible, spirited and could not be squashed. Despite her ear-splitting auditory offenses, Jenkins became noteworthy for being so awful. David Bowie is said to have greatly admired her blissful ignorance and her record by reportedly saying "Be afraid, be very afraid."

With high-profile fans like Bowie, Barbra Streisand, and Cole Porter, Jenkins became a cult star who is almost a surreal figure and very contemporary. The film focuses on Jenkins' life in 1940s New York. She has her own Verdi social club, appearing in tableaux vivant, most notably as an angel or  a valkyrie. As Jenkins was suspended above the stage, it was no easy feat.

Blayfield (Hugh Grant) is her common-law husband and acting manager, who cares for her but does mind in driving off for an idyll with his mistress Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson) at any moment. Simon Helberg (The Big Bang Theory) has a great comic outing as the silent and sweating Cosme McMoon,  who accompanies the ill-timed singer on the piano and develops an affectionate respect for her in the process.

Frears does the best with his cast: Grant plays the well meaning cad with a good heart, while Helberg gives his cartoonish role some real feeling, going beyond the sweaty forehead and halting voice. From start to finish, though, it is all Meryl Streep as the corrosive crooner. To her credit, she plays it straight with only a hint of camp. The joke, in the manner of a New Yorker cartoon , is how Jenkins appears in the eyes of others. To herself, Jenkins is only doing what is natural.

The juice of this film is that it highlights the passion for performing (albeit through bad singing) that Jenkins was driven by.

One of the best scenes in the film occurs when a belittled Jean Harlow showgirl  (Nina Arianda) tells the US military crowd to cheer instead of insult.  But the howls of derision are never far behind.

Florence Foster Jenkins (Library of Congress)
Refreshing it is to see the humanity of this woman behind the ridicule. Both Meryl Streep and actor Catherine Frot, from the previous "Marguerite", wonderfully highlight the mischievious joy of Florence Jenkins, along with her existential and somewhat vexing quest to achieve her art.

Even if one is not a fan, Florence Foster Jenkins will not be forgotten. The film is a hoot giving a well rounded, light and thoughtful portrait of this eccentric woman with a lopsided throat.

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