Last of the Monster Kids

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Sunday, February 12, 2017

OSCARS 2017: Florence Foster Jenkins (2016)

In the past, I have said some very unkind things about Meryl Streep. It's not that I think Streep is a bad actress. I'm frequently not a fan of her hyper-dramatic style, as it tends to suck all the air out of the room. It's Capital-A Acting and that doesn't always suit the movies she appears in. Mostly, I'm annoyed that Streep has become an award season institution. The Academy's love of her, over all other performers, is baffling to me. Streep is good but why must she be singled out practically every year? Why should Streep be nominated for “Florence Foster Jenkins,” a film considered minor even among those who enjoyed it? Why should Streep take a slot in a category that probably should've gone to Amy Adams or Annette Benning, performers that don't have three Oscars already and haven't been nominated nineteen previous times?

I actually had heard of Florence Foster Jenkins before seeing this film. I recall reading about her many years ago and even recall a college friend who kicked around writing a script about Jenkins. I wonder if she's disappointed that Stephen Frears got there first? For the uninitiated, I'll explain. During the forties, Florence and her husband, a mediocre stage actor named St. Clair Bayfield, owned a musical night club. Foster frequently appeared on stage in bit parts. However, she had aspirations of being an opera soprano. Her husband encouraged this dream, hiring singing teachers and back-up musicians. There was only one problem: Florence's singing was awful. Despite her obvious lack of talent, she journeyed on, her husband bribing journalist to write positive reviews and paying people to see her performances. Eventually, Jenkins would attract an audience of people who saw unintentional comedy in her singing, surely making her one of the earliest examples of “so-bad-it's-good” media.

The central question behind “Florence Foster Jenkins” seems to be, when it comes to the pursuit of the arts, whether sincerity or talent is more important. Florence's singing clearly leaves something to be desired, to put it nicely. Despite that, she is portrayed as utterly sincere. Her love of music is very genuine. The joy she felt from performing, from being on stage, was completely real. Frears' film probably could have been an examination in what role irony plays in fandom. Considering we live in a world where people study over “The Room” and other accidental masterpieces of ineptitude, it's a question worth asking. “Florence Foster Jenkins” only scratches the surface. The film clearly admires Jenkins' unwavering pursuit of her dream while gently ribbing her clear lack of ability. It doesn't dig deeper into why she soldiered on despite the criticism or what went through her head while people laughed at her. 

In real life, Jenkins seemed aware of her poor singing voice. The movie, meanwhile, plays her as totally unaware. She seemingly doesn't notice the chuckles during her performances. Instead, the film studies the ambiguous motivations of those around her. The piano player, despite holding in laughter during her singing lessons, keeps showing up for the cash. But what of the teacher, who only offers the most softball criticisms towards Florence? What of her husband? He is sleeping with another woman. He says his wife has given him permission to wander. Yet he hides the affair from her. When question about her lack of talent, he claims not to notice. Yet he buys positive reviews for Florence and goes out of his way to hide negative ones. Despite his philandering and cover ups, St. Clair does appear to love his wife. Frears weirdly plays it both ways, portraying Bayfield as both manipulating his wife and caring deeply for her.

“Florence Foster Jenkins” is partially a comedy. The film plays Bayfield's cheating ways for laughs, such as when he has to quickly cover the aftermath of the previous night's party. The scenes of audience members cracking up during Jenkins' performances are obviously meant to provoke amusement. Jenkins, especially when dressed in her outrageous costumes, is obviously a ridiculous figure. The film, nevertheless, randomly lurches into melodrama. Jenkins is infected with syphilis, from her previous husband. There's a few scenes devoted to her infection being studied by a doctor. Streep removing a wig to reveal a bald head is meant to be a shock. After reading a bad review, Florence collapses in public. The film concludes with a big dramatic death scene. Imagine a tearful farewell for any other derided cult figure – William Hung, The Shaggs – and you can see how mishandled this is. Stuff like this jives badly with the rest of the movie.

Yes, Meryl Streep's performance is fine. She has no qualms about warbling through the singing scenes. Her big style fits someone as blissfully unaware as Jenkins was. Hugh Grant and Simon Helberg do well as her husband and piano player, respectfully. All together, Frears' uncertain approach to his topic makes “Florence Foster Jenkins” an uneven watch and the film does not archive any of the loftier themes it reaches for. “Ed Wood” remains the high water mark for biopics about deeply sincere but totally inept artists. The film is competent but not very memorable and certainly didn't deserve Academy attention. [5/10]

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