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Months of Meryl: Florence Foster Jenkins (2016)

John and Matthew are watching every single live-action film starring Meryl Streep. 

#51 —
Florence Foster Jenkins, a socialite and opera singer of abysmal ability.

MATTHEW: Florence Foster Jenkins was an affluent New York heiress who is only remembered today for her decades-long career as a nonprofessional soprano that spurred many to label her “the world’s worst opera singer.” Meryl Streep is one of the most acclaimed and rewarded actresses in history, a global celebrity whose foremost attribute is talent, pure and simple. The marquee casting of Streep as Jenkins is the amusing and unignorable irony at the center of Stephen Frears’ Florence Foster Jenkins, a biographical drama that narrativizes the amateur, septuagenarian chanteuse’s notorious attempts to resuscitate her dormant career in the years before her death in 1944. It is nothing if not a testament to Streep’s power as one of the only active, major female movie stars of a certain age that a period piece about an awful opera singer well into her 70s received a prime summer release from a major studio (Paramount) and a full-steam awards campaign that garnered the actress her 20th Oscar nomination...

The paradox of asking a legend of monumental talent to play a woman who had none whatsoever surely made for a cheeky talking point at distribution time, but the role of Florence Foster Jenkins serves as an interesting challenge to Streep in other, more meaningful ways.

The actress, always so blazingly aware on screen, has seldom been invited to play oblivious women, save for the villainized divas of outright, satirically-minded comedies like She-Devil and Death Becomes Her. Streep is certainly at peak ham as Florence: each of her costumes is an eye-popping sight gag, her every goosey and effortful gesture is a delight, and her singing is oddly magnetic in all its bum, loopy notes and painfully futile exertions. The actress creates an inspired comedic presence for Florence’s performances; her singing amuses, but what truly kills is the way in which Florence seems to zone out mid-song, her voice struggling on while her eyes glaze over and go to a place of blank befuddlement.

That being said, Streep is far too brilliant and empathetic an actress to play Florence as a complete fool, no matter the character’s self-deception about her tone-deaf talents; she complicates our view of the character, who is by turns tragic and triumphant, accordingly. Streep’s Florence bursts her own illusions just as often as she casts them. Florence sees and grasps more than she immediately lets on, and part of the actress’ characterization is a gradual reveal of this awareness, from Florence’s knowing intimations regarding the side life of her English husband St. Clair (a never-better Hugh Grant), who carries on with a live-in mistress in a downtown apartment that Florence pays for, to her open-armed acceptance of death (Jenkins contracted syphilis from her first husband on their wedding night) so long as she can first achieves her dreams of musical stardom.

Neither Streep nor screenwriter Nicholas Martin sees Florence’s ambitions as being completely self-serving, although the actress makes the more compelling case on this front. So much of Streep’s performance springs from a place of true love — for her husband, for her entire and unmistakably privileged way of life, and, most of all, for music. There is an authentic genuineness in the way Streep appears to listen so deeply to those around her, but especially to the genius musicians she encounters, like the legendary French soprano Lily Pons, whose early performance in Carnegie Hall transfixes Florence to the point of tears, inspiring her to resume her singing career on that very same stage.

Florence Foster Jenkins also continues the tradition of Streep doing some of her most credible and affecting work from inside onscreen couples, whether it be with Kurt Russell in Silkwood, Clint Eastwood in The Bridges of Madison County, Stanley Tucci in Julie & Julia, Tommy Lee Jones in Hope Springs, or Grant in this film. Streep has a wonderfully poignant camaraderie with Grant, who underplays beautifully against his spouse’s more-than-occasional showiness. No matter the disparity of their approaches, each actor enlivens one of the more unorthodox marriages in Streep’s filmography, delineating a bond defined not by passion but abiding fondness, attentive devotion, and a fair share of implied understanding.

Frears’ film can verge on hagiography and ultimately settles on a dull and simplistic moral about treating society hostesses the same way you’d like to be treated, but Streep, for her part, staves off this mawkishness for as long as she can. She deftly navigates Florence’s capricious and at times childlike emotions of fear, envy, and adoration, more than willing to let the character look desperate (i.e. fishing around for praise from anyone in her circle willing to give it), pitiful (i.e. growing listless to the point of helplessness in St. Clair’s absence), or even callous (i.e. dispelling St. Clair’s acting ambitions with weary, tight-lipped disregard).

It’s through choices like these that Florence becomes a far more rounded creation than we might have initially expected. But for all of its diverting and humanizing merits, the performance never quite galvanizes me like Streep’s best work. Do you feel similarly? Why might that be?


JOHN: Florence Foster Jenkins is first and foremost an inspired casting feat. And its glossy production values and impressive box-office haul is further evidence of Streep’s singular stardom. I co-sign your praise of Streep’s ability to mine the exact amount of tragedy and comedy from Florence. Streep sells Florence’s passion and love for music and dogged determination to live her dreams without making her out to be the dimwitted, oblivious fool. When Florence sings — and, amazingly, it’s “terrible” but not exactly unlistenable — Streep telegraphs a deep and blissful peace, even when some raucous sailors hoot and holler or her suspension strings suddenly falter during a high-wire stunt. Florence understands that she will never coloratura like those gifted sopranos she weeps over at Carnegie Hall and has accepted this sad fact, pushing through it in a sense to instead enliven her fantasies with remarkable conviction. Streep never winks at her audience or condescends to her character, and in her refusal to play Florence as the frivolous, overindulged society dame, delivers a performance of unusual pathos.

While Streep does manage to imbue melancholic notes, the performance features her comic prowess both onstage and off. From the first moment she drops down into the film, clad in angel wings and a halo, her padded figure swaddled in white, Streep remains calm and buoyant amid the most ridiculous circumstances. Since syphilis has weakened her constitution, the slightest noises or surprises startle Florence, which means Streep’s excitable nerves often rattle like a tambourine. Florence’s odd quirks — her penchant for bathtubs full of potato salad, her habit of carrying a secretive briefcase at all times — actually work to deepen and dimensionalize the character, no matter their absurdities. When her vocal coach first guides her through an exercise, Streep produces the strangest, almost animalistic noises, but her Florence is unaware of these sounds; she just seems pleasantly surprised and overcome by her faculties. Streep’s off-key and imprecise vocals are an inspired well of zany comic gold, a series of delusions as delightful as they are extensive. Whether singing at home, in the recording booth, or onstage in front of hundreds, Streep’s turbulent pitch and indistinct phrasing are its own type of terrible achievement.

Though I thoroughly enjoyed Streep’s flamboyant yet nuanced Florence, Hugh Grant gives the most accomplished performance in the film as a doting husband whose love and devotion yield constant surprises and insights into an atypical marriage. As you’ve mentioned, this central relationship reminded me most of Streep and Tucci’s work in Julie & Julia, another film where Streep burrows into a broad, real-life character and delivers a precise star performance that nonetheless feels somewhat limited, for all its evident peaks. Streep’s work in Florence doesn’t cut as deep or exhibit the range of her most prodigious comedic outings, but in the words of the bawdy, Brooklynese-speaking socialite played by Nina Arianda in the same film, “Give the girl a break, she’s singing her heart out!”


NEXT WEEK: The Post (2017)

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Reader Comments (27)

She's fun but there were so many worthy choices for BA that year Annette Bening,Rebecca Hall,Kate Beckinsale and Amy Adams.

December 21, 2018 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

Thanks for the write up. I loved this film for being hysterical and also surprisingly poignant. The whole cast is fantastic.

December 21, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterTom Ford

Along with Prada, this is my favorite performance of hers in the last dozen years. And very good point about her in couples, something that I'd say has been true for her entire career.

December 21, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterScottC

Should've been Amy Adams for Arrival, not her. Sorry.

December 21, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterParanoid Android

While I loved Meryl in this, Hugh Grant steals the show. His performance is nothing short of a revelation, and his failure to get an Oscar nomination a real downer. Perhaps category confusion did him in, as he clearly was a lead, but was being campaigned in Supporting. And speaking of revelations, I would never have guessed Simon Helberg had it in him. He's fantastic.

December 21, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterken s.

Mediocre movie, mediocre performance ... all bolstered by Hugh Grant.

December 21, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterCharlieG

Fine performances from both Streep and Grant. Movie was fun and entertaining.

December 21, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterrdf

I really enjoyed this film - I always find Streep delightful when she does light comedy.

December 21, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterRob

Overall it's a meh. There are aspects that I enjoyed, however my patience became tested the more went on, and some of the singing sequences felt extremely protracted, no longer entertainingly off-key but flat out unbearable. And that young actor who played the nervous/skittish character? Yeesh he was awful. I liked Grant and the bawdy socialite lady though.

December 21, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterEoghanMcQ

If an actress other than Streep had given this performance in this movie, it would have competed neck-and-neck with Stone all season for the Oscar. But it's Streep and people are accustomed to her exceptionalism, so whatever. (And I don't think an actress other than Streep is capable of giving this performance.)

December 21, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

I always thoght once the GG's went with Helberg in supporting Grant seemed less assured of a nom,shame.

December 21, 2018 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

100% agree with you Suzanne. A masterful performance which she makes look easy.

December 21, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterBC

I can't think of another actress in her age group who can play this role as effectively as Streep. Not a terribly good movie but she and Grant were exceptionally delightful and heartbreaking.

December 21, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJans

One of the better performances of her in the last 15 Years, but not against Adams, Bening, Chastain (Miss Sloane my Favorite performance of her and she is alsways great!) and Viola Davis (in Lead, Fences is NOT a supporting Performance). I love the 80s Streep, but a have trouble, that she is always nominated for wrong roles/performances over more derserving Performers. So I start to hate when Streep gets another meaty role. Its not her fault but everytime I know how it ends...

December 21, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterPatrick

I thought she was beautiful in the film and I was fine with her nomination. I had her solidly in the middle of her quintet, behind Huppert and Stone, ahead of Portman and Negga and while I'm not surprised she gets ragged on, it's a little disappointing.

December 21, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterArkaan


December 21, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJamie

I tink FFJ still holds up v nicely 2 yrs down the road, I much prefer this to The Post and I disagreed tt she had stolen Amy's spot. If anyobe, it shld be Negga who was the surprise nominee who took Adams' slot. IMO, Streep totally deserves her nom for FFJ.

I totally agreed the MVP of FFJ is Hugh Grant and am surprised tt he missed out a nod. I dun tink its category confusion as the studio had campaigned him in supp and he had scored supp nods at BFCA, SAG & Bafta (GG remains the only time he was recognised as Lead). I believe the reason could be he refused to do more publicity stateside for the film or maybe wasn't tt well liked by the academy voters??

December 22, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterClaran

Strangely it's a better reviewed film than a lot of best picture contenders this year such as Green Book, Vice, Mary Poppins Returns, and Bohemian Rhapsody.

December 22, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSamson

This nomination should have gone to Benning.

December 22, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Oops, spelling --Bening

December 22, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Patrick--you hit the nail on the head.

December 22, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Late to this because of Christmas stuff, but it would be remiss not to thank you for such an insightful article on a film I thoroughly enjoyed. Hugh Grant is wonderful in tandem with Meryl.

Suzanne, 100% agree with you. It's a role that is harder than it looks, and Streep nailed it.

December 22, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

Can we do a month of Sharon Stone? I'll write all the pieces. Her filmography is actually entertaining.

December 22, 2018 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

“film can verge on hagiography and ultimately settles on a dull and simplistic moral about treating society hostesses the same way you’d like to be treated”

I do think this moral is beautiful in its simplicity and morals these are children’s media gives more emotional connections to many since sentiments like these are often absent the more “mature” wishes to be. Sometimes you should need simple things. But the film could handle this poorly, I haven’t seen it.

December 22, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterChinoiserie

OMG. Please.N O Sharon Stone. But more importantly. No 3rtful

December 22, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterRdf

Why is Brookesboy in every Meryl post since he/she hates her so much? I don't understand. Maybe Brookesboy needs to channel his energy into something more positive instead of whining about Meryl all the time. A closet love affair?

December 22, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMe

Suzanne takes the words out of my ... hand ! So agreed - BUT I just saw "20th Century Woman" again - as well as "Miss Sloane" - and I CAN NOT BELIEVE that these 2 performances were not nominated ! Bening is everything you wish for in I think my favourite film of that year and one that will last for decades as it is just beautiful, witty and wise ... - and Chastain literally shatters glass ceilings !
What the heck did Negga & Stone do to win rave reviews over these stellar layered performances ? 1. Bening (Oscar), 2. Chastain, 3. Huppert, 4. Portman (usually not a fan) & 5. Streep, for me that year - I would have lost Adams as well ...

December 23, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMartin

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