'Florence Foster Jenkins' brings folly to life
By Martha K. Baker
It's hard to believe that a lousy singer could have developed such a following, but they were laughing at her, not with her. Those close to Florence Foster Jenkins -- her husband, her accompanist, her club -- fanned the flames of her desire for a musical career. They protected her from critics' barbs.
I first learned about Florence Foster Jenkins in my high school music appreciation class back in the early Sixties. Our excellent teacher had taught us about the sonata-allegro form, opera, and 12 tones. Near the end of the semester, he put the needle down on a record and waited for us to respond to the voice rising from the sillions. We did not know whether to laugh or applaud -- until we looked up to see the impish grin on the teacher's face.
I've waited years for this story to be made into a film, and this year, there are two: Xavier Giannoli's excellent Marguerite was based loosely on Jenkins' life, whereas Stephen Frears' Florence Foster Jenkins adheres more closely to the heiress' biography. Marguerite is sharper, Florence struggles to be funnier. Simon Helberg (yes, Howard of Big Bang Theory) excels as the pianist with his quiet, broad, effeminate double-takes on Jenkins' sour notes. He supports Hugh Grant as St. Clair Bayfield, who exploits his mediocre acting skills to be Jenkins' adoring hubby. Those two actors support Meryl Streep, who, like Jack Benny, has to know a note or two about music in order to massacre it with such force. She inhabits the role, its wigs, tiaras, and corsetry.
Frears and writer Nicholas Martin spend too much time on certain aspects, not enough on Jenkins' background, but they have created a provocative film that asks, "Is life art or artifice?"