Florence Foster Jenkins
Does anyone remember Tiny Tim, the singer and ukulele player who was popular in the late ‘60s? His real name was Herbert Khaury. He was a musical oddity, with his horrible tweed jacket and stringy long hair and falsetto voice. His signature number was “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.” He was married to “Miss Vicki” on the Tonight Show With Johnny Carson, and 40 million Americans tuned in. It was a freak show. People laughed at him. He didn’t care. He was making money.
The ironic thing is that he was actually a pretty good singer and could do a lot more than falsetto. He was said to know the music and lyrics to thousands of songs. I had his first album, back in the day, and it was quite original and inventive, with great orchestrations. But he remained a musical joke.
This is the story of an earlier musical joke. It opens by saying “Based on true events.” I like this a lot better than “This is a true story.” Yes, there really was a Florence Foster Jenkins, and she was married to St. Clair Bayfield for twenty-five years without consummating the marriage. (Her husband gave her syphilis on their wedding night, when she was eighteen.) Her piano accompanist really was Cosmé McMoon (played by Simon Helburg from The Big Bang Theory.) She really was friends with Arturo Toscanini. There are a lot of other things that are true. But much of the story has been very much altered. I often don’t mind this if it makes for a better story, and in this case I think it does.
Once more we are shown that Meryl Streep can do anything. We know she is a good singer from having seen her in other films. Here, she has to be a very bad singer. I mean, the worst. You could jam a cattle prod up the ass of a cat and not get a sound worse than Florence Foster Jenkins. Yet she performed constantly. Some of her fans were Cole Porter and Lily Pons, the opera singer. Why, one wonders? Another good question is, did she have any notion of just how transcendently bad she was?
Those questions are sort of up for grabs. Some say she knew, some say she was oblivious. Her audiences were carefully selected by St. Clair, who spent much of his life protecting her from ridicule, and never included music critics. And she seems to have been a genuinely nice person. But most important, I think, is that she was filthy rich. That explains why Toscanini came knocking on her door. Symphonies have always been desperate for wealthy patrons. Cole Porter, I’m not so sure about. It’s possible that he enjoyed laughing at her, though not out loud. Society did not laugh. Her concerts were well-attended.
Then she booked Carnegie Hall for an evening. The audience howled with laughter, but she soldiered on, and it’s possible she couldn’t hear the uproar. The syphilis might have damaged her ears, so it’s also possible that she couldn’t hear herself very well. Here is where the film deviates significantly from reality. What we see is the audience laughing at first, but then being shamed into quieting down and applauding. All the reviews the next day were great, except one in the Post. So St. Clair tries to keep her from seeing that one. Of course she does, and is crushed. What really happened is that all the reviews were devastatingly bad. And in this case, I think it makes for a better story. You may not agree. Maybe it would have been better to stick to the facts.
The movie is funny, and touching, and La Streep nails it again. We have come to expect that. What surprised me was how good Hugh Grant was. It’s not that he’s been bad, but I was getting a little tired of his mumbling, stammering, self-deprecating stock character. Here he is direct, incisive, and very much in control of things around him. It was nice to see him broaden himself. We really enjoyed this.