Florence Foster Jenkins Was A Bad Singer But Pitch Perfect About Life

Image: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
It is hard to imagine Meryl Streep being mind-bogglingly bad at anything. And yet, in her latest film out August 12, Florence Foster Jenkins, there she is as the titular lead, singing like a nightingale mid-strangulation.

In real life, Streep is a more than respectable chanteuse. But she pulls a tin ear off with aplomb in this charming biopic about a midcentury New York City socialite who wanted nothing more than to become an opera star — despite the fact that she had no natural talent for singing.

A bit of historical background: Nascina Florence Foster was born into a wealthy family in late-1860s Pennsylvania. As a child, she took easily to the piano, and was later dubbed a musical prodigy. But when a teenage Florence was told by her father that he would not continue supporting her music education, she rebelled and married a doctor named Frank Thornton Jenkins. Shortly thereafter, Florence contracted syphilis from her husband — an illness which, at the time, had no treatment or cure. They separated, Florence kept his name, and then her parents died, leaving her a sizable inheritance, so she relocated to New York City. It was there that she met St. Clair Bayfield in 1909, a British stage actor who became her common-law husband and ultimately, her manager.

Florence Foster Jenkins — the movie and the woman herself — present a pleasant counter-narrative to the idea that we always have to be successful at the thing we aspire to.

Florence enjoyed the social privileges that came with her considerable wealth: She lived a posh life in a sprawling uptown apartment, from which St. Clair came and went every morning and evening. According to this movie, the two were never intimate, which is how he kept from contracting syphilis. The Florence filmmakers also gave him a girlfriend, who lives in his separate apartment and tests his allegiance to his aging partner.

The film kicks off when Florence, now in her 70s, decides to rededicate herself to singing lessons, seeking out a pianist to accompany her during both practice and performance. With the help of St. Clair (played with charm and surprising nuance by Hugh Grant), she invites a number of musicians to her apartment for an audition, ultimately choosing a young man named Cosmé McMoon. Dreamy and nervous, McMoon is unprepared for what a poor singer Florence is until the first time he sits down to accompany her. He tries to hide his tittering behind the piano, fielding dirty looks from St. Clair, but ultimately nabs the gig anyway.
While the movie definitely pokes fun at Florence's eccentricity, it also takes care not to be cruel, both paying homage to her legacy and exploring the human side of a woman who has been called the worst singer in history.

At its heart, Florence Foster Jenkins is a deeply empathetic portrait of a woman who seemingly had everything, but yearned for the things that money can't buy: intimacy, family, health, and true talent. It's also a film that champions pursuing a passion in a way that has nothing to do with reward or critical acclaim: So rarely are we told to keep doing something we love even if we're bad at it. More often — as with young ballerinas who never properly pirouette, or budding pianists who can't seem to get the tempo right — women are told to give up and move on to something to which they are better suited.

Florence Foster Jenkins
— the movie and the woman herself — present a pleasant counter-narrative to the idea that we always have to be successful at the thing we aspire to. The lesson: Doing something you love is the part that matters. As Streep's character puts it, "People may say I can't sing. But no one can ever say I didn't sing." Florence may have often been out of tune. But she nailed that line with perfect pitch.

This summer, we're celebrating the biggest movie season of the year with a new series called
Blockbust-HER. We'll be looking at everything film-related from the female perspective, interviewing major players in the industry and discussing where Hollywood is doing right by women and where (all too often) it is failing them. And now...let's go to the movies!

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