Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Florence Foster Jenkins

The film Florence Foster Jenkins is a great movie (as one would expect with Meryl Streep in the starring role). But the fact that it is based on such a truly amazing story makes it even more compelling. Originally from Pennsylvania, the real Florence Foster Jenkins (1868-1944) was a 20th-century, New York socialite, who had a lifelong passion for public musical performance, which she usually indulged only in carefully controlled situations, except for her final concert - at Carnegie Hall in October 1944. That was more widely attended and exposed her to more critical reviews, which may (as the movie suggests) have precipitated her death the following month. In the movie version, she seems unaware of how bad her singing is and what a joke it seems to others - until she experiences authentic reactions to her Carnegie Hall recital. Her final words in the film were People may say I can't sing, but no one can ever say I didn't sing. 

The film captures the flamboyance and the humor (and sadness and loneliness) of her life very well, and Meryl Streep does an excellent job imitating Madame Florence's terrible singing. The movie also captures her strange network of relationships - especially her curious relationship with her second "husband", mediocre Shakespearian actor St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) and with her young pianist Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg).

An interesting question - in the light of contemporary medicine - is whether the syphilis she contracted from her first husband and her consequent series of health problems contributed to her poor performance. Today, of course, her syphilis could have been cured - and she might have well become a better singer. but perhaps her singling would have been just mediocre - as opposed to so flamboyantly bad - and her performances and indeed her life would have attracted less attention and interest as a result. Who can say?

From the perspective of an absolutist obsession with "truth," her wealth appears in this film as the great corruptor - allowing her to indulge her fantasy and buying off others to play along (who are mostly more than willing to do so for the financial benefits her charade provided them). But one could also look upon her wealth as simply providing her with the opportunity few others ever get to experience life at a fuller level than her talents would otherwise have allowed - to indulge a harmless fantasy that in the end not only gave joy to her life but brought a lot of much-welcomed joy to others as well.

People may say I can't sing, but no one can ever say I didn't sing!

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