An invitation to a preview screening of Florence Foster Jenkins at the BFI this week with a Q&A featuring director Stephen Frears, writer Nicholas Martin and actor Hugh Grant. As you know, Florence Foster Jenkins was a Manhattan lady in the first half of the 20th century who lived to sing. Unfortunately, she had a voice that could strip the gilding from Carnegie Hall’s ceiling. Hers was a coloratura like a quiver of arrows that never, ever hit the bull’s eye. As the Telegraph review of the film put it, the real Florence ‘sounded like a cat fighting a duck in a wheelie bin’.
Florence’s modest wealth allowed her to commit ‘Murder on the High C’s’ in front of invited audiences at Manhattan’s ladies’ clubs including her own Verdi Club. Her second husband, failed actor St. Clair Bayfield, shielded her and the general public’s earlobes from exposure to Florence’s vocal chords. Unfortunately, the lady paid to produce a private album that somehow escaped captivity and, in the twilight of her life, she also funded a one-night-and-one-night-only performance at Carnegie Hall in 1944.
The lead-up to Florence’s ostensibly ill-advised Carnegie Hall concert in which she personally massacred arias that even Maria Callas would think twice about putting into one programme is the premise for Nicholas Martin’s screenplay. Having listened to recordings of Florence committing GBH on Strauss’s Laughing Song from Die Fledermaus, the lady’s approach to classical music appeared to match the manic energy of Janet Leigh in Psycho. The experience is briefly amusing. But I did fear that Florence’s execrable voice might not be enough to sustain an entire film even with the great Meryl Streep in the title role.
Fortunately, Stephen Martin has written a script that is so much more than a one-note joke. Florence is a fragile woman, bald beneath her wig, who is married to a man a decade younger and suffering from tertiary syphilis contracted from her first husband. She is an enthusiastic patron of the arts and only asks that she may perform batty tableaux vivant in front of her devoted audience of genteel ladies. We discover ‘Bunny’, as husband St. Clair calls her, auditioning accompanists for a concert appearance.
There is an element of slapstick in early scenes with Hugh Grant’s rather care-worn St. Clair tap dancing like Gene Kelly to shield his wife from the truth and keeping a serene smile as Florence performs a murderous warm-up for the musical director of Carnegie Hall. As Jewish accompanist Cosmé McMoon, Simon Helberg is classic Marx Brothers. He mugs, cringes, cowers and ties his body into paranoid knots weighing the honour of playing Carnegie Hall against the inevitable humiliation of setting Florence’s voice to music.
There are many delicious comic cameos in the film – not least an acid society queen played by my friend the brilliant David Mills – but at the heart of the film is the tenderness Florence inspires in St. Clair. He might have married her for her money and keeps a lithe, sparky mistress in the wings but the love between Florence and St. Clair rather transcends grim realities. St. Clair’s care is evidently more than a duty.
Florence Foster Jenkins is an unlikely heroine but in Streep’s hands that’s precisely how we see her: clutching her illusions like the beaded veil she peers from underneath in the wings at Carnegie Hall. With characteristic faux-arrogance and self-depreciation in the Q&A, Hugh Grant seemed genuinely touched that his performance was so warmly received. After her death, Florence’s will was stolen by her family and Bayfield left destitute. These scenes were left on the cutting room floor but Grant made us empathise with St. Clair without them.
Interesting, isn’t it, that Florence Foster Jenkins stands tall next to Frears’ previous ‘heroine chic’ films Philomena and The Queen as a strangely dignified portrait of a vulnerable, admirable woman. Florence Foster Jenkins is ostensibly about a woman who was the butt of a single joke at her own expense. And yet, when a dying Florence says ‘ people may say I can’t sing but no one can ever say I didn’t sing’ there was more than one tear shed in BFI Screen 1.
The set pieces such as Streep crucifying the Queen of the Night’s second aria from The Magic Flute are joyfully shot. As Frears said, you have to be a brilliant singer to perform abysmally and Streep sings Florence with the kamikaze wild abandon of the original … all this with the actress giving a master class in physical comedy straining to recreate Florence’s appalling acting. But it is the moments when Florence is alone with St. Clair, washing dishes in Cosmé’s garrett or blundering into a morning after party at St. Clair’s love nest that make one understand the character.
Sadly, Florence Foster Jenkins had a heart attack two days after appearing at Carnegie Hall – a rougher ride in reality than the screen version – and died a month later. Her accompanist Cosmé McMoon’s musical career withered and, as we know thanks to the Q&A, St. Clair Bayfield died in poverty. But Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant have taken what could have been a cruel little joke of a life spent briefly but infamously in the spotlight and turned the film into a celebration of a kind, deluded, sincere and vulnerable woman. No judgement about bought illusions from Row L my dear Rowley, eh?