© 2024
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Audrey Kupferberg: Florence Foster Jenkins

Have you seen the advertising stills and posters for FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS, the late summer release from director Stephen Frears?   In just about every image, the three major characters smile in a carefree, bubbly fashion as though they just tasted the most delicious champagne.   There are Florence herself played by Meryl Streep, her husband St. Clair Bayfield played by Hugh Grant, and highly talented Simon Helberg from THE BIG BANG THEORY appearing as her piano accompanist. 

Streep plays the oddly legendary, real-life multi-millionaire society lady who had a horrible, off-key singing voice but financed her own public singing career with the help of her protective husband.  If it can be said that money talks, then surely it was Florence’s financial assets that took her all the way to a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall in the 1940s. 

Throughout this film, Streep is extraordinary – it’s a standout performance for an actress who specializes in standout performances!  In fact, all three leading actors are so good that I foresee Oscar nominations for all of them. 

The most touted aspect of Streep’s performance is her terrible singing.  Over and over in the film, audiences in the story and likewise we in movie theaters, are treated to hilarious discordant performances of Mozart, Verdi, and Brahms that surely would bring those composers to grief. 

Having had a warm critical reception and a decent box-office show of more than $25 million worldwide so far in theaters, FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS is bound for a successful run on home viewing formats.  Since this film is going to be around for a while, I want to clear up a possible misunderstanding that potential audiences seem to be having about the story of Florence Foster Jenkins.  While critics brought to light the fact that this is more than a comical story of a ridiculous rich lady whose money bought her a concert career, subsequent word of mouth has reduced the film to a laugh-out-loud comedy. 

However, the thoughtful screenplay by Nicholas Martin offers plenty of depth.  If all that mattered in FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS were her screechy singing voice, this film would be an entertaining but one-note comedy.  Yet it is so much more than that.  It tells the story of the later life of a woman who, as an innocent 19-year-old in the World War I era, unknowingly marries a man with syphilis. Of course, she contracts the disease and lives out the rest of her life being medicine-dependent and disfigured. This situation wasn’t unique to Florence.  Many women of the early 20th century contracted syphilis from husbands whose sexual experiences were not limited to the marriage bed.  For example, silent movie star Jack Pickford, brother of beloved Mary Pickford, contracted syphilis in 1917 when he was 22 years old.  The illness became very public when his wife, beautiful star Olive Thomas, died in 1920 in Paris when she apparently took an accidental overdose of bi-chloride of mercury from a French-labelled bottle, a drug used to counteract the symptoms of syphilis.     

This commentary isn’t meant to be a listing of Florence Foster Jenkins’ contemporaries who contracted this sexually transmitted disease.  Suffice it to say there were many, and in later life many suffered from Dementia as a result of the disease.  In fact, all the lame-brained decisions that Florence makes in the course of the film might actually be attributed to the spreading of this disease to her brain, as was its natural course. 

And so the story of Florence Foster Jenkins is complex.  It tells of a marriage that could have been perfection but was heavily complicated because of her illness.  It tells of a very dear woman who does not seem to be able to clearly grasp the world around her, and is lucky to be protected by friends and loved ones. 

The comedy in FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS works as well as it does because it springs from a story tinged with tragedy.  Sometimes smiles are more accentuated when they spring from a foundation of sadness.  This woman was not just a figure of comedy.  She is presented as a kind-hearted and sensitive person who had lots of money and could have used her resources in many different ways.  Instead, she is remembered as nothing more than a laughably untalented singer.

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former Director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and has co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

Related Content