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Aug. 17 2016

Florence Foster Jenkins: A Diva Gets Her Due

By Dyana Neal | Posted in Host Blogs | No Comments

I was about 20 the first time I heard a recording of Florence Foster Jenkins. A friend put it on at a dinner party where all of the attendees were singers, and everyone, myself included, laughed uproariously at Mrs. Jenkins’ intonation, pronunciation, and diction. Many derisive comments were made about her having merely been a wealthy socialite who bought her way into the New York music scene. When music lovers want to give an example of bad singing, hers is almost always the name they bring up.

Despite my youthful laughter at Mrs. Jenkins’ recordings, I was a little nervous about seeing Stephen Frears’ new film about her, even though it stars Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant. As a performer, I’ve heard some nasty comments on my own work over the years, and I’ve also reached an age at which seeing over-40 female characters who are mere figures of fun has become tiresome at best. Turns out my worries were unfounded – Nicholas Martin’s script is not only compassionate toward Florence Foster Jenkins, it tells a complex, very adult story, and how many of those do we see on the big screen these days?

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Although she was born to wealth, Florence Foster Jenkins didn’t have a carefree life. She was a talented pianist in her youth – she actually aspired to a professional performing career until her dreams were shattered by an arm injury. She eloped with an older man, Dr. Frank Thornton Jenkins, while still in her teens. Unfortunately, Dr. Jenkins gave Florence syphilis, and their relationship ended soon after her diagnosis. For most of her life, the disease was only treatable with mercury and arsenic, which may have contributed to her hearing loss and baldness. Florence’s illness is mentioned in the film, and her refusal to let the disease control her life is dealt with in a moving, not maudlin, way.

Jenkins’ second husband, St. Clair Bayfield (played by Hugh Grant in the film) was an English actor who managed her career for 36 years. There may or may not have been an exploitative element to their relationship as well as in Jenkins’ collaboration with her longtime accompanist, Cosme McMoon, but the film implies that both men had a great deal of affection for her. The script adds a few fictional characters, including a rather stereotypical blonde floozy, and makes several real-life characters quite a bit younger. None of these liberties detracted from my enjoyment of the story; I was far more bothered by certain wardrobe issues. I can’t watch a period film without critiquing the costumes, and much of the jewelry that Ms. Streep was given to wear looks like modern plastic. Also, the lovely Aida Garifullina, who plays Lily Pons in the film, sports some gorgeous 1920’s earrings onstage. Too bad the movie is set in the 1940’s! That won’t bother viewers who don’t share my vintage jewelry obsession, but it made me wince a little. Garifullina’s voice is as stunning as she is, and it’s great that an actual opera singer was cast in the role.

I was a bit disturbed by the fact that some of my fellow moviegoers seemed to find Meryl/Florence’s onscreen singing as hilarious as the mean-spirited hecklers in her Carnegie Hall audience did. There are some funny moments, but my take (and that of several friends, all theatrical types, who have seen the film) is that this isn’t a comedy. It’s a genuinely moving story about pursuing your passion despite the haters you’ll encounter along the way. As Florence Foster Jenkins herself once remarked, “People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.”

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Dyana is WBJC's midday host. Her full bio can be read here.

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