Film & Television

Movie Review: ‘Florence Foster Jenkins’ — Meryl Streep at Her Most Delicious (and Discordant)

The most celebrated actress of her generation, Meryl Streep has earned a record 19 Oscar nominations and has taken home the coveted statuette three times for roles ranging from a contemporary divorced mother to a tragic Holocaust victim to British Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher. In her four-decade, 64-film career, La Streep has rarely hit a wrong note.

In Florence Foster Jenkins, she is making up for lost time. And the result is delicious.

Stephen Frears’ new movie is based on the life of the real Foster Jenkins, a New York socialite and amateur singer who became famous, or rather infamous, for her exuberant performances, outrageous costumes and profound lack of talent. The offspring of an affluent Pennsylvania family, she was born in 1868 and was a celebrated piano prodigy, performing for President Hayes at the White House when she was just seven years old. When her father refused to pay for music studies in Europe, Florence eloped with Frank Jenkins. Disastrously, that marriage ended when she realized her husband had given her syphilis, the complications of which haunted her all her life. After divorcing and eventually moving to New York, she met St. Clair Bayfield, an aspiring British actor. The two shared a common law marriage until her death.

Florence and St. Clair had an unusual but deeply committed relationship. Due to her illness, they didn’t enjoy a conjugal life and he kept a mistress in a separate apartment that Florence paid for. She had inherited a sizeable fortune after her father’s death and used it to found and fund various social organizations, including the Verdi Club. She became a leading patroness of New York music and opera, but she didn’t stop there. She decided to launch her own career as a soprano, and Bayfield (not a success in his own right) became her manager. From private recitals to accidental radio celebrity, Foster Jenkins enjoyed immense and unlikely success. She had difficulty with pitch, rhythm, melody, phrasing, tempo, intonation, diction . . . in reality, there was little to praise except a near rapture in the act of singing itself. Ever loyal Bayfield filled halls with friends and paid off critics, and Foster Jenkins was able to revel in her passion. “Music,” she always affirmed, “Is my life.”

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In 1944, when Florence was 76, she booked an evening at Carnegie Hall. The event immediately sold out and more than 1,000 disappointed fans were turned away at the door. The star-studded crowd included Cole Porter, Kitty Carlisle and Lily Pons, among other New York luminaries. Because St. Clair couldn’t control ticket sales, he was unable to exclude the city’s harshest reviewers, and the result was a critical bloodbath. The New York Sun wrote, “She has a great voice. In fact, she can sing everything except notes.” And, The New York Post called the performance, “One of the weirdest mass jokes New York has ever seen.” In a denouement as tragic as any of the arias “Lady Florence” ever butchered, the now disillusioned diva suffered a heart attack five days after the performance and died a month later.

The most wonderful part of the story, however, is the legacy left behind. The program from her recital is the most requested item in Carnegie Hall’s archives. And her recordings, originally made as Christmas gifts for the Verdi Club, have never been out of print. (In fact, you can order CDs or MP3s at Amazon.com)

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