Narcissa Florence Foster was born July 19, 1868. She was a talented pianist when she was young, and when her father refused to allow her to study music in Europe after graduating high school, she eloped with Dr. Frank Thornton Jenkins in 1885. After learning she contracted syphilis from her husband, she ended the relationship and apparently never spoke of him again. An eventual arm injury prevented the piano playing, so she gave piano lessons to support herself. After her father died, she inherited a great deal of money, and resumed a musical career while taking up with a British Shakespearean actor named St. Clair Bayfield. She became a big time socialite back when that was a thing you could be with the right amount of money and shifted to Florence Foster Jenkins, noted as the ‘world’s worst opera singer’, which did nothing to dissway her love of performing. She became a bit of a musical cult figure in New York City during the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. Many celebrities of the time were fans, despite her being widely mocked for her flamboyant costumes and terrible singing voice, as they were won over by her overwhelming passion for performing and music. She became the founder and ‘President Soprano Hostess’ for the Verdi Club – her own organization. The question of whether she was in on the joke or if she genuinely believed she had musical talent is still up for debate. It’s also possible that both the syphilis and the treatment may have damaged her hearing, and contributed to the issue.
This movie tells a piece of Florence’s story, starting after she has already taken up with Bayfield, hires a new pianist, and decides to perform at Carnegie Hall. After hiring McMoon to play for her while she takes singing lessons, Florence is listening to the radio, hearing how women are sending dedications to soldiers in WWI, and decides to record an album so that the profits can go to soldiers and their families.
The recording inexplicably sells very well, so she decides to put on a huge concert. At first, she is nearly laughed off the stage, but fans of hers push for her to continue, and eventually she finishes the concert. Bayfield and McMoon (the pianist) attempt to prevent her from seeing any of the reviews (that they had not already bribed) to the point of purchasing all the newspapers. Eventually, she does read one review, and appears to pass out from the shock of it, fading right into her death.
The movie is directed by Stephen Frears who also directed Hi Fidelity, The Queen and Philomena. I will say that this movie felt very much like The Queen and Philomena in that it has a really strong female true-life character lead, and tells a tight little story pulled from a more epic life.
- Meryl Streep plays Florence Foster Jenkins – and while this is a story about a real woman, it also feels a bit like a Streep showcase. I could have just as easily believed it to be fiction, created to show off Streep’s skills. There’s no argument that she is fantastic, and makes Florence easy to love because of her overwhelming kindness. And yes, she did her own singing, because she's Meryl Frickin' Streep.
- Hugh Grant plays St. Clair Bayfield. He came out of semi-retirement to do this movie, mainly for the chance to work with Streep. He seems to genuinely love Florence, even though he has a girlfriend on the side. He does everything he can to help her along with her career – even to the point of bribing critics and stacking the audience with friends and family to cheer on Florence.
- Simon Helberg plays Cosme McMoon – the new pianist hired by Florence to play with her at Carnegie Hall. At first, he’s excited by the possibility, but then, realizing how terrible her singing is – he becomes terrified of performing with her. As the story continues, and he gets to know her, he becomes a big fan, and is very happy to perform with her. Helberg does a wonderful job in this, and it’s so much more than you’ve ever gotten to see him do on Big Bang Theory.
- Rebecca Ferguson plays Kathleen, Bayfield’s side-lady. She’s in love with him, as he clearly is with her, and in the beginning she is supportive of both he and Florence, but grows increasingly frustrated as he spends more and more time with Florence instead of her.
That’s pretty much it for the main cast. Really, this is a tight, small, movie covering just a small portion of Florence’s life and career, just before her death. It’s absolutely a Streep vehicle, but both Grant and Helberg are fantastic supporting characters. Having not known anything about Florence, this was interesting for me, and hilarious from time to time. Honestly, it really showed that if you are genuine and kind, and do what you can to help others, people will be drawn to you and support you – even if you are the worst singer ever! I love a positive awards-season movie!
6 out of 10, definitely Oscar Bait –but you can’t argue with Streep’s talent.