September 9, 2016
When we first see Meryl Streep as the eponymous character in Florence Foster Jenkins, she has wings attached to her back and is being perilously lowered onto a stage at a social club performance where she is about to sing. Will the ropes give? Will she be embarrassed out of her ambition to become known as a singer?
We don’t hear her singing at this point but the story of the real life Jenkins tells us she did go on to attain fame of a sort, at Carnegie Hall, no less. Jenkins was born into wealth in 1868, and ran away at the age of seventeen with Frank Thornton Jenkins, thirty years her senior. He gave her syphilis. She left him (it’s unclear whether they ever really divorced, and he died in 1917) but the lifelong treatment — she died in 1944 — of arsenic and mercury meant that she suffered physically (some have speculated that the poisonous substances ruined her hearing, which led to her inability to properly hear her own voice). Jenkins was reportedly a child prodigy pianist, even performing at the White House as “Little Miss Jenkins.” In later years, an injury would prevent her from playing and she took to song instead.
Jenkins doggedly pursued a singing career without any evidence of talent, aided by a vast reservoir of wealth (she bought all the tickets for her Carnegie Hall performance and gave them away) which gave her access to several social clubs in New York. Alongside her was her common-law husband, St. Clair Bayfield, who spent much of the thirty-six years he was her manager bribing critics and ensuring that no harsh word reached her ears or eyes.
The Carnegie Hall performance was supposedly the first time she heard people laughing outright at her performance, and that shocked and upset her. She died five days later of a heart attack.
All of this is revived (and broadly adapted) in the new film Florence Foster Jenkins, starring Meryl Streep as Jenkins and Hugh Grant as Bayfield.
Like every other film that stars Streep, this one is merely a vehicle for a woman who is constantly lauded as an acting genius. She is, at 67, the only female actor of her generation who can star in a major motion picture. But as with nearly every other film she has ever been in, Streep’s performance, while pitch-perfect in more ways than one, is inorganic* and completely delinked from the extraordinarily hard work put in by nearly everyone else in the film.
Streep is not new to singing — she sang a series of ABBA songs in Mama Mia. Here, the inside joke is that it takes an actor of a particular calibre to perform bad singing and Streep is pitch-perfect in her bad singing, clearly having practised for hours till she could hit the wrong notes with accuracy. We don’t hear her voice until Jenkins sings for her new pianist Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg), and we are exposed to her complete lack of range and even proper diction.
But the people to watch in this scene are those in the room with her. This is the first time McMoon is hearing her sing. As a poor boy from Texas who has learnt to elbow his way into winning the audition by describing his fellow auditioners as “heavy-handed,” he’s delighted to finally get such a well-paying gig ($150 a week, the equivalent of $2000 today) but aghast that he’s playing piano for a woman whose voice is a cross between a caterwauling feline, the rasp of nails streaking down a chalkboard, and the Hound of the Baskervilles. He makes eye contact with Bayfield, expecting some nod of recognition that, yes, this is truly a farce, but Bayfield smiles sunnily back at him and keeps nodding happily and encouragingly at Jenkins. McMoon then looks at Carlo Edwards (David Haig), assistant conductor at the Metropolitan Opera working as a private voice coach to Jenkins, and realises the man is a charlatan only looking for the bounty Jenkins pays him.
The interchange between the three others is what makes the scene. Without it, Streep would simply be singing into a void.
Yet, throughout the film, there is never any connective tissue between Streep and the rest of the cast. The relationship between Jenkins and Bayfield is supposed to be rich and complex — they never married but were together for nearly forty years, and there is evidence that his work on her behalf came out of genuine love and concern. According to the film’s narrative, they never consummated their romantic relationship because of her syphilis, but Bayfield speaks often of his deep love for her, even when discussing his romantic and sexual relationship with Kathleen Weatherly (Rebecca Ferguson): “There is so much love here.”
This is possibly Hugh Grant’s best performance. Grant has so far been restricted to playing caddishly good-looking posh Brits, compelled to do his shtick with equal parts stuttering and bumbling, interspersed with stock phrases like “I say,” and eyebrows perpetually leaning towards each other in various but very similar combinations of dismay and snarkiness.
But here, he plays a character imbued with both warmth and complexity. In one scene, as he tries to grab an illegal recording of Jenkins’ singing out of some soldier’s hands, someone reaches out and hands him the ultimate humiliation by yanking off his hairpiece. Grant’s not bald but distinctly less coiffed. The performance could have been unctuous but Grant enlivens the role without overplaying and is by turns loving, sop-eyed, cunning, and duplicitous (at one point, he forces a naked Weatherly into a nearby wardrobe when Jenkins shows up one morning unexpectedly at his apartment).
Simon Helberg, better known for his work on the sitcom Big Bang Theory, plays McMoon beautifully with a mix of hysteria and nervousness, his eyes crying out, “We are so fucking screwed right now.” He’s obsequious but also wants to preserve his dignity as a pianist, desperately wants to tell Jenkins the truth but is delighted when she writes him into her will (and subsequently grows silent).
One of the most delightful scenes in the film is at a party at Bayfield’s apartment, when Weatherly persuades him to join in because he has a reputation for being a great dancer. Sure enough, Grant’s Bayfield literally throws himself exuberantly into a jitterbug and the entire lot caper around, legs and arms flying and criss-crossing exuberantly as the music goes on. It’s a deliciously authentic moment and demonstrates the heart of the film. There is much love here, of the actors for their craft, of people throwing themselves into their roles.
Where does Streep fit in this ensemble? She’s the only one who never actually blends into the story.
As I watched the film, it occurred to me that the best analogy for her acting in her entire body of work is this: Imagine you’re looking at Renoir’s Luncheon at the Boating Party. Imagine the iconic figure of the young woman holding up a little black dog. Consider the impressionistic lushnesss of the image. Now imagine that someone has come along, cut out the woman, and replaced her with a photographic image of a woman with a dog.
It’s not as if such a project could not be engaged upon with wit and beauty by some smart contemporary artist. But to do so without forethought is to simply ruin a masterwork, to make incongruent an element which until then had been a seamless part of a larger narrative.
That’s the effect of Streep in this movie. It’s as if everyone else around her is part of a larger narrative and is actually acting together in the service of the film. But every time she appears, she refuses to fully inhabit the narrative and is simply there as Meryl Streep. As an actor who demands that you stare at her Very Great Performance.
The Onion once pointed out that Streep has never appeared in anything that stands out as a classic: “Great actress, okay movies.” Inevitably, even in the hands of an experienced director like Stephen Frears, any film she’s in only becomes a showcase for her ability to become a character, sometimes to the point of caricature. Streep never acts but always performs.
Her emotional scenes similarly ring with that inability to connect. In some, she leans against Grant’s Bayfield, seemingly relaxing into his embrace. And yet, because she can never let go of her acting, we only see Streep as Jenkins, not Jenkins leaning into Bayfield; Grant is merely an awkwardly placed prop and pillow. In her death scene, we see a diva but also Streep as diva. Again, we are to behold everything about the construct, willed, by a combination of directorial coddling and thespian arrogance, to pay attention to her acting the acting.
This is true especially when you consider her outfits in Florence. Everyone’s else’s clothing is part of the scenery in a period film. Yet, somehow, when Streep appears, she is always In Costume. For her role, she had to wear a body suit to bring her up to the real Jenkins’ proportions but the problem is that both she and Frears play this up, especially in the last concert at Carnegie Hall. Seen in profile from the POV of Bayfield, she sings and grimaces at him when she hears the laughter and there’s just something in the lilt of her body, the way she practically preens the suit to make sure all the angles can be seen to make it evident that this is not her real body.
Here, the body suit and the way attention is drawn to it is a metaphor for her acting. Streep is always eager to demonstrate the extent to which she is playing a part. Look at me, she seem to always be saying, As you can tell, this is not the real me, and look how well I act her out. Look at this body suit.
It’s an inorganic performance, which is unfortunate because it could have been so much better in a film that demonstrates the real acting talents of an extremely fine ensemble cast.
As is always the case with Meryl Streep: the character itself is a costume.
*Many thanks to Dan Ackerman
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