Florence Foster Jenkins, everywoman

When I was a child I was introduced to the singing of Florence Foster Jenkins, on a record called “The Glory (??) of the Human Voice”.


There was a kind of illicit pleasure in listening to her singing, because

  • She did not sing well
  • She did not seem to notice that she did not sing well

Ours is a society of sophistication. Whether you paint or dance or sing or play golf, we aspire to do these things well, and usually are aware of our handicap / limitation.   When we fail to perform well we suffer, we are ashamed, we have stagefright.

The astonishing thing with FFJ: how much conviction she seemed to bring to her singing.

The great mystery with FFJ: did she sing this way without any inkling that she was not successful? that people were laughing?

Usually singing teachers discourage singers from undertaking repertoire that is beyond their capabilities.  Indeed, a teacher who does not stop a student from over-reaching can damage a singer’s confidence and even ruin a voice.

And so, in our adoration of the virtuoso, our aspiration to excellence both for ourselves and what we enjoy, the Florence Foster Jenkins mystery is profound.  Did she know that people laughed?

Florence Foster Jenkins is Stephen Frears’ new film with Meryl Streep as the singer and Hugh Grant as her devoted boyfriend, an actor who didn’t quite make it.  Big Bang Theory’s Simon Helberg is FFJ´s pianist Cosme McMoon, another virtuoso who didn’t quite make it.  I always thought that the pianist’s bizarre name suggested that it was a pseudonym, a good piano player who refused to be identified, but the story we get in Frears’ film tells quite a different sort of story.

I can’t help thinking that this might be the most profound meditation upon performance and art that I’ve yet encountered, precisely because, as far as FFJ is concerned there but for the grace of God, could go you or I.  Some of us are more talented than others.  I grew up in a household with a stunning voice –not my own but a sibling—that has forever got me thinking about such things.  We can be very harsh critics of ourselves.  FFJ is the other extreme, perhaps someone who was overly enabled by loving and supportive friends & loved ones.

How much did FFJ really know?  I think this film offers one set of answers, even while displaying other possibilities.

Along the way we also encounter a very enlightened film about relationships, about unconditional love.  For most of the film Streep is doing a remarkable impersonation of the messed up interpretations of opera arias I recall from childhood, although we get a tiny glimpse as if from FFJ’s perspective: as Streep suddenly gets to sing in tune, a poignant moment near the end.

In this electoral campaign where one of the candidates has ridiculed a disabled person’s speech, I can’t help feeling uncomfortable about the topic.  In the darkened theatre I confess I giggled a few times even as I watched Grant as the boyfriend express outrage that anyone could laugh at her.  Why is this kind of laughter okay and sanctioned by our sophisticated attitudes, while we disapprove of what Trump did?  We go into a church or a school and when the little children in sunday school or kindergarten sing out of tune we think “aw isn’t that adorable” and withhold judgment.

But we judge ourselves harshly, because we expect too much of ourselves.  Competence and sophistication seem to be the rocks upon which we wreck ourselves as we age, as we become progressively less competent. For some reason we forgive some, while judging others harshly.  Florence Foster Jenkins is a delicate examination not just of this quirky story, but of the predicament of every performer, aiming to be great and squirming in the presence of failure.

This entry was posted in Cinema, video & DVDs, Music and musicology, Opera, Personal ruminations & essays. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Florence Foster Jenkins, everywoman

  1. girlycat says:

    Just a thought: Since she was being medicated with both arsenic and mercury for the ‘venereal’ disease, the mercury, which has been known to cause symptoms of mental disorders, could have affected her thinking to a great degree, allowing her to believe she was a good singer… The film itself brings FFJ into another light rather than merely as a buffoon.

    • barczablog says:

      Carol, very true, thanks for the comments.

      The film creates a kind of ideal fable, where her husband and accompanist are both failed artists supported by her $. That’s why i kept saying “I wonder what she knew”. If she had tertiary syphilis she might have had a mild dementia, augmented by the mercury. This is a work of art, and a truly deep one. (SORRY i didn’t get to approve this sooner but i wasn’t online for awhile because i was playing at church)

  2. billrankin2012 says:

    I just saw the film and laughed hard, not so much at the character as at the sounds she created, the excellently bad performance! The Queen of the Night scene was beyond squirmy, yet it’s an aria anyone who wanted to sound dramatically operatic would choose just for the fun of it. I would not have laughed if I had ever heard her live. I’ve reviewed some concerts that were far from perfect, one by an aging, famous pianist who had no business playing Mozart sonatas from memory. It was a disaster, but he did have a good, dark Central European sense of humour. I delivered some of my best euphemistic writing ever.
    Your point about judging and the effect it can have on others’ impulse to do what they’d love to do regardless of the imperfections is insightful. But submitting others to dread performance doesn’t really serve anyone. Compassion has a place, but it’s not the response listeners should have to find in a place like Carngie Hall, even if the tickets were free. Nice column.

    • barczablog says:

      Thanks for the kind words. I have to wonder how accurate this film really is (especially the way the Carnegie Hall scene turns out), given that this scene is a bit unbelievable, even if it is quite lovely. (SORRY i didn’t get to approve/publish your words sooner but i wasn’t online for awhile because i was playing at church)

  3. Pingback: Love, Marilyn | barczablog

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