Florence Foster Jenkins, a film telling the story of a woman by the same name, opened last month. Meryl Streep shines in the lead role, and the film has received an 87 percent positive rating from critics on Rotten Tomatoes. While it's not quite the cookie-cutter Blockbuster, it remains in cinemas throughout the country and is likely to have to have some staying power far beyond.
If you've seen it, hopefully you agree. And if you haven't, here are just some of the reasons Florence Foster Jenkins may surprise you. (Be warned: some spoilers ahead!)
01. The Film Celebrates The Delight of Doing Something That Brings You Joy.
Florence Foster Jenkins was a real woman who lived in New York and was a significant philanthropist to the arts in the early 20th century. She joined all ranks of social clubs in the city and enjoyed contributing in costumed tableaux. Then in her 40s, she decided to start the hobby of singing, which, although it was never a strength of hers, was an activity in which she found great joy. You see, Foster Jenkins was tone-deaf, but no one could bring themselves to tell her.
Ultimately Foster Jenkins produced a record and reserved a date at Carnegie Hall—something she could get away with thanks to her great funding of the city's opera and musical arts. While the singing performed on that day was laughably off tune, it remains among the most requested program from Carnegie Hall records. As Carnegie Hall museum director and archivist Gino Francesconi said, since he founded the hall's archives 30 years ago, "when people call here for research, if you count the top-five or the top-10 most-requested events that we've had here—sometimes it's Benny Goodman, sometimes it's the Beatles, sometimes it's Judy Garland—but almost always, it's Florence Foster Jenkins."
As Foster Jenkins' unofficial husband—they had what they called a "secret marriage"—St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) described her to the piano accompanist in the film, "if you can forgive my little Florence her little eccentricities you will find her to be a most generous person." As it happens, if anyone can forgive eccentricities, it's New Yorkers, but it's also easy to love someone who so unabashedly embraces their own eccentricities. If only we all did!
02. The Film Reminds Us To Have Compassion.
Awhile into the film, viewers learn that everyone's hiding the truth about her voice isn't just a sick joke on an aging woman. It is, for the most part, a compassionate response to a woman who is somewhat sick.
"Will my reason desert me?" Foster Jenkins worriedly wonders to Bayfield at one point in the film. She wants to enjoy life the best way she can before her mind or breath are fully taken away from her, and singing is how she chose to do it.
When trying to convince pianist Cosme McMoon to perform with Florence on stage at Carnegie Hall, Bayfield implores, "Please, my wife is ill. Singing was her dream and I’m going to give it to her."
While I won't spoil the full story about her condition, suffice it to say it's a chronic and tragic illness that usually leads sufferers on a steady and swift demise. But, as one doctor checking up on Jenkins says to Bayfield, "Her condition is improving. What is her secret?" "Music," Bayfield replies. "She lives for music." Foster Jenkins died just one month and one day after her Carnegie debut, at the age of 76.
03. The Film Values The Courage To Stand Up For Someone.
At the climax of the film, the Carnegie audience is responding to Foster Jenkins' singing, and there's a fork in the road: either one can laugh at the would-be opera singer or take the road less traveled. Even though her singing was horrid, those who love the woman found her generous heart to be contagious and drowned out those who would prefer to make a laughingstock of Foster Jenkins. No matter what objective flaws someone may have in real life, the film seemed to say in its message, it's never okay to tease or ridicule someone. To do so is, to some extent, to deny them their human dignity.
Bayfield believed this in his dedication to Florence. "Without loyalty," he said in the film, "there's nothing."
04. “You Can Do It,” Is Rarely Bad Advice.
At a moment of weakness before the Carnegie performance in the film, Foster Jenkins experiences doubt as to whether she should go on stage after all. One crucial character gathers himself to rise to the occasion, showing growth on his part as he encourages her, "you can do it!" It's at that moment that viewers realize: You don't need to lie or flatter the woman. Indeed, she could do it. Beautifully? Maybe not so much, but she did it nonetheless.
Foster Jenkins realized this somewhat, saying: "people may say I couldn’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing." This struck me as very American thing to say, evoking as it does Theodore Roosevelt's famous words, "It is not the critic who counts...but the man who is actually in the arena." On a musical level, it's hard to find truer words that speak so much to Florence and her dream.
05. There’s Beauty In Heartfelt Self-Expression, Even If It’s Imperfect.
Florence Foster Jenkins' voice teacher Carlo Edwards said to her at one point in the film: "there is no one quite like you." At another point Bayfield tells his love, “yours is the truest voice I have ever heard." It's hard not to be moved at that point, because it's palpable that he's choosing his words carefully, and by true, he means from the heart.
That, I would say, is what makes this story so lovely and Florence's music so popular, despite what it may lack in quality. For all its imperfections, indeed almost due to its imperfections, Foster Jenkins' voice became iconic; her passion and gumption were clear. She wished no ill on anyone, only to share her joy and leave a good mark on the world, and by all accounts she did nothing less.
"The lady is a lesson in courage," another spoke of her in the film, "and that’s why we love her." Thanks in great part to Streep's remarkable performance of the woman, that's why you just may love the film as well.
Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures