Potato Salad In The Bathtub
Florence Foster Jenkins
Stars: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, Rebecca Ferguson, Nina Arianda, David Haig, Brid Brennan, Stanley Townsend, Alan Conduner and Christian McKay
Director: Stephen Frears
Scriptwriter: Nicholas Martin
Composer: Alexander Desplat
Cinematographer: Danny Cohen
Paramount/20th Century Fox
Rating: PG 13 for themed material
Running Length: 110 minutes
If you have ever been in a choir where one voice sticks out above the rest, only in an off-tune way, this is the film for you. Florence Foster Jenkins was a woman of the first half of the 20th century, a woman with money, and who loved music. She wanted to become a concert pianist, but because of a tragedy was unable to do so. Her voice---and donated money---are her means of expression. Meryl Streep takes up the gauntlet and the role of Florence, who in her late sixties was planning major vocal recitals and even singing in Carnegie Hall. Streep, who has a professionally trained voice, worked at getting Florence’s tones just below or above their actual tone. In Florence's life, if you have money, you can do just about anything. Hugh Grant, as St. Clair Bayfield, Florence’s second husband, steals his scenes as he affectionately dotes on Florence and protects her from herself. Simon Helberg (television’s “The Big Bang Theory”) pays Cosme' McMoon, Florence’s accompanist who observes everything from the sidelines and can't believe what he sees and hears.
The film begins in Florence’s later years, as she hosts several meetings of the Verdi Club, which she founded. Florence loves potato salad and small sandwiches and assumes everyone else does, too. Thus, when entertaining at her large apartment, there is abundant, and I mean abundant, potato salad. After hearing soprano Lily Pons in concert, Florence decides to start practicing again and perhaps, have her own recital. Everyone praises her---and she believes it all---but we see Bayfield behind the scenes paying people off to compliment Florence. The accompanist is on board, and Florence gives a recital and eventually goes to Carnegie Hall for a military salute to the troops (it is WWII). While she is rehearsing, Bayfield has time for a romance with his girlfriend, Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson), who is loyal to Bayfield even through she knows it is to no end. There are humorous moments and moments of poignancy, as Florence’s life before Bayfield is placed before the audience. Life does, indeed, have large spaces of sadness. Soon it is time for the Carnegie Hall recital and the accompanist is nervous, Florence is nervous and Bayfield is nervous. Sing to the troops, but they are rowdy that night, indeed.
The real Florence Foster Jenkins has a series of recordings from Melofone and they turned out to be quite popular and still are. The real Jenkins voice, heard at the end of the film during the credits, isn't that bad at all. Streep goes a bit over the top in her presentations, but you get the idea of a woman who can't---and won't---be stopped. With all the drama surrounding Florence, it is Hugh Grant’s quietly effective Bayfield, who really takes charge, with finesse (English gentleman style), wit and knowing just when to say the right thing with a twinkle in his eye. He would make a good poker player.
You could play an entire game just watching his face. Simon Helberg as the pianist (he actually is a trained pianist) gives us humor, a bit of slapstick and understanding of the situation. The settings are beautiful for that time, as are the costumes.
Through the years, I have heard my share of off-tune vocalists, and wondered why they couldn't hear themselves. This isn't explained here, other than there is such a love of music in the life of Florence, she goes ahead to celebrate it, full steam. With that, friends go along behind her, perhaps hoping to catch some of this enthusiasm. Behind the scenes, we wonder if there are such devotions in marriages as displayed by St. Clair Bayfield, who is not only the handsomest man in the room, but also the first one to come to the aid of his wife with nary a disparaging word.
Copyright 2016 Marie Asner