Meryl’s Metaphor For Our Times

Oscar nominated turn in ‘Florence Foster Jenkins' a funny echo of Trump's rise.

By - Jan 25th, 2017 03:30 pm
Florence Foster Jenkins

Florence Foster Jenkins

Pretty sure that the most difficult and successfully executed acting job of 2016 will not win the Oscar, though it was nominated. Also convinced, as Meryl Streep herself has suggested in interviews, that the most celebrated film actress of all time and the most ever nominated will not ever win again and certainly not for what was a fully realized performance in a not so fully realized film, “Florence Foster Jenkins” (first released in August but is making the rounds again in Oscar anticipation).

A shame, too, because the movie and her character in some ways are a metaphor for our times. Here we have a woman who loved to sing, and did it so abominably in the 1940s as to inspire laughter even as her celebrity commanded the stage. She was able through sheer financial prominence and the protection of sycophants to force her way into Carnegie Hall and into legend.

If this is not a metaphor for our age, the ability of money and conviction to rise to prominence despite realities, I don’t know what is.

There is a profound difference. In pure acting ability Streep – a fine singer herself – captures without sarcastic comment the hilarious near misses of Jenkins and the sense of assurance that her love of music will  triumph over her inability to achieve it. The shrills of her aria are chalkboard grating and just off the mark enough to be hysterical. She is somewhat aware of what she is doing but so absorbed in her self-worth that she plows ahead despite the obstacle of no real ability.

This is a difficult comic and human line to walk, and in her portrayal of a rich woman permanently damaged by youthful exposure to syphilis, kept together by makeup and wigs to put on a public face, Streep makes most of the audience care for the human being despite her faults and preposterous self-delusion. The candor with which she approaches physical deterioration and camouflage serves as constant corrections to our sense of superiority – and yet does not stifle our desire to laugh.

The rest of the film does not rise to her level – and that may be the fault of director Stephen Frears realizing how good she is and trusting that would carry along the rest of the casting and shaky story development.

Hugh Grant plays her husband who constantly has us on the edge of whether he truly loves her or is using her. It is among the better things Grant has done, since his self-contained British manner and aloofness fit perfectly the character, but it is still not convincing because the doubt about the character is more an intellectual mystery than a revelation from the actor.

There is unabashed muggery from Simon Helberg as pianist Cosmé McMoon who takes the Jenkins’ job for money with full realization of the horror she is visiting on opera. Helberg, a big success from TV’s “Big Bang Theory,” has the job of giving the audience the excuse to laugh and employs the bug-eyed reactions famous from the TV series, providing much mirth for a TV trained audience visiting the movie theater. I suspect he is a good actor directed into emphasizing his shtick but it does pull the film out of the reality of the times and personality that Streep has so effortlessly established. (Effortless in the sense of how we accept her – the work that went into this is nigh impossible to imagine.)

Someday, years from now, an actor will come along to interpret Donald Trump with a combination of hilarity and understanding that will force a re-evaluation from supporters and foes alike. He should right now start praying that an actor of the self-effacing character and insight of Meryl Streep will take him on and re-interpret his reputation.

Dominique Paul Noth served for decades as film and drama critic, later senior editor for features at the Milwaukee Journal. You’ll find his blog here and here.

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