SEPTEMBER 14, 2016
THE FILM FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS opens with St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) reciting a soliloquy from Hamlet at the Verdi Club. It would not have been his to perform in an actual production — a minor Shakespearean actor, Bayfield has appeared in Hamlet many times, though “not as yet in the principal role.” That role is his only by cheating and only for a few minutes, as a contrived prelude to the evening’s tableaux vivants. But even there he’s mostly a sideshow, since the principal attraction at that event is his wife, Madame Florence, New York socialite, arts patron, and the film’s eponymous heroine.
Florence (Meryl Streep) is, in truth, minor as well, or at least ought to be. Reputedly the “world’s worst singer,” her rightful place would have been the one that she occupies at the tableaux vivants: at the top of a well-oiled and well-insulated social machine, lionized at the club she has herself founded, conspicuous but ornamental. Her refusal to stay in that role turned her into a legend then and now. Two thousand people were shut out of her 1944 recital at Carnegie Hall, some waving $20 bills as bribes to get in, as the likes of Cole Porter, Lily Pons, and Tallulah Bankhead made their way through. When, in 1968, New York magazine asked the young Barbra Streisand which other singers she’d like to be, she named “Ray Charles and Florence Foster Jenkins.” The Glory of the Human Voice, the 1962 RCA album of Jenkins’s songs, was one of the “top 25 discoveries” of David Bowie, who praised her for being “blissfully unaware of the worst set of pipes in the world of music.”
Jenkins’s blissful unawareness has also put her back in the spotlight this past year: as an almost cartoonish figure in Stephen Temperley’s play, Souvenir (2015); as a more rounded, fictionalized protagonist in Xavier Giannoli’s arthouse film, Marguerite (2016); and now as the title character in this Stephen Frears biopic, already something of a cult classic. None of this would have happened without the partly conniving, partly self-serving, but also genuinely inspired and dogged efforts of her husband, determined to make and keep her as a climate-controlled celebrity, even when her ambition takes her, at the age of 76, to the 3,000-seat capacity of Carnegie Hall.
Games that couples play have been important to Stephen Frears at least since Dangerous Liaisons (1988). Florence Foster Jenkins pretty much turns the earlier film on its head. Dangerous Liaisons was resolutely tragic, a tale of vengeance sweeping everyone into its destructive path through a proliferating web of delegated actions and revelations. Florence Foster Jenkins, on the other hand, is resolutely non-tragic, a more complicated genre achieved by offering clinical, but not fatal, revelations from the first. This self-baiting and self-releasing pattern is already in full display in its opening sequence: gilded surfaces are followed by less-than-gilded disclosures, which are shown to be not quite the disaster one might think. Looking at first like the beginning of a catastrophic spiral, they turn out to be no more than a plain statement of fact.
Florence’s syphilis is a case in point. That disturbing information comes out at the end of the tableaux vivants: feeling unwell, she has to be taken home, and in the course of the medical examination, performed not by her own doctor but by someone filling in for him, we learn that she’s had this disease for more than 50 years, having contracted it on her wedding night at the age of 18. Since mercury was the standard treatment in the 19th century, with baldness as the result, this is what we see in Florence. Removing her wig is a nightly ritual, jointly performed by Bayfield and her maid. Still, there’s no lasting bitterness toward Frank Jenkins, the first husband who gave her the syphilis. And in general, vengefulness is a weakly developed sentiment in the film, minimally operative in just about everyone, even the New York Post’s Earl Wilson, whose withering review of the Carnegie recital seems to have nothing to do with his desire to get back at Bayfield for first trying to bribe him and then denying him a ticket to an earlier event.
Given this untortured emotional landscape, the impassioned lines from Hamlet (Act 2, Scene 2) recited by Bayfield are especially puzzling:
But I am pigeon-liver’d and lack gall
to make oppression bitter, or ere this
I should have fatted all the region kites
with this slave’s offal. Bloody, bawdy villain!
Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain.
Speaking to what seems to be a nonexistent sentiment in the film, the lines also speak to what seems to be a nonexistent kind of character: the villain. Who among the cast, after all, could be described as “remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless”?
Well, no one, although if anyone could be said to have any relation at all to these words, it is Bayfield himself. It is true that he is without shame or apology, offering cash payment in exchange for favorable reviews of Florence’s singing, but “remorseless” seems hardly the right word for such thick-skinned string-pulling. It is also true that he has a separate apartment with a live-in mistress, Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson), but once again “treacherous,” “lecherous,” and “kindless” seem too strong, especially given the affair’s predictably farcical turn, with an obligatory hideout in the closet when Florence comes unexpectedly knocking on the door.
As a villain, Bayfield is woefully inadequate, but that limitation is also his salvation. Lacking the right stuff to be a major player in a revenge tragedy, he isn’t a major player in a screwball comedy either. Instead, he’s perennially minor, destined to be an aberration in both of these major genres, and to get by that way. Those lines from Hamlet, not rightfully his, also ill become him. He would have been better off, in fact, if he had recited these other lines, also from Act 2, Scene 2:
The best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poem unlimited.
Shakespeare, a sometime actor himself, knew enough about typecasting to make fun of it, throwing all genres into a giant melting pot. These lines are given to Polonius, and if Bayfield had been lucky, they could have been his, although, given his low standing, even this might have been too much to hope for. Lines more realistically his are likely to be these instead, from Act 1, Scene 1:
We do it wrong, being so majestical,
To offer it the show of violence;
For it is, as the air, invulnerable,
And our vain blows malicious mockery.
The speaker here is Marcellus, and the “it” is the ghost. But the lines could also be taken as a general warning to any “majestical” person in the habit of dismissing with “malicious mockery” the feeble efforts of others. Even though there’s no evidence that screenwriter Nicholas Martin is drawing on these particular lines, for him, as for Shakespeare, what looks feeble might turn out to be “invulnerable” in its own way. And that is indeed the case with Florence’s singing. These unrecited lines from a minor character are a defense of her, as they are of Bayfield, bit player morphed into a nontrivial force behind the phenomenon that Florence is. Like Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg), who gets to play Carnegie Hall only as Florence’s accompanist, Bayfield gets to take a bow on that stage only as her indefatigable manager and advocate.
It’s a dubious honor, of course, and McMoon, for one, might have wished that it had never happened. Still, it’s altogether fitting that Florence should be up there, on that stage, singing the now infamous “Queen of the Night” aria from Mozart’s The Magic Flute, the aria of a vengeful queen. And it is fitting as well that she should be off-key, as is her wont, “improvising it in quarter tones, either above or below the original notes,” as Robert Bagar of the New York World-Telegram put it. Matching her husband’s weak claim to villainy, Florence’s weak claim to vengefulness (and to notes of any elevation) makes this aria truly hers: a flat rendition of trauma and drama, not quite tragedy and not quite farce, but a passable admixture of the two, defining both negatively. As she says: “People may say I couldn’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.”
Wai Chee Dimock is William Lampson Professor of English and American Studies at Yale University and the editor of PMLA. She has published widely on American literature of every period, and is best known for Through Other Continents: American Literature Across Deep Time (2007).