Thursday, August 4, 2016

LIZ SMITH: Acting!

Florence Foster Jenkins, a New York heiress who dreamed of becoming an opera singer, is played by Meryl Streep in "Florence Foster Jenkins."
by Liz Smith & Denis Ferrara

"Florence Foster Jenkins" and the Simon Helberg Theory — How To Steal a Movie From The World's Greatest Actress!  

“MAKE him stop! He’s raping my eaarrrss!!!”

That’s Meryl Streep, in her upcoming new film, “Florence Foster Jenkins.”  This outcry — Streep plays a deluded “singer” auditioning pianists — comes about 20 minutes into the movie, at its most amusing point. 
“Florence Foster Jenkins” directed by Stephen Frears (of “Dangerous Liaisons," “My Beautiful Launderette," “The Grifters,” and “The Queen” fame) is based on the true story of a New York socialite, passionate music lover and painfully untalented singer. Despite her woeful lack of gifts, late in life she succeeded, with her help of her husband, erstwhile actor St. Clair Bayfield (played by Hugh Grant) to book herself into a one-night performance at Carnegie Hall. This event has gone down in history as the worst singing the fabled Hall ever experienced, as well as an example of what chutzpa, money and glorious self-delusion can accomplish.
Hugh Grant as St. Clair Bayfield and Meryl Streep as Florence Foster Jenkins.
EARLY this week I attended a screening of “Florence Foster Jenkins” put on by the Karpel Group and New Fest.  The film has a lot of charm, looks lovely (Manhattan circa 1944 is evocatively captured) and of course it is loaded with talent.  But the tale, which only incorporates one year of Florence’s life — as she prepares for Carnegie Hall, much to the consternation of her husband, his mistress and Flo’s accompanist (Simon Helberg of “The Big Bang Theory”) — is a slender thing indeed. So slender that after almost everything plot wise has been established — she can’t sing, her wealthy pals ignore this at her small recitals, her husband is sincerely devoted to her — the movie goes around and around, requiring all the actors to repeat themselves.  The story might have been better served with flashbacks, with Miss Streep and Mr. Grant playing the older Florence and St. Clair. (There is a significant and surprising backstory, that surely could have been worked up.)
After you’ve watched Miss Streep shriek and croak her way through one song, you get the idea.  In fact, although it was surely not intended, “Florence Foster Jenkins” comes off as much a vanity project for Streep as the real-life Jenkins’ Carnegie Hall performance was.  The subtext is — “watch me sing badly for 110 minutes, because you all know I can actually sing very well. ACTING!” (As Jon Lovitz used to declare on “SNL.”)
Of course, Streep is a miracle of technique, but we’ve seen this miracle many times.  Streep, the most honored of actresses, finds herself, sometimes, in a bit of a pickle.

If, for example, Elizabeth Taylor eventually ”famed” her way out of being taken seriously as an actor, because of her unparalleled notoriety and her reputation as “The World’s Most Beautiful Woman,” Meryl Streep, conversely, is taken almost too seriously because she is widely considered “The World’s Greatest Actress.” 
Expectations are high. Mythology abounds. Meryl Streep is not nominated for an Oscar every time she steps in front of a camera, but she’s been nominated and won enough, for people to make this sweeping statement about her, and kind of believe it.

Streep has conquered every genre — comedy (“Postcards From the Edge,” “Death Becomes Her”) ... drama (take your pick!) and the exquisite in-between that is her Miranda Priestly in “The Devil Wears Prada,” possibly the three-time Oscar-winner’s greatest performance. (Perversely, she didn’t win for that brilliant turn, although it was one of her 18 nominations!)

So, when faced with more or less minor Streep — a great talent in a charming throwaway — there is an uneasiness; a sense of “What, That’s it?”
HOWEVER, let it not be said that “Florence Foster Jenkins” is anything less than a delicious, if quickly forgotten, dish of potato salad. (When you see the movie, you’ll get that allusion.) 

Hugh Grant is wonderful as Florence’s husband, who has his own issues, his own other life, in fact, but deeply cares for his eccentric “Bunny” as he affectionately refers to her. (Grant’s maturity is serving him extraordinarily well as an actor. He tended to annoy me in his callow youth; he moves me now.) Also very good, compelling actually, in her few scenes, is the beautiful Rebecca Ferguson as Grant’s other woman. (I’ve never seen this Swedish actress before, but she reminded me powerfully, here at least, of another lovely Swede, Ingrid Bergman.)  
Rebecca Ferguson as Kathleen.
The comedic piece de resistance, the movie’s tender, jittery heart, is provided by Simon Helberg, as Cosme McMoon, the delicate, nervous pianist/composer who does not anticipate in the slightest what he’s getting into.  Speaking in a perpetually terrified/confused whisper, gliding swiftly, as if his feet never quite touch the ground, he is a tiny, startled bird, prepared at any moment to take flight, but resisting in the end, out of compassion for Florence. (Not to mention the opportunity to play at Carnegie Hall!)
His first fifteen minutes on screen — struggling to control his ego, which gives way to confusion, distress, and eventual helpless hilarity — is genius. If there’s an award to be had out of “Florence Foster Jenkins” Me. Helberg is the actor most likely to receive it.
Simon Helberg as Cosme McMoon.
A big hand also to Nina Arianda, who is a glorious brassy delight; she is eventually the real heroine of the movie!

P.S. “Florence Foster Jenkins” also told me something I’d never known about the late, famous New York Post columnist, Earl Wilson. At first I thought it had to be director Stephen Frears taking liberties with the real story, but no. I went home after the screening and looked up Florence online. Mr. Wilson did indeed play a significant role.  I won’t spoil. Let’s just say it’s nothing the gossip-loving Earl ever reminisced about!
MAIL!  Several readers reminded us — in the wake of our remarks the other day about Boy George, Prince, Madonna, etc, that David Bowie “really started it all” in terms of androgyny and in-your-face (if, in his case, ethereal) sexuality. True, but our thoughts were on the 1980’s. (Bowie emerged big-time in 1972 and reached his commercial peak with 1983’s “Let’s Dance,” just as MTV and a crop of fresh stars were born.)
The new artistic freedoms and changes in attitudes were up against the horrible specter of AIDS.  Artists who challenged a suddenly terrified public in the early years of the plague, who spoke up, and acted up, took a big chance; even musicians, whose lifestyles had always been given more latitude.

But of course, David Bowie was at ground control. And before him Mick Jagger certainly gave us new lessons in male flamboyance and a certain sexual ambiguity.

Not that there’s anything ambiguous about Jagger these days, as he anticipates the birth of his 8th child, at the age of 72.
Contact Liz here.