Florence Foster Jenkins
by actor Simon Helberg
Brian Wilson said, “One day, I will write songs that people pray to.” When people listened to the music of Florence Foster Jenkins, they prayed. They prayed that it would stop. The question remains then: why did she sell out Carnegie Hall faster than Frank Sinatra? How is it that she is the biggest selling artist in the history of Mellotone Records? And why in the name of everything sacred is she on the list of David Bowie’s top ten albums of all time?
Joy. I think the answer is as simple as that. Florence Foster Jenkins embodied joy. She exuded it from every fiber of her being. She was infectious, unpretentious, unfettered by self-consciousness and totally unburdened by talent. We all know her: that person who has the passion of a thousand men without all the baggage of ability. So when it came time to tell the story of Madame Florence, who better to portray her than someone with superhuman abilities and what can only be explained as a talent derived from some kind of divine connection or maybe just a deal with the devil: Meryl Streep.
Throughout the shoot last summer in London, Meryl and I talked about the tone of this film living somewhere between Chekhov and the Marx Brothers. Nuanced. Farcical. Human. And no one embodies those three qualities (in that order) more than our director, Stephen Frears, a mad genius in radiant, polychromatic socks. Nicholas Martin wrote the brilliant script, a slice of life more than a bio-pic, that takes place over a few months in 1944 in New York City and tells the story of Florence, a socialite heiress, and her husband/manager, St. Clair Bayfield, played exquisitely by Hugh Grant. When Florence decides to take up singing again with her sights set on Carnegie Hall, despite having a voice that makes birds fall out of the sky, she first must hire an accompanist: the unwitting, gecko-like, impossibly named Cosme McMoon, played by me. What ensues is a conspiracy of kindness, in which critics are paid off, audiences are carefully selected, and careers are jeopardized, all to ensure that Florence never discovers what people truly think of her singing.
The subject is certainly morally ambiguous. Florence achieved her dreams despite needing to be deceived in order to do so. But does it matter? When Florence sang, she heard one voice in her head and the audience heard another. Isn’t that the way it always is? The artist’s intention is never experienced purely; it must always filter through the lens of subjectivity. When Chauncey Gardener talked about tending to the garden or quoted television commercials, people heard revelatory, ingenious metaphors with a keen insight into politics, love and life, and when he finally walks on water in the last moment of Being There, we hear the words, “life is a state of mind.” Ultimately, our perception is what defines our reality.
So while people might not be genuflecting when they hear the music of Florence, they seem to enjoy it, enjoy her, enjoy themselves; judgment almost becomes off-limits, like when a child prances around and belts out their favorite song with total abandon. As an audience we are experiencing what Susan Sontag describes as “the success in certain passionate failures.” In 2016, the age of social media, a time filled with hyper self-awareness and irony and judgment and a perpetual unquenchable quest for identity and validation, it is refreshing to hear a voice as honest, clear and fully realized as that of Florence Foster Jenkins.