Friday, August 26, 2016

Nosh 29: 'Florence Foster Jenkins' & More

By David Elliott

Flix Nosh is a personal movie menu, served fresh each Friday.

APPETIZER (review of Florence Foster Jenkins)
Did she know she was terrible? Did she actually hear her sound? Those questions shadow Florence Foster Jenkins, the latest and most appealing look at the wealthy, notes-nagging fantasist who benignly tortured audiences made mostly of friends, camp (even campy) followers and a few bribed “critics.”

The movie mentions her syphilis, courtesy of  her first, callous husband, Dr. Jenkins. Long treatments may have caused hearing damage. Stephen Frears’s film gives a more satisfying reason for Florence’s misunderstanding. She (Meryl Streep) is kept in a cocoon of protective adoration, a vanity bubble, by her second, “common law” husband, the retired English actor St. Clair Bayfield. Living up to that marvelous name, Hugh Grant brandies his voice and makes St. Clair the most devoted of comforting spongers.

For sex and fun he keeps a mistress in a nearby New York apartment, but genuinely loves “Bunny,” his much older wife (echoes of Raymond Chandler’s devotion to his aged Cissy). Suave, devious, dapper, at times making his charm sweat, St. Clair could be the sweet-spot performance of Grant’s mid-career. His younger, dithering cuteness is gone for good. Perhaps not since Erich von Stroheim served Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard has romantic loyalty felt quite so madly right.

When Frears and writer Nicholas Martin first saw and heard Streep, swooping and fluttering in Flo’s matronly hats, boxy furs and absurd costumes, they surely thought: home free, baby. As the deluded diva she has another late-career ball. “I am a silly woman,” says Flo in a wistful moment, but she’s also silly for glory. With St. Clair bracing her to face listeners who often can’t help laughing, she cracks and flattens high notes as if breaking her own sound barrier. In her head, it’s wonderful (Jenkins died at 76 in 1944, a month after her biggest concert, a flop; some recordings remain).

Streep did her own singing, unlike Citizen Kane opera victim Dorothy Comingore, who was “covered” by versatile soprano Jean Forward. “It’s hard work to sing badly well,” said Judy Kaye, who once played Jenkins on stage. “You could sing badly badly for a while, but you’ll hurt yourself if you do it for long.” Finely coached, calling up her legendary and never lazy technique, Streep injects emotional cues that make Flo’s fractured arias not just funny-awful but strangely touching. In the perfumed shower of her mind, lyrical notes cascade flawlessly.

Totally essential are three splendid actors: Streep, Grant and Simon Helberg. As Flo’s new pianist, Cormé McMoon, Helberg is in the noodle nebbish tradition of Franklin Pangborn, Austin Pendleton and the recently departed Yiddish schtickmeister Fyvush Finkel. At first in a panic that working for Jenkins will ruin his little career, Cormé squelches his yelps and titters as he  evolves from anxious accompanist to faithful accomplice. Under-used is Christian McKay, the excellent Orson of Me and Orson Welles, now a critic who won’t be bribed (Earl Wilson, later a top gossip columnist). Like Richard Linklater’s 2009 Welles salute, this one is set in a nostalgic Manhattan concocted in Britain, using generic clips, crafty sets and computerization. Here is the era when Carnegie Hall was a cultural Valhalla, and Maestro Arturo Toscanini was a god.

A cozy time capsule, Florence Foster Jenkins is tender for its heroine and her dressy claque of veteran fans. It skips the conceptual tangents of 2015’s Marguerite, the very French tribute inspired by Jenkins. It is no sin to cherish the kamikaze maneuvers of Florence’s voice, and the cuckoo dream of her will-to-warble. Personally, give me Flo in full blast over Pierce Brosnan’s painful exertions in Mamma Mia! Of her recitals, remember: they came from the heart. They just had some trouble, you know, getting through the throat.

SALAD (A List)
The Ten Best Meryl Streep Performances, by my loyal if not reverent calculation: Karen in Silkwood;  Julia in Julie & Julia; Lindy in A Cry in the Dark; Florence in Florence Foster Jenkins; Helen in Ironweed; Margaret in The Iron Lady; Francesca in The Bridges of Madison County; Sophie in Sophie’s Choice; Miranda in The Devil Wears Prada; Yolanda in A Prairie Home Companion.

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
In 1933, not yet 18, Orson Welles began writing a study guide to Shakespeare. His mentoring friend, Todd School director Roger Hill, was thrilled from the first words of Orson’s introduction: “Shakespeare said everything. Brain to belly; every mood and minute of a man’s season. His language is starlight and fireflies and the sun and the moon. He wrote it with tears and blood and beer, and his words march like heartbeats. He speaks to everyone.” Which is my cue to inform you that his best Shakespearean film, Chimes at Midnight (also known as Falstaff), is coming out, restored, on Blu-ray and DVD from Criterion. Next week! Unmissable! (Welles quote from Patrick McGilligan’s Young Orson: The Years of Luck and Genius on the Path to Citizen Kane). 

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
“As Susan Sontag cheerfully told me in 1978, ‘thought is not simply to control emotions, but provoke them. It’s not to get detached, but titillate oneself with things, to revel in them!’ In that spirit I hope to animate these affections without pious glazing, without any monastic devotion to received text.” (From the Introduction in my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, available on Amazon, Nook and Kindle.)

DESSERT (An Image)
A great movie image is more than a still, it’s a distillation.

Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday (Paramount, 1953; director William Wyler, cinematographer Franz Planer)

For previous Flix Nosh meals, scroll below.

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