May 03, 2016

Florence Foster Jenkins: Meryl Streep's Latest Biopic


Like Dame Helen Mirren Meryl Streep is chalking up quite a list of biopics.
This is her latest and it looks good!


Meryl Streep has a lovely singing voice: strong, clear, often note perfect. “I guess it’s pretty OK,” says the world’s greatest living actress, twinkling modestly from behind designer specs in a luxury suite at ­Claridge’s in Mayfair, central London.
“I studied opera for four years when I was in my teens,” she continues in her calm and gracious way. “I had this deft, high little soprano. I probably could have been much better but I didn’t like practising. I wanted to see the Rolling Stones, be a cheerleader.” She smiles generously. “You know, do all the bad things.”

Given her Oscar-winning portrayals of, variously, a miserable divorcee (Kramer vs Kramer), a Polish Holocaust survivor (Sophie’s Choice) and a British prime minister (Iron Lady), along with her 20 times Oscar-­nominated takes on everything from lovelorn heroines and go-getting suffragettes to bored Italian immigrant wives and formidable fashion editors-in-chief, it’s easy to forget that Streep, 66, also has a mean set of pipes.





There she is, singing unaccompanied in the final scenes of Silkwood. There, dressed as a bag lady and warbling poignantly for Jack Nicholson in Ironweed; and there, covering Ray Charles’s You Don’t Know Me in Postcards From the Edge
Here's another song from this movie:


Across the past decade she has belted out ABBA hits in Mamma Mia, been a rafter-­reaching witch in the big-screen treatment of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods and an electric guitar-wielding rock queen with a deep, badass voice in Jonathan Demme’s Ricki and the Flash, which came out last year.

How much fun was that? She brightens. “So much fun! I was living the rock dream, and don’t we all have that?” She runs a hand through her unfussy honey-blonde locks, shifts about on the upholstered velvet. While simply dressed in a pair of black trousers and a tailored cream jac­ket, her loafers, I notice, are a rocking combination of leopard-print and sparkly silver glitter.

“I was croaking out these songs by Tom Petty, Pink, Bruce Springsteen,” she says. “On movie sets you have to sing something 20 times in a row. I went straight from that to this movie” — the movie we’re here to discuss — “so I really had to take care of my voice.”


Streep is a famously chameleonic actress, ­absorbing herself into her characters, putting on their skin so convincingly that her co-stars all seem to step up as they react to her as that person. Extravagantly garlanded (there’s her 29 Golden Globe nominations and truckload of other accolades), with theatre, television, environ­mental and humanist causes and a cameo in The Simpsons in her armoury of achievements, there is nothing, it seems, this New York-based mother-of-four can’t do.

Even so, Florence Foster Jenkins, a comedic biopic from Oscar-nominated English director Stephen Frears (The Queen, High Fidelity) challenged Streep in a way no film has before. It ­demanded that she do something unnatural, even painful: be terrible. The film tells the story of Jenkins, a nutty heiress who bankrolled much of the arts scene in pre and wartime Manhattan and believed herself a soprano to be reckoned with. Famously she sucked.

Still, in this instance you have to sing well to sing badly. Streep pulls off the part with gusto, shrieking, trilling and massacring operettas ­between lumbering fragrantly about in various chiffontastic get-ups and, in an intimate scene towards the end, gives a lesson in moist vulnerability. It’s a big-hearted performance in an audience-pleasing film, throughout which Streep’s fondness for Florence is palpable.

“Stephen called and said, ‘I have a part for you; it’s the worst opera singer in the world,’ ” she says, laughing. “I said yes before I read the script because I’ve always wanted to work with Stephen. He has a reputation among actors as someone you really want to work with.” The feeling was mutual.

“Meryl is a finely tuned ­instrument,” Frears will tell me later. “She can become the characters very comprehensively. It’s all to do with metamorphosis; I ­remember Helen Mirren walking into a room dressed as the Queen and that was it. That’s what they do, these great actors, and I’m grateful.”


Unlike the recent French art flick Marguerite — which is only loosely based on Jenkins’s story — Frears has plumped for feel-good over philosophical, froth over depth. “A coincidence, that one [Marguerite],” says Streep. “I haven’t seen it; people say they extrapolated the idea of Florence. We’re not interested in that.

“This story has so much real emotion to it. Florence was a person who kept something we have when we are children, when you hurl yourself into the imagining of something and take delight in the doing.”

Florence’s common-law husband and manager, St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant, stepping up), is a failed British Shakespearean actor who wraps his beloved “Bunny” in psychic cotton wool: selecting audiences for her annual recitals at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, buying acclaim from critics. It’s only when Florence insists on playing Carnegie Hall (“My favourite place in the whole world,” she sighs dreamily), accompanied by her baffled young pianist, Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg from TV’s The Big Bang Theory) that Bayfield can’t stop the bad reviews and crowd from, well, baying.

“One of the weirdest mass jokes New York has ever seen,” gossip columnist Earl Wilson wrote in the New York Post, summing up.

Is it wrong to relish something so bad it’s good if audience and performer are enjoying themselves? Is it even crueller to damn it? Or is the gleeful irony with which Jenkins was regarded (her fans included high-camp aesthetes such as Noel Coward, Cole Porter and, latterly, David Bowie) an early taster of the vitriol that is often thrown at older outlandish divas such as Madonna and Mariah?

Streep has a think. “Certainly women in the public eye are held to different standards than men, there is no doubt about that,” she says. “But Florence was oblivious. She dressed and presented herself according to her tastes and what made her happy. I don’t think she was aware of the haters. She was always ­hopeful that, you know, the next phase would turn out all right.”

The inspirational message of Florence Foster Jenkins is driven home halfway through, after Florence has been lowered onstage wearing a flowing white gown and angel wings, declared “music is my life” and strangled the coloratura likes of Bell Song from Lakme and the Queen of the Night aria from The Magic Flute. “The lady is a lesson in courage,” announces one character, “and that’s why we love her.”

It’s a sentiment that may well be applied to Streep, who is as brave as she is gifted and committed. She has said she inherited her gung-ho ­spirit from her mother, Mary, a commercial artist who instilled confidence in her daughter from an early age. Her father, Harry, who headed up a personnel ­department at Merck & Co, the pharmaceutical giant, ­bestowed his smarts (“He was very academic and very bright,” she told The Guardian in 2006).

Having jettisoned opera lessons for cheerleading and rock music, Streep went to Vassar, then Yale University to study drama, proving herself an excellent mimic and speedy learner of lines. After graduating, she worked in the theatre — Shakespeare, mainly, then Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and Bertolt Brecht-Kurt Weill on Broadway. She also auditioned for films.

One of her first screen tests was for the lead actress role in Dino De Laurentiis’s King Kong. Unimpressed, the director admonished his son (who’d brought her) in Italian. “This is so ugly,” he said. “Why did you bring me this?” Streep understood Italian and came back with: “I’m very sorry I am not as beautiful as I should be but this is what you get.” The role went to Jessica Lange, but it’s a salutary tale. Nobody puts Mary Louise “Meryl” Streep in a corner.

Robert De Niro saw her doing Chekhov and got her a part playing his girlfriend in 1978’s The Deer Hunter, which brought her first Oscar nomination. But it was the acclaimed TV miniseries Holocaust, and her role as the German wife of a Jewish artist in Nazi Germany, that brought widespread recognition. From then on — with the exception of late 1980s-early 90s comedy duds Death Becomes Her and She-Devil — Streep has demonstrated, over and over, how damn good she is.

Her first Academy Award came in 1979, for Kramer vs Kramer. Her role as the unhappily married Joanna was a tour de force, all the more remarkable because she wrote two of her own scenes, was fighting with Dustin Hoffman off camera and grieving the death of her boyfriend, actor John Cazale. 

Then came The French Lieutenant’s Woman and that end-of-pier scene in which, wearing a hooded cape, Streep slowly turns her face and floors Jeremy Irons with a look. Later she’d say she felt a misfit in the role, not being beautiful enough. But watch the scene again on YouTube and Streep’s metamorphosis is apparent: to the viewer she’s as stunning as Botticelli’s Venus.


Heavy-hitting roles followed: a Polish ­mother inside Auschwitz who has to choose which of her two children is to be gassed ­(Sophie’s Choice). Karen Blixen, the aristocratic Danish writer living in Kenya (Out of Africa): “I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills,” she intones, her accent perfect, in a film that scooped seven Oscars.

And of course, Lindy Chamberlain, the New Zealand-born Australian wrongly convicted in 1982 of murdering her baby daughter, despite claiming a dingo had taken her (Evil Angels ). If Streep tends to play female characters she feels a need to defend, then Chamberlain — whose trial by media made her a household name around the world — was ripe for defending.

“Yes, I felt that,” Streep nods. “So did (director) Fred Schepisi. Now there’s a person whose yin and yang are beautifully integrated, ­although from the outside he’s a real bloke. He’d stay up all night with Ian Baker the cinematographer and they’d be like, ‘Yeah, mate, we were up til 5am …’ ” She sways about, talking Strine, waving an imaginary stubbie.

“But hidden inside Fred is this very sensitive, thoughtful, feeling female perception of the world. He’s understood visually so much of how I understood perceptions of Lindy. The way the shape of her eyebrows made her face seem ­inexpressive, because they went like this.” She points two fingers down her face in a V-shape. “The way her case marked the first time the news was scored with music. Scary music. Eee-eee-eee.” A sigh. “It’s all about pushing you in an emotional direction.”

But of all Streep’s directors, the German-born American auteur Mike Nichols — who ­directed her in Silkwood, Heartburn and Postcards From the Edge, and in the 2004 HBO mini­series Angels in America — was probably her favourite. In November 2014, Nichols and Streep were due to start filming Master Class (a movie of the Terence McNally play about the classes given by diva Maria Callas at New York’s Juilliard School in 1971) when Nichols died unexpectedly, aged 83.

Master Class is such a great piece,” she says. “We’d pushed back Florence to accommodate this because we were trying for 20 years to get the rights and then we finally got them. And Mike died.” She looks at the floor. “He died on the Thursday and we were going to have our first production meeting on the Friday.”

Her voice shaking, she pauses, swallowing, getting a handle on her emotions. “So my heart was broken and I didn’t want to do it after that. I think I’m too old now anyway; Callas was so young (48) when she gave those classes. Terence was there. And do you know who else was there?” It feels like she’s giving me a gift. Who? I say. Who? “Kevin Kline! He was a student at Juilliard and he sneaked in the back. So did Christine Baranski!”

I wonder how matey she is with her old co-stars (Kline was in Sophie’s Choice and Ricki and the Flash; Baranski in Mamma Mia); last year she told Time Out that one of her biggest regrets was “that my friendships suffered from lack of attention, in favour of the time taken up by my family, my career and civic concerns”.

Civic concerns first: Streep is a woman who has lent her name and given her money to a wealth of causes, from Mothers and Others (a consumer advocacy group she co-founded in 1989) and the human rights organisation Equality Now to recently funding a screenwriting lab for female writers over 40 and part-financing the yet-to-open National Women’s History Museum in Washington.


Streep lives a relatively modest life in New York with her sculptor husband Don Gummer, shopping mindfully, driving an ecologically sound car, occasionally riding the subway. “She doesn’t closet herself away,” her daughter Mamie Gummer, 33, an actress, has said. “She ensures her place in the theatre of the world.”
Mamie was her co-star in Ricki and the Flash. Her other daughters, Grace, 30, and Louisa, 24, are an actress and a model; her 37-year-old son is respected musician and singer-songwriter Henry Wolfe. What with her own work and her husband’s creations — Gummer’s freestanding aluminium and stainless steel sculptures were exhibited outside New York subway stations last May — Streep is surrounded, most of the time, by creativity, music and art.

“My husband’s art is very musical, the way it speaks to you,” she says, then catches herself and stops. “I’m actually not allowed to talk about it. But to me it has rhythm. The compositions are really structured and fluid.”

We talk instead about the healing power of music, including the way Jenkins wanted to give Manhattan some wartime respite: “Yes, the transport. That’s why art exists, to lift us out. There is plenty of evidence for how horrible life is, and how despairing we should be; we should be completely opening our wrists. But then there’s Yo-Yo Ma and there’s Renee Fleming.” And, arguably, there is the wonder that was Jenkins, whose mission to spread happiness was matched by her low threshold for embarrassment. So what gets Streep — this great, courageous, committed actress — blushing? Has she ever come out of a public loo, say, with her skirt tucked into the back of her underpants?

“My what? Ha ha! Nah. Age is a great leveller for all those anxieties. You don’t really give a shit and you know what?”

What? I say.

She twinkles again. “It’s a really nice feeling.”

By Jane Cornwell
With many thanks to The Australian

So how bad was Florence Foster Jenkins really?   This bad!




Picture credit and another review:Telegraph UK

Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst picture source here.


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