Meryl Streep once again captivates audiences in her newest film, Florence Foster Jenkins. Based on the real life New York socialite’s life and singing, um (cough), career, the film, while charming and fascinating, raises some serious questions about honesty and tough love.
A Lover of Music
As the title character, Streep captures Florence in the final months of her life. She’s an heiress who spends her money as a patron of her passion, music. A child prodigy on the piano, she lost her ability to play due to complications from syphilis, contracted from her first husband. To further the aspirations of American musicians and artists, she founded New York’s Verdi Club in 1917. Loving the accolades that come from performing, she strongly desired to become an opera singer, despite having no vocal talent at all. But she wanted it and she had the money and determination to make it happen.
The People Applauded
The film is gentle with Florence’s shortcomings, inviting the audience to become her admirers along with the floods of people in 1944 who wanted to come to the private concerts she gave at her home. Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg), her accompanist, and St Clair Bayfield (an amazing Hugh Grant), her domestic partner, coddled her with love, affection, and lies about how wonderfully delightful her singing was. That she was able to fill Carnegie Hall (they had to turn 2,000 people away), testified either to her allure as an uninhibited person, or to how hard Bayfield worked (and bribed) people to put aside their natural aversion to screeching disguised as singing and keep Florence in her delusion of grandeur.
As a responsible adult and practitioner of kindness and compassion (well, I try with God’s help), I was conflicted about the story of Florence Foster Jenkins. I think the film could be a starting point for open and honest conversation about issues it raises. Was it right for St Clair, Cosmé, and others to hide the truth from Florence about her singing (lack of) talent? Wouldn’t it have been more compassionate to tell her the truth and help her find another passion to commit to? There are no easy answers to these questions. The film seems to suggest that reading an honest review about her Carnegie Hall performance and being presented with the truth led to her death.
Love = Truth
What does the film say about the love? Despite the rather confusing and unorthodox living arrangements between Florence and St Clair, it seemed that they truly loved each other. Was it a loving thing for St Clair to allow Florence her delusions or was he just an enabler? Did he love her so much that he preferred to let her celebrate her life by doing what made her happy rather than upset her with the truth? Self-confidence is an essential life skill. We teach our kids that what others think is not important but what we think of ourselves and what God thinks of us. Was Florence self-confident or did she need a dose of tough love? Florence tells St Clair, “Some people may say that I can’t sing but they can’t say that I didn’t sing.” Regardless of your answers to these questions, she lived her life to the full and that’s really what it’s all about, right?
If you have seen the film and have any thoughts and insights on the questions posed or any to add, please leave a comment.