Go With The Flo

The Arts


I spent a large part of my life working around delusional types who have ignored the key celebrity maxim; ‘Never believe your own publicity’. But it never stopped them from thinking they had talent where there was none.

Actors who step outside their field to comment on subjects they’re not intellectually qualified to cover can be particularly trying. I remember interviewing William Hurt once, and listening to him ramble about buddhism and trees for an hour before turning off the microphone.

But there’s something charming about people who’ve been deluded into thinking God has given them a voice to be heard. The ‘poet’ William McGonagall springs instantly to mind, of course, with his Tay Bridge Disaster poem, and Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the Victorian baron who wrote incredibly popular bestsellers, but whose prose was so unreadably rubbish that he caused a bad prose competition to be named after him.

Then there’s the ghastly Georgina Weldon, born to manically snobbish parents in 1837. She sought the attention denied her by her parents through public singing. She ended up in a peculiar menage à trois with French composer Gounod. Her husband tried to have her committed but she went to prison instead. Never one to do things by halves, she launched 25 lawsuits against him and fled to a nunnery to write her six-volume, 1,500-page memoirs, which she published herself to utter silence. Brian Thompson wrote a very funny book about her disastrous life in ‘A Monkey Among Crocodiles’.

Which brings us to Florence Foster Jenkins. Confusing the notion that a lover of music is ipso facto a great musical talent, she sang opera a lot, and very badly. The historian Stephen Pile ranked her ‘the world’s worst opera singer’. ‘No one, before or since,’ he wrote, ‘has succeeded in liberating themselves quite so completely from the shackles of musical notation.’

The difference is that despite (or because of) her inability to carry a note in a bucket she was hugely successful in New York City – Cole Porter was a fan. The harder the material she chose the worse she failed and the more her popularity increased. Like some writers.

Jenkins was a socialite, of course, and was able to found an opera society mainly for herself, but which had 400 members including Enrico Caruso, which I suppose makes her more useful than a Kardashian.

The question of whether she was in on the joke or honestly believed she had vocal talent remains one of debate, but she was clearly aware of her detractors. ‘People may say I can’t sing,’ she once told a friend, ‘but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.’

Once a taxi in which she was riding collided with another car, and she let out a high-pitched scream. Upon arriving home, she went immediately to her piano and confirmed (at least to herself) that the note she had screamed was the fabled ‘F above high C’. Overjoyed, she refused to press charges and sent the taxi driver a box of cigars.

At 76, she booked Carnegie Hall and sold out the event weeks in advance; An estimated 2,000 people were turned away at the door. As played by Meryl Streep in Stephen Frears’ film biography, Jenkins is both a grotesque harridan and a touching, tragic figure. Ms Streep being such a finely calibrated actor, she also makes Jenkins’ performances riotously funny. Every dip of the head and coy roll of the eyes reveals her desperation to be taken seriously. At one point Ms Streep jigs like a demented jellyfish in some of the most (deliberately) unflattering clothes even seen on a woman.

Like the others, Jenkins reached for the stars, but reaching should never be this strenuous. ‘Florence Foster Jenkins’ was by far the funniest film of 2016, and probably overlooked by many. Ms Streep, of course, is one of the few actors who can be trusted to say whatever she likes on any subject.



8 comments on “Go With The Flo”

  1. Rachel Green says:

    I didn’t manage that film, mostly thanks to the annoying male lead.

  2. chazza says:

    Not forgetting, of course, the incomparable Amanda Ros…

  3. Vivienne says:

    I’m sure I sing as well as Flo, but I restrict myself to my car when alone. McGonagall is in a class of his own: no one seems to be able to reproduce his absolute lack of scanning. When people try to imitate him, proper scansion seems to creep in somehow.

  4. Crprod says:

    Time for the Shaggs!

  5. John says:

    I thought with all that introductory blather about celebrities not knowing of what they speak you were going to lambaste Streep for her recent exploitation of the dais (and television cameras) at the Golden Globes. I thought it an eloquent criticism and a heartfelt plea for decency, but still another example of a movie star preaching to the choir.

    Contrary to what Rachel Green may think the casting of Hugh Grant as Jenkins’ husband was far from annoying. (Or is it Grant himself she thinks is annoying?) He’s shown to be just as deluded and talentless in his attempts to be a Shakespearean actor as Jenkins was in her attempts to sing. That makes the movie all the more poignant — two losers devoted to each other and the husband recognizing how he needs to protect and shield his wife from ridicule and hurt as no man should have to. He also delivers a performance full of genuine affection for his oddball of a wife. I thought the movie was a delight, both riotous and surprisingly poignant. Her confession to the substitute doctor who treats her back pain of her secret chronic disease comes a real shock. It also turns out to be one of the most affecting moments in the movie. In the hands of a lesser director or actress it could’ve been a groan inducing scene of repulsion.

  6. Helen Martin says:

    I wondered that reviewers here seemed to ignore this movie. I had known about MS Jenkins from childhood as the classical music host on our local CBC radio used to play her records every once in a while. My mother and I loved them, although I;m not sure why. When the movie came out I was afraid it would be just making fun of her but my husband & I determined we would chance it. It was a delicately nuanced piece of work that left me filled with admiration for everyone involved, including Foster Jenkins herself. I agree with John about the scene with the doctor, beautifully handled, and a shock to many viewers like me who had never heard that particular part of her life. And yes, a very funny film indeed.

  7. David Ronaldson says:

    Back to McGonagall, have you read Nicholas T Parsons’ “The Joy of Bad Verse?” It’s well worth seeking out.

  8. Timbo says:

    wonder what, in respect of the theme of Self Delusion, you make of Shooby “The Human Horn” Taylor? The man who almost single-handedly destroyed the art of scat singing, according to some, presumably those who booed him offstage
    at the Apollo in New York, once.
    Interesting listening… Google, and check YouTube for examples.

    Be intrigued to hear your take on him!

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