Go With The Flo
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.