Film,  Miss N

Florence Foster Jenkins

Originally published in The Star Tonight.
40 years ago, Meryl Streep couldn’t have known, when she joined college friends in having a laugh over a recording by a person dubbed the world’s worst opera singer, that she herself would one day replicate the sound she heard on that tape. She couldn’t have predicted she’d take on the role of a woman whose voice elicited astonishment from all who heard it – or that it would be just one of a number of memorable characters she’d take on in a career as one of this generation’s finest actors.
Back then, while studying at Yale School of Drama, the multiple Oscar-winning actress couldn’t have foreseen that the part of Florence Foster Jenkins, a wealthy socialite who had a passion but not the skill for singing, would be offered to her by British director Stephen Frears. “She’s not up there with Kanye,” jokes Streep, sitting in a London hotel, talking about how she came to know of Foster Jenkins. “But everybody that studied drama, certainly every music student, knows who she is. She’s sort of legend.”
Foster Jenkins, who found passion and purpose in music, achieved notoriety for singing in spite of her inability to carry the correct note, or pitch, or even tone, for that matter. The story of how she used her family money to put on shows in which she would sing for an audience, culminating in a sold-out performance at the hallowed Carnegie Hall in 1944, lives on in recordings made available to the public online. So, too, now in the movie Florence Foster Jenkins.

“I remember the first time I heard of her when I was in graduate school,” says Streep. “I was in a production of Midsummer Night’s Dream and it was accompanied by the (composer Henry) Percell music. One day, all the Yale School of Music students were gathered around a tape cassette player in the stage-pit, screaming with laughter. We all went over and said, ‘What is this?’ ”

“I remember the first time I heard of her when I was in graduate school,” says Streep. “I was in a production of Midsummer Night’s Dream and it was accompanied by the (composer Henry) Percell music. One day, all the Yale School of Music students were gathered around a tape cassette player in the stage-pit, screaming with laughter. We all went over and said, ‘What is this?’ ”
It was a time, Streep jokes, when her co-star in the film, Simon Helberg, wasn’t even a thought in his parents’ minds. The 36-year-old actor, who made his name known Howard Wolowitz on The Big Bang Theory, shares the screen with Streep in Florence Foster Jenkins, as the pianist brought in to accompany her. As Cosme McMoon, Helberg’s attitude towards Foster Jenkins mirrors that of the audience, as we switch between feeling incredulous and embarrassed for her to admiration for her unmitigated chutzpah.
Streep raves about the qualifications that made Helberg perfect for the role, which required him to play difficult piano scores. As director Frears explains: “Alexandre, [Desplat, the film’s French composer] said to me, ‘Get a pianist who can act, not just an actor who can pretend to play piano.’ A casting director in New York told me, ‘The person you want is Simon,’ and I went to meet him, and that was that.” The director filmed the concert and performances live – requiring a little more of his actors than usual.

“There’s a very short list of people who can do this,” adds Streep. “It’s very hard to find someone funny who could play that music, and play it live.”

“There’s a very short list of people who can do this,” adds Streep. “It’s very hard to find someone funny who could play that music, and play it live.”
In turn, Helberg is full of praise for Streep’s skill at being able to sing badly. “You have to be able to sing this stuff well before you can piss on it, systematically destroy it and wreck it,” he chuckles. “You have to know where the high ‘F’ is to dance around it, come up around it, and flirt with it. You can’t just flail and be wild with it. And then you’re singing in Russian and French too. Those are the hardest pieces of music ever.”
Streep, who studied opera during her youth and has sung in movie musicals like Mamma Mia and Into the Woods, says she doesn’t have the voice she once did – that “years of smoking and debauchery” have ruined it. Her preparation for Florence Foster Jenkins came hot on the heels of filming another movie that required her to sing, the rock-n-roll comedy drama Ricki and the Flash. “I was singing at the bottom of my voice, and my co-star in that movie, one of America’s best singers, the wonderful Audra Macdonald, gave me her teacher’s details. And I said to her, ‘Do you think he’d ever forgive you?’ His name is Alfred Levy, and he was a very good coach that I went to for a month, and broke his spirit!” she says, with a laugh.
Starring alongside Streep is Hugh Grant, who makes his return to the big screen in the kind of role he was once loved for in films like Four Weddings & a Funeral and About a Boy. As Foster Jenkins’ second husband and loyal life partner, St Clair Bayfield, Grant is charming and lovely, and provides a solid foil to Streep’s Foster Jenkins, who got syphilis from her first husband. “I had two jobs in this film,” says Streep. “One was to sing badly, the other was to love Hugh [Grant], and I’ve done that for years so that was the easy part.”
Frears offered Grant the role while he had been caught up in the Leveson Inquiry, set up to look into the practices of the British press. Grant liked the way the script played with audience expectations. “You’re not entirely comfortable as to what genre this is; there’s a little bit of laughing at her, and some laughing with, but you’re never quite sure,” he says.
For Grant, Foster’ Jenkin’s passion for singing is akin to his love of race-car driving. “I may not be good at it, but I look nice in my uniform,” he chuckles, smiling with those trademark dimples. For Helberg, it’s like his cooking. “I like eating,” he says. “But I’m a bad cook because I don’t have any patience to not eat the food while I’m making it!”
Streep, like Foster Jenkins, loves singing. “I’m really not that good anymore, and yet I continue to inflict it on others. I have a great respect for those who do it.” The chance to play another woman steadfast in her ways, as Streep has done in films like The Iron Lady and The Devil Wears Prada, extended this respect. “You could easily scoff at [Foster Jenkins] – she was silly in a way, an old woman, considered useless, rich, and ill – but to wake up every day, and to choose to look at this glass as half full and to say, ‘I’m going to drink it as deeply as I can, and to love as deeply as I can – the music, the man, the whole thing,’ is something to be admired. That’s what I loved about her.” It’s an admiration Streep couldn’t have known she’d come to have, all those years ago at Yale.

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