“There is no one quite like you.”
So says Carlo Edwards, voice coach of socialite Florence Foster Jenkins. And he’s absolutely right.
Florence isn’t just rich. She’s not just one of New York City’s most prominent socialites, circa 1944. She’s also a singer. She’s not a good singer, mind you. Her diction is muddy. Her pitch is uncertain. And when she misses a note—as she does frequently—she misses it with gusto. Nails on a chalkboard? A cat getting its tail slammed in a door? These things bow in wonderment to the cacophonic splendors that explode from Mrs. Foster Jenkins’ mouth. No one is quite like her indeed.
Florence says that it’s easier to cut off a musician’s supply of water than to cut off the music. Some of her critics might be tempted to test that.
Not that she has many critics, thanks to massive wealth, oversized generosity and her ever-vigilant husband, St. Clair Bayfield. Accordingly, her well-paid voice coach gushes with praise. Her pianist, the dutiful Cosme McMoon, politely switches key and tempo when her partner’s melodious meanderings require it. Her recitals are packed with “true music lovers,” in Bayfield’s words: dear friends (many of whom may be a bit deaf); doting music journalists (who depend on Florence’s patronage to pay the bills); and general attendees (who accept small bribes to ensure their respectful attendance and sincere appreciation).
And so Florence Foster Jenkins’ every trill is greeted with sighs of appreciation, her every finale greeted with a standing ovation. She’s encased in a moneyed bubble, designed to ensure she never realizes just how bad she is.
But during one of Bayfield’s golfing vacations when he’s not around to rein his wife in, Florence decides more people need to be given the gift of her voice. She delivers a record of her singing to a local radio station. And then, when the songs become wildly popular, Florence takes another step forward. She books Carnegie Hall for a one-night-only concert.
Florence may be popular, and she may be rich. But she doesn’t have enough friends, and Bayfield doesn’t have enough dollars, to pack the 3,000-seat auditorium with “true music lovers.”
Now Florence may have to face a different sort of music.
Say what you want about Florence’s dubious musical ability and her many eccentricities, the lady is a true patron of the arts. When a conductor has an idea for a new show or a music hall wants to debut a new talent, they go to her for help—and more often than not, she gives it. When soldiers and sailors, still embroiled in World War II, show up at a concert and behave a bit rowdily, she demands they be given the respect that war veterans deserve. Florence has gumption, too: She’s made her own living and is not above washing dishes for a friend.
Florence’s generosity and guileless spirit have earned her a coterie of friends who don’t want to see her get hurt. Bayfield heads that list. Even though his relationship with Florence is complex, he loves his wife. He eventually sacrifices his relationship with his mistress, Kathleen, to defend Florence’s honor. He does everything he can to make sure that her bubble of protection isn’t pricked. And the Carnegie Hall concert is, potentially, a huge, jagged needle threatening that bubble. When Florence detects his worry over the event and says, “If you loved me, you’d let me sing,” you know exactly what he’s thinking: *I love you, and that’s why I don’t want you to sing.
*McMoon is similarly devoted to protecting his employer. In a telling scene, Florence taps out the melody of a piano piece from Polish composer Frédéric Chopin; McMoon stands beside her, playing the more complex lower chords. Together, they make music—even though it’s clear who’s doing most of the work.
Florence dresses up as “the angel of inspiration,” complete with wings. Someone reportedly isn’t “keen on the Jews.”
Bayfield was once a talented actor, which comes in handy juggling his two lives. In one, he’s Florence’s doting, dutiful husband. But he actually sleeps in a separate apartment he shares with his mistress Kathleen. The two are shown in bed together unclothed. (We see Kathleen’s bare back both in bed and when she gets up to put on a robe.) They kiss frequently. During a golf vacation, they lie down together in long grass. When Kathleen successfully hits a golf ball well, she leaps on her paramour in joy, wrapping her legs around him.
It’s unclear how aware Florence is of Bayfield’s affair. Bayfield is horrified when it looks as though Florence might walk in on him and Kathleen in bed together. But he also tells McMoon that he and Florence have an understanding. While neither acknowledge an affair, it does sometimes seem that Florence indeed suspects that his “golf” vacations aren’t what they seem to be.
Bayfield and Florence, incidentally, have remained abstinent throughout their relationship, partly because Florence contracted syphilis from her first husband on their wedding night. She’s lived with the disease for more than 50 years. Most people die from it within 20 years, we’re told. And while the doctor says the disease is likely no longer contagious, he recommends to Bayfield that they remain abstinent anyway, in part to not “over excite” Florence, which could damage her already weak constitution.
A woman in her underwear staggers around Bayfield’s apartment after a party. During Florence’s music lessons, her voice coach stands behind her as Florence leans on a table, holding her waist and hips. The pose suggests, perhaps unintentionally, a sexual position. McMoon—a gentle, soft-spoken man—goes to a party where another man drapes his arm across the pianist’s shoulders, leering a bit. (McMoon later says that everyone seemed so friendly.) A married woman also flirts with McMoon, and she later struts and shimmies to an appreciative, whistling crowd of soldiers and sailors.
Someone faints. McMoon is late to a concert because he was, apparently, roughed up by some sailors. Florence is terrified of knives, and she screams when one happens to land near her. She has scars on her hands from the syphilis. A tableaux (a living painting, in a sense) features a number of “dead” soldiers (their heads and bodies stained red with stage blood) under the feet of legendary Valkyries.
Two s-words and a handful of other profanities, including four uses of the word “a–” and one use of the word “b–ch.” God’s name is misused about 10 times, once with the word “d–n.”
Bayfield smokes cigarettes (though never in the presence of Florence). He also drinks, sometimes encouraging McMoon to guzzle a glass of whiskey or brandy with him in “one go.” Alcohol flows freely at a party at his apartment, and McMoon eventually passes out on Bayfield’s couch. When Florence stops by unexpectedly the next morning, Bayfield feigns shock at the horrific condition the living room is in. During one of Florence’s concerts, it’s remarked that nearly everyone is probably drunk.
After a party, McMoon vomits in Bayfield’s toilet.
Florence Foster Jenkins, played by three-time Oscar winner Meryl Streep, is no fictional figure. She was a real socialite who believed unwaveringly in her own musical talent. Indeed, the movie may have even toned down her outsized personality. Allegedly, when a taxi she was riding in once hit another car, she screamed—and was thrilled to have hit a note she’d never managed to reach before. She reportedly sent the taxi driver a box of cigars in gratitude.
And she really did say something close to one of the movie’s most memorable lines: “People may say I couldn’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.”
That line is at the core of Florence Foster Jenkins‘ gentle, silly charm. Most everyone in the movie—and everyone in the audience—knows Florence can’t sing. But she sings anyway. She loves it. She has a dream and she follows it. And because of her uncomplicated devotion to music, we wind up rooting for her. We root for her husband to bribe friendly journalists and to bully the others to stay away. We root for Florence’s protective bubble to stay intact.
The movie invites us to root, in a sense, for a lie—a curious thing indeed to cheer for.
We usually don’t like it when people lie, particularly when they lie about themselves and their abilities. We abhor that sort of vanity. We appreciate modesty, applaud excellence and, typically, have little tolerance for failure. We don’t go to restaurants that serve bad food, even if we know the chef’s cooking his heart out. When an athlete is past his prime, we wonder why he doesn’t hang up the cleats already.
But every now and then, we make an exception. Sometimes we’re charmed by the below-average or the laughably bad. We root for the Jamaican bobsled team, indulge so-bad-it’s good guilty pleasures, laugh and cheer when our own kid knocks the ball into his own goal. Sometimes, even when the talent isn’t there, passion alone wins us over. And maybe we see not just someone to snicker at, but someone to admire. Someone who has the courage to put herself out there for all the world to see, to chase a dream she has no business chasing.
Florence Foster Jenkins reminds us all that, sometimes, passion trumps perfection. That what we love doesn’t always make sense. That anything worth pursuing is worth pursuing with gusto. And despite the film’s sexual dalliances and occasional bad words, that’s a good reminder in a culture that sometimes puts an unhealthy value on perfection.
“There is no one quite like you,” Florence Foster Jenkins’ voice coach tells her. The same could be said of us all.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.