Suspension of Disbelief

Suspension of Disbelief: In Which Silly Women are Managed by Men, Florence Foster Jenkins (the Movie)

Errata: Named people of color in the movie: 0
Bechdel test: all three levels passed.

Florence Foster Jenkins is my second favorite opera singer of all time ever (beaten by Juilie D’aubigny) because she is a tribute to that which may be accomplished with money, connections, and a complete lack of self-awareness. Of course I went to the movie based on her life, because I always patronize biopics of people I adore.  I am always disappointed.  I have learned nothing.

I wanted this movie to be a paean to a fascinating woman who went from being an America’s Sweetheart sort of child prodigy pianist performing at the White House, to the extremely adored Worst Singer in the World.  Florence Foster Jenkins was known for such complete confidence in her vocal abilities that after she was in a taxi accident, she claimed that her vocal range had been increased by the crash and paid the taxi driver.What this movie turned out to be was paean to men (like High Grant!) who manage and protect silly women with their silly ambitions while cheating on them and living off their incomes.  I tried to like the movie.  I did. It started well enough, with various fun yet silly tableaux being put on by Madame Florence’s Verdi Club, followed by a cameo about the amazing Lily Pons. So far, this is guaranteed to please fans of opera. Then we move to Madame Florence’s interviews for a pianist to help her reboot her singing career.  Here we learn that she collects chairs in which notable people have died, and which are not for practical use ( a more delightful eccentric foible is difficult to imagine) and then we are introduce to her pianist Mr. McMoon.  I think we are supposed to make fun of him for being short and stereotypically nerdy with ambitions of bodybuilding, which I am not terribly pleased about.    
I do love Mr. McMoon though, and at least he transfers to loving Florence rather than mocking her.  Speaking of, Hugh Grant, as Florence’s husband, works hard to discourage her singing career.  He does carefully arrange some concerts for people who he trusts and makes it clear that he is managing her public experiences and shelters her from the reality of her talents. As, however,  it develops that Florence is dying of syphilis (she actually died of a heart attack, though she had syphilis) he decides that he will more fully support her dream.  To the extant that, after the movie has him away for a weekend of golf with his mistress, he comes back and announces that Carnegie Hall is her dream, and he will give it to him.  What a big strong men, taking credit for the Carnegie Hall concert that she arranged for herself with her money and connections, while he was cheating on her while supporting himself on her money!

The writers could have explored why we are as fascinated by terrible performances as by good (as noted in the credits, our heroine’s Carnegie Hall concert is their most requested recording), or explored classism by introducing an amazingly talented singer without our heroine’s money or connections. Instead, we get a tired and trope-y tale of a dying heroine attempting against all odds to go out with a magnificent concert while her husband takes credit for her struggle against all odds.The Carnegie Hall Concert scene was excellent, I will say that.  The movie displayed many of the ridiculous costumes that the actual Florence Foster Jenkins was famous for, and Meryl Streep did an excellent job of singing like the real Florence.Then, of course, we cut back to the inevitable teary bed scene after Florence finds out from newspaper reviews that she is the Worst Singer in the World.  I could not bring myself to care about her husband’s tears at this point.  I was just so disgusted that at a movie about a woman ended up being about her husband treating that woman like a silly child.

I enjoyed the credits. They included actual audio clips and pictures of Florence Foster Jenkins.  That was fun.

Featured Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Elizabeth is a professional belly dancer, a flaky computer scientist, and a returned Peace Corps volunteer. She lives in Georgia (the state of the U.S., not the country) but is nonetheless somehow not a combination of stereotypes from Gone with the Wind and Deliverance. Her personal blog is Coffeefied. Operafied. Fluffified. Beglittered.

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